Jill Biden outshines Bill Clinton, and more takeaways from Night 2 of the Democratic convention

Jill Biden outshines Bill Clinton, and more takeaways from Night 2 of the Democratic conventionAugust 19, 2020

He spoke for fewer than five minutes on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, the “explainer-in-chief” relegated to a distant corner of the first hour.

On the day the Democratic Party nominated Joe Biden, it finally let Bill Clinton go.

Clinton, even in his diminished role, lacerated President Donald Trump for his “determination to deny responsibility and shift the blame.” Biden, he said, is a “down-to-earth, get-the-job-done guy.”

But ever since the dawn of the #MeToo era, Democrats have had a hard time figuring out what to do about Clinton. In the midterm elections, there was a reluctance to deploy him, as the party sought to avoid a rehashing of his sexual transgressions or his moderate politics.

And on Tuesday, his platform was a shadow of what it had been in the past.

Here are five takeaways from a straight-to-your-couch second night of the Democratic National Convention:

Clinton isn’t the spouse who matters now

Four years ago, Clinton mesmerized Democrats in Philadelphia with his defense of “the real” Hillary Clinton versus the Republican caricature of her.

Clinton’s speech on Tuesday served as a reminder of his ability to distill complicated subjects into something someone might want to listen to – in this case, devastating statistics related to the coronavirus.

But Jill Biden’s role this year is more important. Democrats are acutely aware that Biden remains only softly defined for large swaths of the electorate, and on Tuesday, Biden sought to personalize him.

Speaking from a school in Wilmington, Delaware, Jill Biden said she “fell in love with a man and two little boys standing in the wreckage of unthinkable loss, mourning a wife and mother, a daughter and sister” after the 1972 car crash that killed Biden’s wife and daughter.

“How do you make a broken family whole?” she said. “The same way you make a nation whole, with love and understanding and with small acts of kindness. With bravery, with unwavering faith. You show up for each other in big ways and small ones again and again.”

Real people are effective, and a virtual convention is better at showcasing them

There are exceptions to the rule. Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American Army captain who died in Iraq, was effective from the podium in 2016. But most people who are not politicians or performers have difficulty holding a room.

It’s a problem that Democrats at least since the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 have been trying to find an answer for. The coronavirus, it turned out, did the work for them.

At its darkest, the effectiveness of human testimony from afar was clear on Monday, with Kristin Urquiza’s story about her Trump-supporting father dying from the coronavirus – a “a healthy 65-year-old,” she said, whose “only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump.”

But on Tuesday, Democrats demonstrated that they could make more joyful vignettes work, as well – having Biden nominated by The New York Times security guard who told Biden “I love you” when the two met in an elevator last year. The exchange went viral, even as the newspaper did not endorse him, and Biden’s campaign delighted in the contrast between the security guard’s judgment and that of the newspaper.

“I take powerful people up on my elevator all the time,” the woman said on Tuesday. “When they get off, they go to their important meetings. Me, I just head back to the lobby. But in the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me. That he actually cared.”

Rising politicians have it rough

Ever since Barack Obama, as a state senator from Illinois, gave his 2004 speech at the DNC and was elected president four years later, every dog catcher in the Democratic Party has spent their pre-convention months scratching for a similar opportunity.

Even if they could not repeat his refrain that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America!” — convention speeches still afforded Democrats a rare opportunity on a national stage.

On Tuesday, that opportunity was … more crowded. Instead of a single keynote, the party featured 17 “rising stars,” including Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Reps. Colin Allred (Texas), Brendan Boyle (Pa.) and Conor Lamb (Pa.). The Republican National Committee, referring to the full program on Tuesday, called it a “hodgepodge of has-beens, resistance leaders, and socialists.”

Viewers will stipulate to “hodgepodge,” at least. One after another, from couch to living room to outdoor stand-up, politicians took turns reading from a speech.

The exception, perhaps, was Abrams, who anchored the group and squeezed into a few seconds language that will remind Democrats why she is more than a failed gubernatorial candidate.

“Our choice is clear,” she said. “A steady, experienced public servant who can lead us out of this crisis just like he’s done before or a man who only knows how to deny and distract. A leader who cares about our families or a president who only cares about himself.”

The news cycle is the wildcard

One under-appreciated drawback of a virtual convention is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to respond to outside news. There’s a lot to miss.

On Tuesday alone, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending United States Postal Service changes until after the election, a major development in what has become a significant campaign issue for Democrats. That same day, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report tying Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort, to a Russian intelligence officer who may have been involved in the hack of Democratic emails that year. Trump pardoned Susan B. Anthony, and he blamed California Democrats for rolling blackouts in the state.

Trump certainly sensed the disconnect. He ridiculed Michelle Obama for taping her address, noting the death count from the coronavirus pandemic was higher than when she recorded it. (How that helped Trump is anyone’s guess.)

Democrats don’t have to engage with such things, of course. But going virtual is a big bet that there won’t be a natural disaster or a mass shooting or something else that would typically see speakers turn on a dime.

Forget the platform

The platform is usually a good place for a convention fight, even if the fighting – rather than the platform itself – has always made the best TV.

This year, everything was done remotely – decided before the virtual convention began. Progressive Democrats pushed the platform further to the left on climate and immigration policy. On the other hand, they fell short on some criminal justice reforms.

There is a fight ahead over nominating procedures, and whether to maintain party caucuses after the meltdown in Iowa this year. But unless you were watching the convention while simultaneously scrolling political Twitter – not exactly most Americans, or Biden’s intended audience – you wouldn’t know it.

Instead, viewers on Tuesday saw Biden speaking with Americans about the health care challenges they are facing, telling them, “We’re going to make sure we don’t lose that [Affordable Care Act],” while pledging to pursue a public option. They heard validators, such as former Secretary of State John Kerry, endorse his national security credentials.

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