The second night of the Democratic Convention closed with Jill Biden, Joe Biden’s wife, standing in an empty Delaware high school classroom where she had once been a teacher.
“When I taught English here at Brandywine High School,” she said, easing into the speech, certainly not quite as comfortable as Michelle Obama had been the night before, “I would spend my summer preparing for the school year about to start — filled with anticipation.
“But this quiet is heavy. You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways. There’s no scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”
This was a picture, of course, of a day in the life of America during the COVID-19 pandemic. The quiet is the quiet of the classrooms that parents across the nation are wondering whether it would be safe to send their kids back there to learn.
It was not just the story of Jill and Joe Biden, although it was mostly that. A closing video and her speech told the story that many of us had heard, of how Joe Biden had lost his wife and daughter to a car accident, how Jill Biden a few years later became the mom — not replacing, as she noted, the mommy — of Biden’s kids.
”How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked. “The same way you make a nation whole — with love.”
And that was the message of the night — the American family that must be made whole again.
This was not an unusual speech. It is the role of the presidential candidate’s spouse to humanize the candidate at the convention.
But this time, the speech was of a piece.
The night wasn’t as slickly produced as Monday night’s. It didn’t have the star power of Bernie Sanders or of Michelle Obama. And it pointed out what’s missing from this convention other than the crowds and the confetti. It’s policy. The Democrats are the party of policy nerds. The progressives, even if they didn’t win the nomination, are the voices of the young and of the moment and with specific policies in mind to move the country forward.
Sanders talked policy on Monday. And AOC, in her minute or so she had in nominating Sanders before we saw the new-style roll call vote, was able to talk a little progressive politics.
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The lack of policy is no accident, of course, not when you’re running against Donald Trump, for whom politics is the personal, and by the personal, we mean that it’s all about him. The polls show that a majority of Biden supporters say they want to defeat Trump. The point of Tuesday night was to argue that, yes, Trump must go, but that Biden is someone worthy of the job.
If Trump gives the occasional nod to traditional Republican issues, it’s about cutting taxes or cutting regulations or exacerbating climate change. But the news of the day is always about Trump. On Tuesday, it was the new postmaster general, Trump’s well-heeled donor, having to back down on what looked to everyone like voter suppression. And that’s what politics in 2020 looks like.
There was the report from the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee laying out the extent of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials — basically proving once again that the Russia investigation was hardly a hoax. That’s what politics look like in 2020.
The Trump mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic — and Democrats’ constant reference to Trump’s “it is what is” answer to a question about the unnecessary number of Americans dead — is clearly what politics looks like in 2020.
Yes, racial injustice is a constant theme of the convention, told by the many Black politicians and regular people who speak to us each night. But there are not many answers here, except this basic one — that Trump is the anti-answer and the provocateur. And that there must be a new president if progress is to be made.
After two nights, the convention seems to be about two things — one, slamming Trump for being Trump; and two, for telling us that a Biden presidency would bring the nation back to something resembling normalcy.
For those missing progressive voices, Elizabeth Warren will speak Wednesday night, and Ady Barkan, the medical-rights activist who has ALS, who supported Warren and Medicare For All, gave moving testimony in favor of Biden’s stand on expansion of medical care, talking to us via a computer.
But, at times, there seemed to be more Republicans than progressives — Republicans who have notably turned against Trump’s brand of presidency.
When Colin Powell says we have a president who not only divides the country but does “everything in his power to make it that way and keep us that way,” it may not mean much to young voters. But it does say much about Trump.
When Cindy McCain told of the long, strange friendship between her late husband and Biden, when the video showed John McCain’s thumb-down vote against the repeal of Obamacare, that, too, said much about Trump’s lack of alliances with Crazy Nancy or Cryin’ Chuck.
If you watched John Kerry or the collage of national security leaders — featuring former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch — you saw not only a recitation of Trump’s failures, but, Democrats hoped, a stark contrast between Trump’s leadership and Biden’s.
In the #MeToo era, Democrats shoved the much-diminished Bill Clinton, a superstar as recently as Barack Obama’s 2012 convention, to an early-night, five-minute, taped slot. What’s amazing is that Clinton, who left the White House 20 years ago, is three years younger than Biden today.
Still, Clinton did his job, telling us how Trump had mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, how he ignored the science and instead praised his own poor work. And Clinton found enough time to say: “You know what Trump will do with four more years: blame, bully and belittle. And you know what Joe Biden will do: build back better.”
Maybe the best moment of the night was the roll call, one unlike any other. It took us via the miracle of modern technology to each state, starting with Alabama at the Edmund Pettus bridge. We heard from gold star parent Khizr Khan from Charlottesville, speaking of the three-year anniversary of the white-supremacist rally there. Khan had been a star at the 2016 convention, questioning whether Trump had ever read the Constitution. We heard from Matthew Shepard’s parents in Wyoming. And so it went.
By the time you read this, Trump will have almost certainly rage-tweeted about the entire night. Of course he will. This is what politics looks like in 2020.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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