Political conventions may be, fundamentally, about selling voters on a vision for the future. But the second night of the Democratic National Convention started out with a nostalgic montage of conventions past and largely stayed there for its full two hours.
After cramming 17 of its most promising rising stars into a brief “keynote” address at the beginning of Tuesday night’s proceedings, the party gave its prime speaking slots to giants of its past and members of its storied families—and to some of the GOP’s own, too.
Former President Bill Clinton, former presidential nominee John Kerry, and Republican former Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed a combined 11 minutes of speaking time. Two members of the Kennedy family spoke for two minutes, as photos flashed showing Joe Biden with the late Sen. Teddy Kennedy. Later, Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain, narrated a segment about Biden and the longtime Arizona Republican’s unlikely friendship.
Anyone who was looking for the next Barack Obama, who famously stole the show in the 2004 convention with his rousing keynote speech, would have been disappointed. Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and 2018 gubernatorial candidate, held the spotlight for the longest period of time of the shared keynote, ending her remarks in the center of a Brady Bunch-like configuration of the faces of the party’s future.
Many Democrats lamented the missed opportunity to more prominently showcase their new and compelling voices. “The opening joint keynote didn’t add much,” said a Hill Democrat, who added the entire night “could have shown more the future of the party,” mentioning the absence of figures like Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Katie Porter (D-CA). One such figure, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)—whose speaking slot on Tuesday the Biden campaign promoted on its social media channels—spoke for a total of 93 seconds. And she did so to nominate Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, a formality of the process.
Frustrations within the party’s progressive wing, which Biden has tried to court, mounted as the night went on. “It feels like they’re much more focused on winning over Republicans than turning out young people. The least they could do was spend equal time and energy on both,” said Max Berger, a progressive operative, said of the Biden campaign. “This thing is a TV show. There isn’t a TV producer in America who’d rather book John Kerry than AOC.”
For Biden, nostalgia tours carry risks, and not just because they can serve as reminders of his record and age (77); or that they may diffuse the notion that his presidency will be transformative more than restorative.
But sometimes dipping into the past can serve a purpose as well. And Tuesday night had moments that spoke to the energy in the party while tugging on its heartstrings. A segment featuring Ady Barkan, the progressive activist who is dying of ALS, struck an emotional chord and powerfully communicated Democratic priorities on a central issue, health care.
A testimonial from Biden’s wife, Jill, the last speaker of the night, sought to give more insight into Biden as a grieving husband and father forced to repeatedly piece together his life and soldier on through unimaginable family tragedy.
Amid resonant moments like these, it grew easy to look past the largely unremarkable but pointed speeches from figures like Clinton and Kerry, who filled out the professional parts of Biden’s biography—but not before taking shots at the current commander-in-chief.
"If you want a president who defines the job as spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he’s your man,” said Clinton, who thanks to the format, kept his remarks to a trim five minutes. “Denying, distracting, and demeaning works great if you're trying to entertain and inflame. But in a real crisis, it collapses."
Kerry, the former secretary of state who is also not known for his brevity, was also given an opportunity to bash Trump, calling his trips abroad a “blooper reel” and before speaking to Biden’s foreign policy credentials. Those credentials were later reiterated by a montage of foreign policy experts—including Trump administration bete noire former Ukrainian ambassador Marie Yovanovitch—from the Obama years, which served as an introduction to Powell.
Ultimately, said a Hill Democrat, the trip down memory lane and into Biden’s relationships with Kennedys, McCains, Carters and Clintons served a purpose: shedding some light on the party’s nominee.
“It has been very effective,” said the Democrat, “in reintroducing us to Joe.”