Elections, Politics, Racism, Women

Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Shaky Unity of the Democratic National Convention

Aug 20 2020

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells* – The New Yorker 

 On Day Two of the Democratic National Convention, the Party’s recent past kept ghosting in and out. Before the networks had even begun their broadcasts, the Party rolled through half a century of its own history: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, from Georgia, and then Caroline Kennedy and her son in front of the unpainted shingles of a Cape Cod home, and, finally, Bill Clinton, sitting on a flowered couch at his home in Chappaqua, New York. Clinton and Joe Biden form generational bookends—one moderate icon hailing another. But there was nothing especially historic, or historical, about Clinton’s praise of the nominee. His account leaned on Biden’s role in the Obama Administration’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. “Joe helped bring us back from a recession before, and he can do it again,” Clinton said. The Party’s political history of its candidate had been somewhat radically shortened, so that it began in 2008.

Is this still the Party that Clinton remade? Five prerecorded minutes, broadcast early on the second night of the Convention, indicated that his personal influence has waned. Ideologically, too, Democrats have drifted away from him: any talk of triangulation was largely left to the dissident Republicans who spoke on both Monday and Tuesday evenings. But, in other ways during the lead-up to the nomination of a Presidential candidate born in 1942 to challenge an incumbent born in 1946, older Democrats’ hold on their party’s politics remained strong—and not only in the frequency of Springsteen tracks. Biden, whose instinct has often been to seek out the center of his own party, once followed a moderate, Clintonite path, and the project of remaking him during this past year’s long primary campaign was one of suppressing those earlier stands: for the crime bill of 1994; for the Iraq war in 2003; and, above all, during the seventies, against court-mandated school desegregation. The Democrats who gave Biden the nomination seemed to want a familiar candidate, but actually nominating him has required eliding much of his political history.

Clinton’s ascendance, a generation ago, didn’t just mean a preference for pragmatism. It meant a belief in the transformative powers of youth. The Democratic Party of the nineteen-eighties—of Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Dan Rostenkowski, and Geraldine Ferraro—was a traditional operation, dependent on political machines in declining cities and the workingman politics of big unions. The Party that Clinton celebrated at the 2000 Democratic National Convention—a handheld camera tracking him for over a minute as he strode through the bowels of the Staples Center, in Los Angeles, on his way to the podium—had been remade in his image: telegenic, optimistic, assured of its own expertise. The Democrats are still (relative to Republicans) the party of the future, but now the vision belongs to the Parkland survivors and the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—another generational talent who is seen by her opponents as a media persona and by her supporters as a serious policy entrepreneur, a preternaturally talented political figure who arrives with white papers and twelve-point plans.

On Tuesday, the Party gave Ocasio-Cortez only the brief role of seconding the symbolic nomination of Bernie Sanders. She used it to dwell on some recent history that the Party might have been happy to paper over. Ocasio-Cortez praised the “mass people’s movement” behind Sanders’s campaign: “a movement striving to repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia, and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.” Was she speaking from inside the Democratic tradition or outside it? She didn’t mention Biden once.

Ocasio-Cortez is often said to embody a generational break with senior Democrats. “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” she told New York, in January. But she also represents a suppressed strain. Watch the network coverage of the 1988 Democratic Convention and you’ll find that the standout performer wasn’t Michael Dukakis, whose acceptance speech was dull, or Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, who spoke for thirty-three minutes and “completely lost this crowd,” in the words of Chris Matthews, then a young NBC reporter on the floor. (Biden, who was feuding with Dukakis’s campaign, missed the Convention because he was recovering from surgery for a brain aneurysm.) The obvious star was Jesse Jackson, then forty-six and the embodiment of a rising multiracial progressivism, having won nearly seven million votes and eleven contests in the primaries. “For almost eight years, we’ve been led by those who view social good coming from private interest, who view public life as a means to increase private wealth,” Jackson said. “We believe in a government that is a tool of our democracy, not an instrument of the aristocracy in search of private wealth.” Of all the talented speakers at that Convention, it was Jackson who would fit seamlessly onto the virtual stage of 2020.

In 1988, as the baby boomers took over the Party, Clinton’s vision represented a viable electoral proposition, and Jackson’s didn’t. Now, having spent much of his career working in a party that was dominated by the Clintonite wing, Biden finds himself the standard-bearer at a moment when leading the Party means undoing that choice—to identify the Democratic Party fully with the Black Lives Matter movement, to take a more combative stance on capital and wealth, to supplant Clinton’s legacy with Jackson’s.

That’s a big job for any politician. Perhaps it’s too big for this campaign. What the Biden operation has chosen instead is to include what it can’t reconcile. The work of embodying this reconciliation, on Tuesday night, fell to Jill Biden, who isn’t a politician at all, and whose speech, taped at a Delaware high school where she once taught, closed the evening. Neither the Biden campaign nor Jill Biden specialize in subtlety. “You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways,” she said. “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.” The political past had been displaced by the macabre present: “The indescribable sorrow that follows every lonely last breath, when the ventilators turn off.”

Joe Biden isn’t nearly as dextrous a politician as Clinton or Barack Obama, each of whom found ways to unite the cosmopolitanism of the Democratic governing classes with the suffering of working people. The hope for Biden, in the general election, is that he might substitute that skill with his own blunt experience of loss. If Clinton felt your pain, Biden might wear his own on his face. The biographical video introducing Jill Biden emphasized the circumstances under which they met: he was a thirty-year-old senator who had recently lost his wife and infant daughter in a car accident that seriously injured his two sons. “How do you make a broken family whole?” Jill Biden asked. “The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding and with small acts of kindness.”

At the end of the video, Joe Biden appeared in the classroom, “surprising” his wife with a kiss, a mask dangling from his hand. Biden may well be the last liberal of his generation to be nominated for President, and what his candidacy has shed, above all, is the old Clintonite triumphalism. The official theme of the night was repair, and this, too, has a generational element. Biden is asking for the chance to fix what his generation has broken.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006 and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society.

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*Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006 and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society. He has previously written for New York magazine, the Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. 

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Related:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accuses NBC of spreading misinformation after DNC speech – The  Guardian

Tom McCarthy in New York

Congresswoman says NBC tweet about her endorsement of Bernie Sanders ‘sparked an enormous amount of hatred’

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused NBC News of spreading an “incredible amount of damage and misinformation” overnight on Tuesday after the network construed a routine procedural speech by her as a snub of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

Speaking on the second night of the Democratic national convention (DNC), Ocasio-Cortez was assigned to second the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders as president. Sanders ended his presidential bid and endorsed Biden last spring, but he was in line for a formal nomination as part of the process of transferring his delegates to Biden.

Ocasio-Cortez had originally endorsed Sanders for president during the primary season before switching her support to Biden.

“In a time when millions of people in the United States are looking for deep systemic solutions to our crises of mass evictions, unemployment and lack of healthcare,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a short speech on Tuesday, “en espíritu del pueblo and out of a love for all people, I hereby second the nomination of Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont for president of the United States of America.”

Soon after, NBC News sent a tweet that seemed to impute some intrigue to the fact that Ocasio-Cortez had not endorsed Biden for president. Such endorsements are not typically conferred in the convention setting and there was no reason or expectation for Ocasio-Cortez to do so.

But an NBC News account tweeted: “In one of the shortest speeches of the DNC, Rep Ocasio-Cortez did not endorse Joe Biden: ‘I hereby second the nomination of Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont for president of the United States of America.’”

Hours later, the tweet was deleted and an editor’s note was appended reading, “This tweet should have included more detail on the nominating process.”

But Ocasio-Cortez and others were dissatisfied, accusing the news outlet of stoking false controversy at a time when the Democratic party faces a generational divide between leaders like Ocasio-Cortez, a 30-year-old progressive, and Biden, a 77-year-old who won his first Senate race 17 years before she was born.

Ocasio-Cortez tweeted three times at NBC, starting after midnight:

As of this writing NBC News had not released further comment.

Sanders was also nominated for president at the 2016 Democratic national convention, before his delegates were passed to Hillary Clinton. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard nominated Sanders, and the nomination was seconded by a state campaign director and a spokeswoman for an election watchdog group.

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