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Democrats made history as they kicked off the first ever virtual convention Monday night.
A sign of the times, this year’s unusual Democratic National Convention took a somber tone, reflecting the country’s public health, economic and racial justice crises. It began with a message of unity, urging Americans to undo the damage done by President Donald Trump by electing Joe Biden, and kept to that theme throughout.
The event to formally nominate Biden to the Democratic ticket featured dozens of speakers and guests who appeared in both live and pre-taped segments, and represented a geographically and politically diverse range of elected officials, community leaders and voters. “America is at a crossroads,” said former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and has been a critic of his ever since. Kasich’s remarks were as much a sign of support for Biden as a denunciation of the current president, another running theme throughout the night.
The first night of the DNC focused less on Biden’s platform and more on outlining the very urgent problems facing the country and the need for new leadership. A keynote speech by former first lady Michelle Obama spoke to how Biden’s character and hardships make him the best choice for the country.
“When he was a kid, Joe’s father lost his job. When he was a young senator, Joe lost his wife and his baby daughter. And when he was vice president, he lost his beloved son,” Obama said. “Joe knows what it’s like to struggle, which is why he gives his personal phone number to kids overcoming a stutter of their own.”
READ MORE: Trust in Trump sinks over COVID-19 as Biden support grows
In her remarks, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, who appeared remotely in front of her city’s newly painted “Black Lives Matter” plaza, swiped at Trump by criticizing a controversial exchange in which law enforcement forcibly removed peaceful protesters near the White House to clear a path for him to visit and pose for a photo opp at a nearby church.
The brothers of George Floyd spoke of him and the many other Black men and women who “should be alive today.” “It’s up to us to carry on the fight for justice,” Philonise Floyd said in a statement. “Our actions will be their legacy.”
Biden spoke with a panel of elected officials, community leaders and activists — including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner — about police use of force and racial injustice.
“I know when my son was murdered, there was a big uprising, but then it settled down,” Carr told Biden. “We can’t let things settle down. We have to go to the politicians and we have to hold their feet to the fire, because otherwise the big uprising is not going to mean a lot.”
Biden, who has been criticized for his own record on race and has stopped short of calling to defund the police, said in the panel, “Most cops are good, but the fact is, the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out. Period.”
READ MORE: What to expect from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions
In an effort to showcase a united front against Trump, Monday night’s programming featured lifelong Republican voters and politicians who shared why they have decided to vote for Biden and encouraged others to join them.
“This isn’t about Republican or Democrat, it’s about a person, a person decent enough, stable enough, strong enough to get our economy back on track. A person who can work with everyone — Democrats and Republicans — to get things done,” former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said.
“Many of us have been deeply concerned about the current path that we’ve been following the past four years,” Kasich said.
The messages were an unprecedented display of the Republican Party division that has surrounded Trump’s time in office.
“Donald Trump has no clue how to run a business, let alone an economy,” said Meg Whitman, CEO of the streaming platform Quibi and a longtime Republican. “Joe Biden on the other hand has a plan that will strengthen our economy for working people and small business owners.”
MORE: How to watch the 2020 national conventions
Democratic governors grappling with the coronavirus pandemic criticized Trump’s response to the crisis, which has claimed the lives of more than 160,000 people in the U.S.
“Our current federal government is dysfunctional and incompetent,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a remote address. “[The federal government] couldn’t fight off the virus. In fact, it didn’t see it coming,” he continued.
Governors have become faces of the virus response in their states, leading local efforts and decisions on schools and businesses. Many have called for a better coordinated national approach to the virus. While Cuomo’s remarks were a head-on assault of the Trump administration, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took a different approach, painting a picture of a better country under Biden’s leadership. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will lead by example. It’ll be science, not politics or ego, that will drive their decisions,” Whitmer said.
Michelle Obama lamented the effects of Trump’s inaction. “It has left millions of people jobless. Too many have lost their health care; too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent; too many communities have been left in the lurch to grapple with whether and how to open our schools safely.”
In a more personal moment, a woman discussed losing her father — a Trump supporter — to COVID-19. “He had faith in Trump,” Kristin Urquiza said. “He voted for him, listened to him, believed him and his mouth pieces when they said coronavirus was under control and going to disappear.”
More Americans — 53 percent — think Biden would do a better job of handling the pandemic than Trump, according to a recent poll by the PBS Newshour, Marist and NPR. Democrats will likely continue to lean into Biden as a better choice on navigating the coronavirus as the convention, and election run-up, continues.
READ MORE: Biden has his running mate. Will Harris appeal to Democratic voters?
During Monday’s programming, Democrats repeatedly hit on the battle over vote-by-mail, which has grown increasingly partisan during the pandemic. “My home state took the advice of scientists and medical experts, and listened to the people of Nevada to put in place a vote-by-mail system,” Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said. “Donald Trump is trying to divide us by undermining that right.”
Disrupted postal service is one of the most significant challenges facing the election in November. A lack of funding, staffing and recent organizational restructuring raises questions on how states and counties will manage to process the surge of mail-in and absentee ballots. Recently USPS notified 46 states that vote-by-mail ballots may not arrive in time to be counted.
Trump has dismissed voting by mail as fraudulent, despite a lack of evidence to support this claim, and he has disapproved of extra election and post office funding. But on Monday Trump unexpectedly tweeted “SAVE THE POST OFFICE.”
In one of the longer speeches of the evening, Sanders urged his progressive supporters to vote for Biden despite their political differences.
“We need Joe Biden as our next president,” Sanders said. “Many of the ideas we fought for — that just a few years ago were considered radical — are now mainstream. But let us be clear, if Donald Trump is reelected all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy.”
In Michelle Obama’s address, she also warned people against withholding their votes in protest against Biden’s record. “We have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it,” she said. “This is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning.”
The urging signals an acknowledgement of Biden’s disconnect with some progressive voters, who he may need support from in order to beat Trump.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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