With a virtual vote, Biden closes in on a decades-long quest

Laveta Brigham

Democrats on Tuesday will bestow former Vice President Joe Biden with the prize he has chased for more than 30 years, relying on a roll call that virtually touches down in every state and territory and ends with his nomination for president. With the elaborate online balloting, another wrinkle in […]

Democrats on Tuesday will bestow former Vice President Joe Biden with the prize he has chased for more than 30 years, relying on a roll call that virtually touches down in every state and territory and ends with his nomination for president.

With the elaborate online balloting, another wrinkle in the unprecedented virtual national political convention, the candidate who first ran for the White House in 1988, long before social media or Zoom calls, not to mention the coronavirus, will be digitally anointed to lead his party into the future.

Democrats head into the second of four nights with a touch of relief. They suffered no major tech malfunctions or other meltdowns on Monday, and dozens of brief testimonials set the stage for an impassioned speech by former First Lady Michelle Obama that energized Democrats.

Tuesday’s gathering will bring together some of the party’s elders — including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, an former Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, among others — but also give a platform to firebrand progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Biden’s spouse, Jill Biden, will get top billing, delivering the closing speech in a testimonial to her husband of 43 years. The broadcast will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Pacific time.

Speakers and videos will stress a theme of leadership, showcasing Biden’s nearly five decades in public service and arguing he is a steady hand who can restore competence to the White House and comity in national politics.

But the event will also stress Biden’s family tragedies — most recently, the death of his eldest son, Beau, from a brain tumor in 2015. Biden’s first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash in 1972.

Democrats will make the case that this personal experience has instilled in Biden an empathy that makes him uniquely suited to guide the nation out of the pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans this year and put parts of the economy on life support.

“How do you make a broken family whole?” Jill Biden will say, according to excerpts of her prepared remarks. “The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding — and with small acts of compassion. With bravery. With unwavering faith.”

Carter will extol Biden’s “experience, character and decency,” and Clinton will explain how the Oval Office would function if voters chose Biden over Trump.

“Our party is offering you a very different choice: a go-to-work president,” Clinton will say, according to excerpts of his remarks. “A down-to-earth, get-the-job-done guy. A man with a mission: to take responsibility, not shift the blame.”

In another break with tradition — this one of Biden’s design — no one person was given the honor of delivering the convention’s keynote address. Rather, the assignment was tasked to a round robin of 17 speakers.

While showcasing the diversity of the party, the move also removed the risk of someone younger and more dynamic making the 77-year-old Biden seem stale and tired by comparison.

Erstwhile Biden rival Bernie Sanders will also be showered with attention. The Vermont senator’s name was placed in nomination along with Biden’s. The balloting will give his supporters a last hurrah.

The outcome, however, is not in doubt. Neither party has held a brokered convention, in which delegates pick a nominee only after multiple rounds of voting, in nearly 70 years. Tonight’s roll call will be even more suspense-free than usual.

Sanders, who only grudgingly surrendered to Hillary Clinton four years ago, delivered an unqualified endorsement of Biden long before the convention. His left-leaning supporters were so scattered across cyberspace they lacked the presence and critical mass to present meaningful dissent.

For Biden, the nomination will be the culmination of a difficult, decades-long quest.

He first ran for president in 1987, quitting the race after he admitted plagiarizing other politicians’ speeches and exaggerating his academic record. He tried a second time in 2008 but exited after just a single contest — the caucuses in Iowa — where he received a scant 1% of the vote.

Having twice failed in his reach, the Delaware senator seemed destined to finish his political career on Capitol Hill. Then Barack Obama chose Biden as his running mate in 2008, making him the understudy to a president 19 years his junior. (When Biden first sought the White House, Obama was 26 and a community organizer in Chicago.)

Another try for president would have seemed the natural order of things, but in 2015 Obama did not encourage Biden when he considered making a third attempt, clearing the way for Hillary Clinton.

Despite his friendship and close working relationship with Biden, Obama believed his former secretary of State and 2008 primary rival would be the stronger candidate. He also worried about Biden’s emotional frailty as he grieved his son’s death.

The decision to opt out never sat well with Biden; the what-ifs only grew more persistent when Clinton narrowly lost to Trump even though she won the popular vote.

By 2019, there was little groundswell for another Biden run, and in the early going it seemed his dismal political history would repeat itself. He finished a distant fourth in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, and an embarrassing fifth in the New Hampshire primary the following week.

But Biden carried South Carolina in a landslide — his first presidential primary win anywhere, ever — and that set off a string of victories that closed out the Democratic contest with stunning rapidity. By the time the pandemic essentially ended campaign travel and rallies in March, the nomination was no longer in doubt.

The roll call of states is one of the most iconic convention moments, a chance for delegates to not just state their preference but good-naturedly brag about their home states. Typically, the process is spread over hours through the evening, culminating in a wild celebration of the preordained outcome.

Like everything else, this year it will be squeezed into a much narrower time frame and reimagined under social distancing that spread the virtual balloting across the country and into the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Representatives of the 50 states and seven U.S. territories will be tethered remotely in what Democrats have billed, making the best of it, as the “Roll Call Across America.”

Halper reported from Washington and Barabak from Milwaukee.

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