Democrats Begin Virtual Convention, Hailing Biden and Denouncing Trump’s Presidency

Democrats opened the most extraordinary presidential nominating convention in recent history on Monday night with a program that spanned the gamut from socialists to Republicans, from the relatives of George Floyd to family members of those killed by the coronavirus, in a two-hour event that was a striking departure from the traditional summer pageant of American democracy.

Truncated and conducted virtually because of the coronavirus crisis, the presentation at times resembled an online awards show, and it offered a vivid illustration of how both the pandemic and widespread opposition to President Trump have upended the country’s politics.

Capping the evening was an urgent plea from Michelle Obama, the former first lady, for voters to mobilize in overpowering force to turn Mr. Trump out of office and elect the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Breaking through the stilted online format, Mrs. Obama provided the emotional high point of the night as she confronted the president directly. “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, speaking before Mrs. Obama, gave voice to what he described as the historic stakes this November, arguing that “this election is about preserving our democracy” and alluding to his own family’s experience with Nazi Germany.

“This is not normal,” he said, “and we must never treat it like it is.”

Kicking off a four-day conclave during which they hope to both win over moderates who are uneasy with Mr. Trump’s divisive leadership and energize liberals who are unenthusiastic about their own nominee, Democrats reached for the recent past.

They showcased Mr. Sanders, the leader of the left and their reigning presidential runner-up; a handful of Republican defectors, including former Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio; and the most popular figure from the previous administration, Mrs. Obama.

They hailed Mr. Biden, the former vice president, who will formally accept his party’s nomination on Thursday, and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, and made clear their deep apprehension about the country’s future if Mr. Trump were to win a second term.

Mrs. Obama portrayed the Trump era as a gallery of social and political degradation: a government defined by “chaos, division and a total and utter lack of empathy” and guided by the ethos that “greed is good and winning is everything.”

She warned that children had seen the country’s leaders “emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists,” and faulted unnamed people for recoiling from the phrase “Black lives matter” — a description that plainly applies to the president.

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Trump ‘Is Clearly in Over His Head,’ Michelle Obama Says

Michelle Obama, speaking on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, addressed her distress over President Trump’s leadership.

Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, “When others are going so low, does going high still really work?” My answer? Going high is the only thing that works. Because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight. But let’s be clear. Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountaintop. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God — and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences. So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head.

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Michelle Obama, speaking on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, addressed her distress over President Trump’s leadership.

As unlikely as the eclectic lineup of political bedfellows was, stranger still was the spectacle of an entirely virtual convention. Trying to demonstrate more responsible leadership than the incumbent has during a national health emergency, Democrats had abandoned their plans to gather in Milwaukee and built their program entirely online.

It was far from clear on Monday night whether the Democrats’ makeshift alternative to a traditional convention would generate the kind of political energy that past conclaves provided with a live broadcast of remarks before crowds roaring with enthusiasm. Oddly absent from the evening were the basic staples of convention atmospherics: applause, laughter, chanting and jeering.

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The speakers appeared from different cities across the country, delivering their remarks in the fashion of the opposition party response to the State of the Union: well-written and carefully rehearsed, but without the sort of audience interaction that can enhance or diminish political oratory.

With no arena, and no loudspeaker to introduce the presenters, Democrats turned to the actress Eva Longoria to serve as M.C. and keep the evening moving between prerecorded and live video presentations. A lineup of political luminaries delivered remarks in rapid-fire format, and only a few of them — Mrs. Obama, for one, and Mr. Sanders — possessed the sheer star power to linger in the perception of the audience.

“The past four years have left us, as a nation, diminished and divided,” Ms. Longoria said at the opening of the program, alluding to the pandemic, its economic devastation and much else.

Embracing rather than seeking to conceal the oddity of the event, Democrats began their program with a lighthearted montage of speakers making “Is this thing on?”-style remarks as they prepared to tape videos. That was followed by a rousing rendition of the national anthem sung by young people across the country who appeared in multiplying boxes on the screen like so many members of the Brady Bunch.

It was the first of several such interludes, breaking up sober discussions of racial injustice and other subjects with brief recordings of voters talking about their political support for Mr. Biden or Americana-infused video clips with musical accompaniment.

ImageDemocrats abandoned their plans to gather in Milwaukee for a convention in an effort to demonstrate more responsible leadership amid a pandemic.
Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

While in a traditional convention the presidential nominee does not speak until Thursday night, Mr. Biden made a recorded appearance on Monday. He conducted a question-and-answer session — spanning just a few minutes — to discuss systemic racism with figures including Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P.

Mr. Sanders and Mr. Kasich, in notably different tones and styles, delivered an overlapping message about setting aside political differences to defeat Mr. Trump.

Mr. Kasich, appearing outdoors in what appeared to be a prerecorded segment, spoke the longest of any of the Republicans and sought to assuage his fellow party members’ concerns about voting for a Democrat. “In normal times something like this probably would never happen, but these are not normal times,” he said before directly addressing the fears of some conservative voters. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that; no one pushes Joe around.”

Striking a valedictory note, and pointing the way forward for future battles over control of the Democratic Party, Mr. Sanders directly addressed supporters of his two presidential campaigns, urging them to back Mr. Biden.

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‘This Election Is About Preserving Our Democracy,’ Sanders Says

On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, Senator Bernie Sanders encouraged his supporters to back Joseph R. Biden Jr. for president.

This election is the most important in the modern history of this country. In response to the unprecedented crises we face, we need an unprecedented response, a movement like never before of people who are prepared to stand up and fight for democracy and decency and against greed, oligarchy and bigotry. And we need Joe Biden as our next president. Our campaign ended several months ago. But our movement continues and is getting stronger every day. 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 re-elected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy. At its most basic, this election is about preserving our democracy.

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On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, Senator Bernie Sanders encouraged his supporters to back Joseph R. Biden Jr. for president.CreditCredit…Democratic National Convention, via Associated Press

At the same time, he continued to claim the upper hand in a long ideological struggle. “We have moved this country in a bold new direction,” Mr. Sanders said, “showing that all of us — Black and white, Latino, Native American, Asian-American, gay and straight, native born and immigrant — yearn for a nation based on the principles of justice, love and compassion.”

Yet before Mr. Sanders appeared, in a reflection of Mr. Biden’s ungainly coalition, some speakers sought to nudge the former vice president in a different direction. Mr. Kasich argued that Mr. Biden would not be tugged to the left, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said he was the candidate for voters who recoiled at the country’s political extremes.

The program devoted a lengthy segment to the protests against racial injustice. Appearing above the Black Lives Matter logo painted on the street across from the White House, the mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel E. Bowser, recounted her anger over Mr. Trump’s deployment of federal troops against protesters this summer.

“I said ‘Enough’ for every Black and brown American who has experienced injustice,” Ms. Bowser said.

Ms. Bowser introduced an appearance by family members of George Floyd, the Black man whose death in the custody of the Minneapolis police this spring set off a national protest movement. Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, said it was “up to us to carry on the fight for justice,” naming a number of other Black men and women slain by the police in recent years, including Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.

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‘George Should Be Alive Today,’ Floyd Family Says

George Floyd’s family held a moment of silence for the victims of police violence during the opening hour of the Democratic National Convention on Monday night.

George had a giving spirit, a spirit that has shown up on streets around our nation and around the world. People of all races, all ages, all genders, all backgrounds peacefully protesting in the name of love and unity. It’s a fitting legacy for our brother. But George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland. They should all be alive today. We do not know the faces — we’ll never see those who can’t mourn because their murders didn’t go viral. Please join me in a moment of silence to honor George and the many other souls we lost to hate and injustice. And when this moment ends, let’s make sure we never stop saying their names.

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George Floyd’s family held a moment of silence for the victims of police violence during the opening hour of the Democratic National Convention on Monday night.CreditCredit…Democratic National Convention, via Associated Press

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the senior Black Democrat in Congress, struck the same theme of national reconciliation, promising Mr. Biden would be “a president who sees unifying people as a requirement of the job.”

Since the dawn of the television age, the presidential conventions have been aimed at the millions of Americans watching the festivities from their homes, with each party using its gathering to offer an uplifting case for its nominee and to savage the opposition. Those who spoke on Mr. Biden’s behalf on Monday made those same appeals — but almost everything else about the nature of this event was unique.

While the presentation had the unmistakable aura of life in a pandemic, the roster of speakers had a more vintage feel — less a vision of the Democratic Party’s future than a bridge to the 20th century. There were those nearing or in their 80s: Mr. Sanders and Mr. Clyburn; three Republicans who made their names in the 1990s, Mr. Kasich, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and former Representative Susan Molinari of New York; and a current governor whose name evokes conventions’ past, Andrew M. Cuomo of New York.

Mr. Cuomo’s remarks, however, were far less lofty than those delivered in 1984 by his father, Mario M. Cuomo, who gave a rousing speech that earned him national recognition. On Monday night, Governor Cuomo focused on New York’s response to the coronavirus crisis. “Only a strong body can fight off the virus, and America’s divisions weakened it,” said Mr. Cuomo, calling Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic “dysfunctional and incompetent.”

Perhaps the most searing critique of Mr. Trump came not from an elected official but from Kristin Urquiza, a young woman whose father, a Trump supporter, died after contracting the coronavirus. Speaking briefly and in raw terms about her loss, Ms. Urquiza said of her father, “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.”

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‘He Paid With His Life,’ Daughter of Trump Supporter Says

Kristin Urquiza, whose father died of the coronavirus, spoke before the Democratic National Convention about his misplaced faith in President Trump.

My dad, Mark Anthony Urquiza, should be here today. But he isn’t. He had faith in Donald Trump. He voted for him, listened to him, believed him and his mouthpieces when they said that coronavirus was under control and going to disappear. My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life. I am not alone. Once I told my story, a lot of people reached out to me to share theirs. They asked me to help them keep their communities safe, especially communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected.

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Kristin Urquiza, whose father died of the coronavirus, spoke before the Democratic National Convention about his misplaced faith in President Trump.

Beyond the pandemic, Democrats sought to use the first night of the convention to highlight the breadth of support Mr. Biden enjoys, hoping to send a signal to voters across a broad range of the ideological spectrum.

In this way, the program was reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s convention four years ago, when the party also tried to bring along its left flank but spent even more time seeking to portray Mr. Trump as an outlier far removed from the political mainstream.

The specter of a Trump presidency back then, however, was a theoretical proposition. This year, Democrats were able to lay out a more powerful indictment based on Mr. Trump’s tenure in the White House. And had Democrats nominated a more liberal candidate than the consensus-oriented Mr. Biden, they might not have been able lure former Republican office holders.

Not that every Democrat was happy that Mr. Kasich, an anti-union Republican, was allowed to speak in prime time at the convention: Some influential labor leaders complained bitterly to Mr. Biden’s senior aides about Mr. Kasich’s appearance, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations.

For his part, the president largely ignored the Republicans who spurned him, turning instead to racial demagogy. On a swing through the Midwest on Monday, Mr. Trump accused Democrats of representing left-wing extremism and, returning to the xenophobic themes of his first presidential campaign, argued baselessly that Mr. Biden would “overwhelm Minnesota with refugees from terror hot spots.”

Appearing at an airplane hangar in front of Air Force One, the president continued his bald campaign to sow doubts about the integrity of the electoral process — rhetoric that no modern president has dared use.

Mrs. Obama, alluding to Mr. Trump’s false claims about voter fraud, cited the challenges to voting access that some Democrats fear will prove inevitable this fall, and pleaded with Americans to do whatever it would take to cast their ballots. “We’ve got to be willing to spend all night in line if we have to,” she said.

Recognizing that her remarks would not be as powerful without applause, the organizers displayed a Zoom-style panoramic of Democrats applauding the former first lady.

But that image only underscored what Ms. Longoria, returning to the screen, called “an unconventional convention.”

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