This does not mean that the convention is any more or less important for Democratic nominee Joe Biden than it was for previous challengers to an incumbent president. He will get hours of free coverage, a platform to make his case to millions of people who tune in for even part of the four days of coverage (a total of eight hours on cable). Speakers should be forewarned: In speaking without an audience, especially to an online audience, time can really drag. Keep it short. Keep it punchy.
Biden needs to present himself as the safe, competent, decent person he is. Biden wants to take us from chaos to calm, from conflict to conversation. He wants to provide the antidote to a divisive, mean-spirited and comically ignorant president. To do so, he need only remind us that we can have a normal president again. (Biden’s wife, former president Barack Obama and others can attest to his inherent decency.) Biden might consider more of a fireside chat with Americans as counterprogramming to President Trump’s embarrassing attempt to lionize himself and find a setting to make him seem like a real president. Inviting Americans into Biden’s home is one way to suggest how much saner and safer voters will feel letting him (via TV and their phones) into theirs for four years.
Democrats should let Trump define Trump. His own words are the most damning; his own inanities are the most illustrative of his unfitness. Let the vice president take some shots at Trump, but frankly, one could roll film of Trump’s last news conference or two and achieve the same result. Americans need only the slightest reminder of Trump’s moral, intellectual and temperamental unfitness and his colossal incompetence.
Biden must offer a credible path to defeat the virus. Trump has repeatedly said the virus will just “disappear.” He wants us to believe that if we send our kids to schools in the midst of a pandemic, the economy will bounce back and good times will return. Biden must treat Americans like adults who know this sort of delusion and denial have killed more than 160,000 Americans. Provide some concise, sensible policy steps (e.g., national testing and tracing, invoking the Defense Production Act to solve the shortage of personal protective equipment once and for all). Reaffirm that he will rely on Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert. Preview a plan to make certain every American will have access to a vaccine when available.
Biden should offer a credible, fair economic plan. Biden’s four-part economic plan rolled out over the past few weeks has a dizzying array of proposals, ranging from subsidized child care to green energy to a giant infrastructure plan to support for first-time homeowners. Biden should boil it down to its essence: In contrast to Trump, who makes only the lives of the rich easier, Biden will make it easier for the average family to find and hold a good job; care for their parents and their kids; and buy a home. This is meat-and-potatoes Democratic economic policy. Democrats from Obama to Clinton to Carter to Truman won this way, establishing themselves as the party of the little guy. And Biden should not reject the gift Trump just handed him: Trump wants to defund Social Security and Medicare, given his intention to make his payroll tax deferments permanent.
Biden should pledge to protect Americans from real threats. Trump has utterly failed to address climate change, China’s cyberwarfare and economic espionage, and Russian aggression against the United States and our allies. Biden will promise to address all of those and to patch up alliances Trump has torn asunder. We need friends to contain illiberal regimes and tackle international problems (from pandemics to nuclear proliferation). The world will be safer, healthier and more stable, and the United States will no longer be mocked and isolated with a Biden presidency.
Biden must seize the moment created by Black Lives Matter. The movement has pulled back the curtain on race for White Americans, forging widespread support for tackling race unlike anything we have seen since the 1960s. Americans overwhelmingly understand systemic racism exists and must be excised. They are tired of the blatant appeals to white supremacy, religious bigotry and demonization of immigrants. Biden need not promise a revolution; he need only set a moral example for the country and lend presidential leadership in achieving fairness and decency on issues ranging from policing to housing to health care. He needs to let Whites know this is not a zero-sum game and reassure people of color that he will not perpetuate a caste system that disadvantages them at every turn.
Put that together with some upbeat rhetoric, the faces of ordinary Americans, some slick films, some Lincoln Project-style videos skewering Trump and an acceptance speech delivered from the heart. That’s it. That’s all Biden needs to do.