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Opinion Biden needs a Sister Souljah moment

Former vice president Joe Biden accepts the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on Aug. 20.
Former vice president Joe Biden accepts the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on Aug. 20. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Although tightly scripted to prevent spontaneity from disrupting worship, the Republican National Convention had a suspenseful moment Monday when Vice President Pence spoke. Connoisseurs of his defining rhetorical trope started their stopwatches: Could he talk for 60 seconds without bragging about his humility? He went 58 seconds before saying that being there was “deeply humbling.” Even in today’s turbulence, there is one constant.

Let us now praise Republicans for embracing their defects. Having nothing to say, they said as much. Rather than tamper with perfection, they said their 2016 platform would suffice until 2024, when the party will presumably say something other than: We desire what Dear Leader desires.

Seemingly every Trump family member who does not detest the president addressed the convention, producing an instructive tableau for this populist moment: In America, vulgarity is not the prerogative of any particular class. The rapacious Snopes family is not just a figment of William Faulkner’s Mississippi imagination; there is a living analogue from Manhattan.

In an ABC interview before the Republican convention, Joe Biden reprised then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s promise to the 1988 Republican convention: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Biden promised there would be “no new taxes” on those earning less than $400,000 a year because, “there would be no need for any.”

This is the familiar progressive flinch: Propose a multitrillion-dollar agenda that Americans supposedly desire, but reassure 98 percent of households that they need not demonstrate their desire by helping to pay for the agenda. As for there being “no need” for any more taxes, need is a malleable concept.

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The government could confiscate the earnings of the top 2 percent and not pay for Biden’s agenda, the government’s current spending and the existing debt. Days before Biden made his version of Bush’s (perishable) pledge, the national debt, having already exceeded the size of the economy, reached 108 percent of gross domestic product, topping the 106 percent of 1946, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Biden is, however, somewhat correct:

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There is no “need” for revenue commensurate with the nation’s appetite for government spending because — disregard the polarization froth on the surface of our shallow political pond — the political class is united by this broad and durable consensus: Revenue scarcities shall never constrain spending as long as borrowing is possible, and what is considered possible shall never be influenced by moral qualms about mortgaging the futures of future Americans.

Regarding the nation’s most pressing constitutional problem, unfettered executive power, the 2020 election apparently offers more an echo than a choice. Biden was asked in the ABC interview if he would “shut this country down” if scientists recommended doing so. Sounding as blasé about legalities as the current president is, Biden said: “I would shut it down.”

But if President Harry S. Truman could not seize the steel mills to forestall a strike during wartime, Biden cannot close the entire economy. The Constitution does not give the president the general police power that state constitutions give to governors. Congress, in its sloth and carelessness, has given the president various broad emergency powers, but none that can be reasonably read to encompass shutting down the country.

Biden’s biggest advantage in the post-Labor Day sprint is that he has an even easier presidential act to follow than Franklin D. Roosevelt had running against Herbert Hoover in 1932. But this advantage could evaporate if rioting and looting continue, and millions of voters become convinced that Democrats are complicit in — because tolerant of — the shredding of the nation’s social fabric. Is or is not Biden disgusted by mob violence in the service of political nihilism? (“Let’s protest police injustices by torching an automobile dealership!”)

He needs a Sister Souljah moment. In 1992, this rap singer was pleased by the deadly Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Candidate Bill Clinton’s criticism, not of extremism in general, but of her explicitly, reassured temperate voters that he was not intimidated by inhabitants of the wilder shores of American politics.

Today, even more than 28 years ago, the Democratic nominee needs to display similar independence. Biden’s response last week — 43 seconds of a tepid, 93-second video tweet — will not suffice.

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