In the end, however, Biden needed none of these things. The former vice president delivered a sober, direct, large-hearted and aspirational speech in which nearly every word was an implied rebuke to President Trump’s paranoid style of politics. In 25 well-crafted minutes, Biden managed to capture the romance of decency.
The central question of the 2020 campaign has been: Will Democrats regard Trump’s vulnerability as an opportunity to press for ideological advantage, or to build a centrist coalition in favor of political sanity? A hypothetical convention speech by either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would surely, at least to my mind, have taken the first approach. Biden took the second. “I believe there is only one way forward,” he said. “As a united America.”
The trajectory of Biden’s convention speech represents a decision about his candidacy, and perhaps about his presidency. First and foremost, he focused on an issue — the covid-19 pandemic — that does not have an ideological solution. It is a matter of trusting experts and exercising leadership. Other Biden priorities, from building roads and bridges to student debt relief, were only slightly more partisan in implication. Biden’s incremental expansion of the Affordable Care Act is among the most conservative positions on the Democratic spectrum. His concern about climate disruption was shared by many Republican leaders in the recent past. Most significantly, Biden studiously avoided culture-war controversies. There was only an oblique reference to gun control, and no language on abortion at all.
However Republicans attempt to spin it, Biden did not embrace democratic socialism or identity politics. In fact, there was hardly a word in the speech that could not have been given by a mainstream Republican senator a decade ago. By the evidence of his convention speech, Biden is seeking a landslide victory and a broad mandate to govern.
This decision to favor outreach over ideological intensity is perfectly credible coming from Biden. He is something of an endangered species — the gray-crested legislative backslapper. His natural habitat is the cloakrooms, committee rooms and hideaway offices on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. He really did work with old-time segregationist colleagues on issues of common interest. He really did develop lifelong friendships across the aisle.
Washington “insiders” such as Biden have been populist punching bags in recent years. But I would take the highly developed norms of that culture over Trump’s seedy carnival of corruption any day. Commitments to civility, bipartisanship, basic decency and public service are not mere nostalgia. They are anchors of social stability. They are foundations of good government. They are the moral architecture of democracy.
During his convention speech, Biden’s most successful attack on Trump was a simple contrast of values. “Character is on the ballot,” he said. “Compassion is on the ballot. Decency. Science. Democracy. They’re all on the ballot.” If the 2020 election hinges on these issues, Biden may get his landslide.
When it comes to attacking the president and his record, much of Biden’s work has been done by others. Biden did not need to refer to Trump as a “predator” — as the Democratic nominee for vice president did. Biden did not need to indict Trump as a danger to democracy — as the 44th president did. It was enough to dismiss Trump as someone “who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division.” It is Trump who does the heavy lifting of confirming these claims each day.
One of the strongest cases for Biden concerns his voice. Trump is a voice for cultural anxieties, tribal hostilities and latent prejudices. He speaks up for alt-right crackpots, his sleazy associates and dictators with blood on their hands.
In the most moving moment in his convention speech, Biden spoke to the families of the still-mounting covid-19 dead. “I have some idea how it feels to lose someone you love,” he said. “I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”
This voice of empathy and decency is unimaginable from our current president. And that should matter greatly to us.