He touched all the bases.
In his acceptance speech, Joe Biden was the economic fairness guy; no Democratic presidential nominee since Harry Truman has highlighted unions more in his acceptance speech. He was the Black Lives Matter backer, recounting his talk with George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter. He fused the green and the red, vowing to combat the climate crisis (elevating it as the fourth overlapping crisis we face, alongside racism, the economy, and the pandemic), creating millions of jobs in the process.
Strategically, Joe Biden put the pandemic right where it belongs: at the center of the election. Trump’s failure to deal with COVID, Biden argued, is the reason why the economy can’t start up, why schools must be shuttered, why schoolchildren’s parents can’t go to work. It’s not that way, he pointed out, in Canada or Europe or Japan.
In a sense, the pandemic has taken the traditional divide between the two parties, over the role of government and the role of markets, to a new level that plainly advantages the Democrats. The absence of a government policy to combat the pandemic has discredited Donald Trump’s (and Mitch McConnell’s) Republicans as surely as the absence of a government policy to combat the Great Depression discredited Herbert Hoover’s. Then, laissez-faire equaled poverty; today, it equals death.
Biden cited Franklin Roosevelt early on in his acceptance speech. “Stricken by disease, stricken by a virus, FDR insisted that he would recover and prevail,” Biden said, “and he believed America could as well. And he did. And so can we.”
In Roosevelt, Biden has found a model for his own role. The convention featured numerous references, in speech and image, to the tragedies that Biden has endured. How could it not? It documented Biden’s understanding of grief and despair, and his remarkable capacity to offer counsel and hope to those experiencing them. He actually did that in his acceptance speech, directly addressing those who’d lost loved ones to COVID. And then, as perhaps a new kind of Roosevelt Democrat, he talked to a nation also in grief and despair and set forth plans and a rhetoric of healing, as if to say, as he’d argued Roosevelt did, “I came through adversity, I understand yours, and we can come through it together.”
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In a way not common to presidential campaigns, the personal became the political. And one of the many damning attacks on Trump is that under him, the political — and the presidential and matters of state — has become entirely personal. As Biden noted, the sole measure of Trump’s policy is whether it’s good for Trump.
While it’s clear the vast majority of progressives will vote for Biden, many remain wary of him, and understandably so. Malleable but no down-the-line liberal, politically attuned but not the product of any great social movement, pro-labor but not one to overturn power relationships: the critiques are both familiar and valid. But the pandemic has given Biden the opportunity to champion activist government in a way that all but Trump zealots and die-hard laissez-faire nutcases will support.
For all the various shortcomings in Biden’s programs, they remain the most progressive any Democratic presidential nominee has embraced in half a century. Moreover, Biden has one clear political advantage over his colleagues on the left when he promotes them. As Andrew Yang said during last night’s discussion among this year’s other Democratic presidential hopefuls, “the magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.” There are clear differences between AOC’s Green New Deal and Biden’s pledge to invest $2 trillion to arrest climate change, but when he and AOC support the same particular plank of climate policy, it sounds a lot less radical coming from Biden because he’s Biden. That won’t stop Republicans from attacking that plank, but it could swing enough centrist Democrats to turn it into law.
It was not a flawless convention. It was needlessly light on Latinos and the young, the very constituencies where Democrats will have to work hardest to turn out the vote. But it did a good job of skewering the eminently skewerable Trump (Michael Bloomberg, I’m compelled to say, did a first-rate job of that last night). And it projected Biden as what he is: a guy from the postwar white working class (which may reassure some swing voters) who’s experienced enough adversity to understand America’s particular travails inflicted by racism, sexism, and the post-postwar economy. Aided by a sufficiently keen political sensibility, he’s cobbled together a program that would considerably ease some of those travails. Personally, he is a very decent fella, as about a thousand people from all walks of life echoed throughout the week. And by the evidence of his acceptance speech, he’s not sleepy at all when everything’s on the line.
Running against a dangerous racist, narcissistic buffoon in a year when the certainties of normal life have gone missing, that should suffice. But it’ll take a helluva lot of work from a helluva lot of people to nail down the victory the nation so desperately needs.
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