Anyone seeking a metaphor for the current Democratic Party could find one in the final night of this year’s Democratic National Convention. It was an often-dizzying mix of the solemn and the silly, veering between themes and ideas without a clear direction, and unified only by Joe Biden, who delivered a strong acceptance speech to close the night and the convention.
If he’s going to succeed in November, and as president after that, Biden will have to pull off the same trick, keeping together a coalition that ranges from Bill Kristol and John Kasich to Angela Davis and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Last night’s program hinted at how hard that will be, but it also showed how Biden will try, and demonstrated how he defied an early-primary swoon to snag the Democratic nomination.
Biden’s speech was long on uplifting rhetoric, taking a cue from his old boss Barack Obama, and short on ideology and policy. Yet he also borrowed the Manichaean language of Donald Trump, whom he assailed harshly, though never by name. Citing the late civil-rights leader Ella Baker’s command to “give people light and they will find a way,” Biden told the nation, “I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the dark.” While Trump heeds only the interests of his own base, Biden promised, “While I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did.”
But Biden warned that the nation faces four crises—the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crash, a reckoning over race, and climate change—and that Trump is not up to the challenge.
“What we know about this president is, if he’s given four more years, he will be what he’s been the last four years,” Biden said: “a president who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division. He will wake up every day believing the job is all about him. Never about you.”
Of course, all Democrats—as well as the many Republicans paraded at the convention—agree on this. The problem is that once you get past that list, you start to see strong disagreements on what the most pressing issues are and, more importantly, how to deal with them. Biden solved this dilemma by falling back on broadly popular ideas, such as raising the minimum wage, and platitudes about the need to “restore the promise of America to everyone.”
One thing that separates a failed politician from a successful one is the ability to sell banalities, and yesterday, Biden delivered. His speech won’t enter the canon of American political oratory, but it was a crisp and effective one, designed to showcase Biden’s empathy, decency, and humanity, all of which contrasts so sharply—like light and dark, as Biden said—with the president he hopes to replace. He spoke about grief, family, and hope in ways that Trump does not and cannot.
Many of the speakers at the DNC struggled with the uncanniness of delivering a speech without an audience. Even Obama, one of the great orators of the age, sounded stilted and hectoring. Biden actually seemed at ease—perhaps a skill honed during decades of giving speeches to a mostly empty Senate chamber.
Biden may also benefit from low expectations. Trump and his campaign have portrayed the former vice president, who will turn 78 shortly after Election Day, as doddering and incoherent. (Even some of Biden’s own allies worry that he’s lost a step.) Biden seemed stiff during earlier appearances this week, but anyone who watched his acceptance speech saw a far more engaged and coherent speaker than Trump.
He was also far more coherent than the program that preceded him. The emcee was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who cracked jokes. Many of them were excellent, but others felt ill-timed: After a moving clip of Biden discussing grief and faith, she cracked that he went to church so often that he didn’t need tear gas and militarized police to get there. The punch line was solid, but it sapped the power from the moment. A surprisingly fun group discussion by 2020 Democratic also-rans—with Senator Cory Booker nailing the cornball-host role, and Senator Bernie Sanders showcasing his underrated comedic sense—gave way to a dull and unnecessary speech by Michael Bloomberg. There was a history lecture from Jon Meacham (why?), a cameo by the Trump impersonator Sarah Cooper (why not?), and a powerful speech by Brayden Harrington, a young boy whom Biden bonded with over their shared stutter.
This unevenness was the result, in part, of the challenges associated with producing a convention online, for which Democrats have won both praise and criticism. But it also reflected the challenge of convening an electoral coalition that includes both Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio and 2016 presidential candidate, and Sanders, a democratic socialist. It’s jarring to play for laughs and tears; it’s jarring to play for the Kasich vote and the Sanders vote, all at the same time.
Biden’s overtures to Republicans have, indeed, irritated Democrats, both those who feel that time given to disaffected GOPers robs deserving Democrats and those who worry that the candidate’s gospel of bipartisan compromise is simply naive. Even leaving the Republican interlopers out, Democrats are fractious and raucous in their disagreements. It is a party without a single clear identity, moving left and younger, yet dominated in its upper ranks by aging moderates.
Biden managed to bring all those disparate threads together to win the nomination, and yesterday he managed to bring coherence to an otherwise jumbled convention program. Now he has to figure out a way to keep doing it for another 73 days.