The Missing Piece in Biden’s Convention Speech

The Democratic Party took a gamble by not delivering a more targeted economic message to working- and middle-class families.

Win McNamee / Getty / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Last night, Joe Biden capped a Democratic convention like no other by underscoring the themes that dominated the gathering from the beginning: empathy, national unity, racial justice, and President Donald Trump’s failures in managing the coronavirus.

Now the question is whether those messages, which largely eclipsed a direct economic appeal to struggling families, can protect Biden’s consistent lead in national polls against the ideological counterattack from the GOP that’s certain to reach a new peak at next week’s Republican convention.

Biden projected passion, energy, and solidity in remarks that more closely resembled a grave presidential address from the Oval Office than the typical raucous convention speech. In his manner as much as his words, Biden offered a contrast to Trump’s belligerent volatility—and to the GOP’s portrayal of him as in decline both physically and mentally.

But while it advanced Biden’s goals, the speech, as well as the convention itself, had a conspicuous blind spot: The event did not deliver a concise critique of Trump’s economic record or offer a tight explanation of Biden’s plans to improve the economic circumstances of middle-class families. Though Biden ran through an extended list of policy goals on issues including job creation and climate change during his address, he offered vanishingly little detail about how he would achieve them—though, in fact, he’s delivered a series of detailed speeches laying out his agenda.

He devoted much more energy to indicting Trump on the outbreak and encouraging national unity than he did questioning the president’s commitment to the middle class or arguing that he himself had better plans to bolster it.

Alex Conant, a GOP public-affairs consultant and former communications director for Marco Rubio, says the Democrats’ choice to downplay discussion of their plans through the week reflected their determination to keep the focus on Trump. “For the most part, conventions are never heavy on policy, but this one is striking in its lack of any real policy discussion,” he told me. “At the end of the day, they want this to be a referendum on Trump’s four years in office, not a choice between their vision of the future and Trump’s.”

The risk for Democrats, Conant said, is that this approach leaves more room for Trump to define Biden’s agenda. “If I were Trump, I’d spend all next week and hundreds of millions of dollars in September telling you Biden is going to give you single-payer [health care], higher taxes, and the Green New Deal, which would ruin any chance for the economy to recover,” Conant said. “And force Democrats to have that economic debate.”

Even if Biden emerges from the convention with a boost in the polls, his choice to focus less on economic appeals and more on sweeping themes and social issues, particularly racial justice, raises some of the same questions that surfaced after the Democrats’ last national meeting. Though Hillary Clinton’s 2016 convention drew strong reviews, it too emphasized the party’s embrace of diversity, the breadth of her coalition, and Trump’s deficiencies of character without delivering a clearly delineated economic agenda for working families. Those choices faced pointed second-guessing after Election Day, when Trump’s huge margins among non-college-educated white voters allowed him to dislodge the Rust Belt battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin from the Democrats’ “blue wall” and claim his narrow victory.

Ahead of Biden’s speech last night, the longtime Democratic strategist James Carville, the campaign manager for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 race, feared that Democrats might be heading down a similar path again this week. He gave high marks to the convention’s personal introduction of Biden and its outreach to young people, but he worried that the event wasn’t following the formula Democrats used to win the House in 2018: Minimize discussion of Trump and emphasize bread-and-butter economic concerns, such as defending the Affordable Care Act and its protections for Americans with preexisting health conditions.

“The way I would say it is, I wish the convention was a little more 2018—because 2018 actually worked,” he told me. “We ran a play, and the play was: Talk about people’s daily lives, talk less about Trump, make it more about them. We’ve done some of that. I don’t want to say it’s nonexistent. But I would have been happy with 20 percent more 2018.” Carville was reassured by Biden’s speech, though. Shortly after the former vice president finished, Carville texted me: “Thought it was really good. Think he brought some needed 2018 to the convention.”

Others in the party shared that positive reaction. Stanley B. Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster who conducted a focus group with voters during the speech, told me Biden did “very, very well.” Likewise, Robert Shrum, the former Democratic speechwriter and now the director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, told me the speech was “masterful, moving, and backs Trump farther into his angry cul-de-sac.”

Overall, the Democratic convention generally drew praise from strategists in both parties, not only for its content but for its novel form. Just a few days ago, no one was entirely certain whether a collage of remote appearances, all delivered without an audience, would hold viewers’ interest or allow Democrats to convey a coherent message. If nothing else, the convention answered those questions. The pace of each evening was fast. Speeches were more crisp and conversational than usual, because they were not interrupted by repeated applause nor punctuated by partisan zingers meant to ignite it. Particularly in the addresses from Barack and Michelle Obama, that shift produced a more dignified, even somber, tone that seemed consonant with the nation’s difficult circumstances amid the pandemic. “You had to imagine these speeches as more in the vein of FDR’s fireside chats” or “televised reports to the nation” at difficult moments, such as those from John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Shrum told me.

“I think [Barack] Obama’s message was so serious and grave, it was like Kennedy during the [Cuban] missile crisis,” he continued. “You don’t imagine giving that speech to a room full of people so they can applaud.”

Not everything worked: Some of the live appearances stumbled under technical glitches; some speeches, such as Kamala Harris’s remarks, could’ve used an enthusiastic audience; and the format sometimes seemed reminiscent of a telethon. But this week’s events have likely forever changed how conventions are held. “It’s hard to believe we’re going to go back to traditional conventions,” the longtime Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told me.

Through the week, Democrats drove four principal messages. Perhaps most relentless was the portrayal of Biden as empathetic and decent, a man of faith and humility who has never forgotten his middle-class roots and who treats everyone he encounters with respect. Another overriding message was the party’s celebration of diversity in race, gender, and sexual identity. Young people were everywhere. “The convention feels very different than it did four years ago, just by the age of some of the people that are talking—and the fact that references to shit that happened before I was born are not happening,” says Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America, a liberal advocacy group that is organizing young voters for the election.

The convention, Greenberg said, “has drawn a line between this diverse, multicultural party, where women and young people have a big role, against a Donald Trump who is racist and anti-immigrant, and I think that is going to play strongly.”

The last two dominant themes were Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Biden’s support from, and history of working with, Republicans. Some progressives grumbled about the prominent speaking slots given to Republicans backing Biden. But party strategists think their presence sent a reassuring signal to GOP-leaning voters, especially older white people, with whom Biden has made inroads in polls. Democrats signaled inclusion without diluting the force of their message against Trump, or diminishing the four-alarm urgency about the election that they conveyed to their own partisans, strategists told me. “One of the extraordinary things about this convention is how broadly inclusive it’s been without really watering down the clarity of the point of view,” Garin said. “You can be a [John] Kasich Republican or a [Bernie] Sanders progressive, you can be a person of color or a white person struggling to get by, and still see yourself in the story that has been told here.”

In that panorama, the least visible piece was a concrete economic plan for average families. As Elaine Kamarck, a longtime Democratic aide who is now the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, wrote this morning, “Given the choice between policy and character, Democrats focused on character and the contrast between Joe Biden as a person and Donald Trump as a person.”

“Had Donald Trump been a normal Republican president, we would have heard a great deal more about the Republican tax bill, Trump’s single largest domestic accomplishment,” she explained. “But even though it is a huge contributor to the income inequality that most Democrats have railed against for many years, the tax bill was barely mentioned.”

Several speakers, including Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Biden himself, drew an economic contrast with the GOP; health care also received a moment in the spotlight (though with very little discussion of Biden’s proposals). But the longest stretch of policy discussion, in an extended sequence on Wednesday, focused on gun control, climate change, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and women’s rights, not jobs, wages, or retirement. (One caveat: The climate discussion focused on the possibility of creating green jobs.)

One senior Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk frankly, told me that the issues highlighted during that sequence reflect the priorities of the party’s modern base, as the campaign sees it: young people (guns and climate), suburban women (guns and women’s rights), and people of color (racial justice and immigration).

Yet unless Biden can win across a wide range of Sun Belt states, he’s unlikely to reach 270 Electoral College votes without improving at least somewhat among working-class white voters in the key Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And analysts have long observed that many older Latino and African American voters in particular are more motivated to turn out to the polls by concrete plans to improve their life than by broad promises of confronting discrimination.

Biden certainly has more plans on every conceivable issue than does Trump, who has been almost entirely incapable of explaining what he might do in a second term. And polls over the next few days are likely to show Biden emerging from his convention in a stronger position than any challenger to an incumbent president since Bill Clinton in 1992. With the warm endorsements offered by public figures who span the ideological spectrum, the week also demonstrated Biden’s potential to construct an unusually expansive coalition against Trump—what some have seen as the modern equivalent of the popular front against fascism during the 1930s.

Even most Republicans agree that Trump, by this point, has almost no realistic pathway to winning the popular vote. But even most Democrats agree that he might still squeeze out an Electoral College majority by maximizing margins and turnout among his core group of older, rural, non-college-educated white voters in a few closely balanced states. If he does, Democrats may again rue the choice not to direct a more targeted economic appeal at the voters Trump is relying on most.