• Mon. Nov 30th, 2020

Biden’s Big Moment

Hi. Welcome to a convention recap edition of On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

When Joe Biden spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, delegates from Delaware stood holding a banner: “Biden in ’84.”

Since then, Mr. Biden has been to nine conventions and made the case for seven Democratic nominees.

Last night, it was finally Mr. Biden’s moment. And he seized it.

The unconventional convention gave him an opportunity to deliver a different kind of speech than the typical nominee’s address, and he made a direct-to-camera appeal that was more intimate than he could have delivered in a large convention hall.

While President Trump on Thursday urged voters to “imagine mayhem coming to your town,” Mr. Biden tried to cast himself as a way out of this moment of national crisis.

“If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst,” he said. “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”

Mr. Biden can be an uneven performer, but this speech was one of the strongest in his half-century political career. It also undercut a central argument of the Trump campaign: that he is mentally and physically unfit to lead. (Lowering expectations for your opponent is typically not the best political strategy.)

Though he never spoke Mr. Trump’s name, Mr. Biden offered a blistering critique of his opponent, particularly on the economy — the issue that the president wants to campaign on. And he vowed to unite the nation, promising to represent even those who don’t vote for him.

“While I’ll be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president,” he said. “That’s the job of a president: to represent all of us, not just our base or our party.”

As Democrats had throughout the week, Mr. Biden drew his contrast explicitly and implicitly, casting himself as an empathic steward of the American trust. The competition with Mr. Trump was framed as a battle over values — “the soul of America,” as Mr. Biden is fond of saying — rather than politics.

“Character is on the ballot, compassion is on the ballot, decency, science, democracy,” he said. “Who we are as a nation, what we stand for and, most importantly, who we want to be. That’s all on the ballot.”

The week was light on policy and heavy on character. Mr. Biden didn’t offer many more specifics in his address, though his campaign has released reams of policy plans. He outlined what he sees as the four crises facing the nation — the pandemic, the economy, racial injustice and climate change — and laid out a few ideas, including a national mask mandate.

Already, there are hints of future conflicts. Mr. Biden has promised both F.D.R.-level government intervention to rebuild the economy and a bipartisan presidency. Given the polarization of Congress, achieving both feels like a tall order — if not a fantasy.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, there’s an election. And Mr. Biden’s speech and the week’s program provided a template for how he will approach the fall campaign.

Throughout the week, Democrats hammered Mr. Trump for his failings combating the coronavirus. They highlighted stories from people who said they were adversely impacted by the president’s policies. And they emphasized Mr. Biden’s compassion — his calls to grandmothers, his support for children who stutter, his ability to mourn alongside those who have lost loved ones.

The plan for the fall is obvious: Keep the focus on Mr. Trump, turning the race into a referendum on the president and his leadership. Showcase Mr. Biden’s humanity, his ability to empathize.

Of course, the experience last night wasn’t how Mr. Biden — or any politician, really — must have pictured the pinnacle of his career.

For decades, Mr. Biden schmoozed his way through convention halls. In 1972, he skipped some votes as a New Castle County Council member to attend the convention while running his Senate campaign. In 1984, he wooed donors on the sidelines, preparing for his 1988 presidential bid. Four years ago, he mourned his son Beau before an audience of sympathetic friends and allies.

This year, Mr. Biden spoke nearly alone, in a quiet exhibit hall with an audience of about 30 journalists, masked and socially distanced.

After his speech, he stood outside, wearing a mask as he watched fireworks explode over a drive-in viewing party in his home state, Delaware.

The image wasn’t the typical convention shot. But it certainly sent a message.

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Well, that’s a wrap on the Democratic convention. But don’t despair — we’ll be with you mornings all next week when the Republicans take the stage.

Kicking off our coverage is an interview with Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, about what we should expect from her party.

I spoke to Ms. McDaniel on Wednesday about the convention, the Republican message and the value of star power. (As usual, our conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Tell me a little bit about what Americans should expect from the Republican side next week.

You’re going to see a lot more of real people and a policy-driven discussion about the difference that the Trump administration has made in people’s lives and the things that they’ve done during the past four years, and then a preview of what the president is going to do when he’s re-elected.

So, what’s the second-term agenda?

I’m not going to get ahead of the president. But I think you’re going to see a tribute to America as we talk about the greatness of this country, a tribute to our history, our heroes, and it will be very aspirational.

Is there a central message Republicans want voters to take away from next week?

Democrats are featuring Hollywood celebrities who play real people, and the Republican convention will be about real people. We don’t need to hire actors to play real people. The Trump administration has always been about average everyday working Americans and their story. We don’t need screenwriters. We don’t need fiction. We’ll talk about real America and celebrate that.

So no celebrities, it sounds like.

We’re not about the Hollywood elite telling us how we should live our lives. We’re about talking about the fabric of America, the greatness of America, and the American people. That’s the great story.

There have been plenty of real people featured on the Democratic stage, though.

There’s not a lot of interaction. It’s all Zoom. I don’t think those stories are penetrating at the same level as the parade of politicians from the past. Powell, Hagel. I don’t know if most of America knows Chuck Hagel. I’m really not getting a sense that this is a convention about average Americans.

As you point out, a notable number of Republicans spoke on the Democratic stage. What do you make of that?

Former Republicans. I mean, Colin Powell has not voted Republican since what, 2004? I don’t think we can call him a Republican.

What about John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016?

Kasich has classic Trump derangement syndrome. He’s not liked this president since the minute he was the nominee, even to the degree of not even coming onstage in his own state when it hosted the convention in 2016.

All the things that the president has stood for, the principles and the policies of our party, are intact. It’s sad to watch them be part of a convention and a platform that is in fact ushering in socialism and fundamentally transforming the United States of America, as we know it.

So you’re saying that if you are speaking at a Democratic convention, you’re not really Republican anymore?

That’s what I think.

How do you think the Democrats did this week?

I probably looked at it a little differently because I recognize the challenges they faced as well as we’re facing, switching to virtual. I’m watching what they’re doing and taking notes.

From a concept perspective, I think it has been a lot of friction. It’s a celebration of Joe Biden in 2004, 2008. They’re trying to hide away A.O.C. [Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. But if you look at his policies, there’s no question that A.O.C. and Bernie Sanders are the stars of the Biden campaign. They may not be the stars of his convention. So it seems like a bait-and-switch to me.

Of course, Mr. Biden ran against Mr. Sanders with a very different ideology during the primary. Why would he adopt the Sanders positions now?

I think he recognizes that that’s where the progressive wing of the party is. That’s where the energy is. Joe Biden calls himself a bridge and he is a bridge. He’s the bridge to socialism. When he talks about policies that he’s putting forward, it is a path to single-payer health care, giving free college education.

All right, thank you for your time — I’m sure you have a busy couple of days ahead of you.

I know. Next Friday — I cannot wait for next Friday.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do when this is over?

Sleep. What every mom in America says. That’s what I want for my birthday. That’s what I want for every holiday. Lots of sleep. Just for a little bit, and then get back on the campaign trail.


  • Here’s our recap article from the front page of the newspaper: “Mr. Biden urged Americans to have faith that they could ‘overcome this season of darkness.’”

  • Our news analysis: “Looming over Mr. Biden’s long-sought presidential nomination was the ever-present shadow of another man who’s poised to dominate the final 10 weeks of the campaign.”

  • Our story on Mr. Biden’s three-decade journey to the nomination: “Maybe it had to happen this way, friends say, if it was going to happen at all.”

  • Want some virtual analysis of the virtual convention? Join a conversation with our colleagues Astead Herndon, Katie Glueck and Matt Flegenheimer live at 11 a.m. Eastern.


Fun with teleprompters!


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