It’s amazing how often it happens that we elect as president someone whose personal attributes are the opposite of the exiting incumbent. Jimmy Carter was a bit of pious moralist preaching sacrifice; Ronald Reagan said set that thermostat wherever you want.
It’s gone on like that ever since. Donald Trump, a coarse braggart who thinks the White House is a dump, was the opposite of Barack Obama, a cultivator of understatement who put a premium on dignity (except of course when he wore the unforgivable brown suit).
But now Trump may be trumped. The biggest phony ever to barge his way into the Oval Office, a man so overwhelmingly fake that some of his supporters had to invent a narrative by which he slays liberal pedophiles, finds himself running against a man who is not a lofty orator; not a superstar the way Obama was in 2008; not, even, a man who is uniquely in touch with his times. But a genuine, decent, thoroughly honest and direct man. No wonder Trump is worried. Genuine Joe is everything Trump is not.
The whole convention, but night four in particular, drove this home very effectively. The early segment on Biden’s Catholic faith with Delaware Senator Chris Coons was great. Democrats usually don’t do this, because the Democratic tent includes people of many different faiths, and let’s be honest, mostly because pointy heads like me are aggressively secular, and Democrats are always being told they can’t offend that sensibility. But devout Catholic is who Biden is. Lean into it. Show it. It was awesome that he and his people said let’s do this, and it was genuine.
I loved the segment about halfway through where Biden talked to those four union members. God bless him for that. If you’re meh on Biden from the left, you have to give him this: He talks more about labor unions than Obama or Bill Clinton did. Why? Because it’s who he is.
Finally, the intro from the family was great too. I forget who said it, one of the granddaughters, but she said, if you give him your cellphone number, he will call it.
And that is something I learned about Joe Biden this week—I have watched him (not “covered” him, but watched him) for 30 years, and I knew he was handsy and touchy-feely, but I didn’t know that he calls strangers (people who were once strangers) to ask after their kids, pays attention to the lives of elevator operators. But having learned it, I have to say: Well, yeah, of course he did. That seems real. That young man with the stutter. My God, what courage. I wouldn’t doubt Biden calls him more than I used to call my mom, it shames me to say. That’s just who he seems to be.
And by the way, that elevator operator didn’t work in the Senate. She worked at The New York Times. Which he visited what, once a year, twice? And he knew her name and knew about her life?
How many elevator operators do you think Donald Trump noticed? I’ll tell you. He noticed the Black ones (if there were any). Not to talk to them, but to go to Michael Cohen and scream, “What the fuck are you thinking letting Black people operate our elevators?” I’m being generous with “Black people.”
Biden’s speech. It wasn’t one for the ages. But that’s OK, because we all know he isn’t that kind of speaker. It was, however, very good. Partly because there was no audience and no applause, it was the shortest acceptance speech since 1984, as per C-SPAN.
But it was long on policy for such a speech, which I like. And it was long on honesty. And I liked the way he dove right in. Quoting civil rights legend Ella Baker, Biden said, “Give people light and they will find a way… The current president has cloaked America in darkness for too long. I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
History has a sense of humor, or at least irony. Biden has tried this twice before, when he was arguably better positioned to be the nominee—he was a powerful senator in both 1998 and 2008, and he had a theoretically more plausible claim on the nomination in both of those years. But now here he comes, at his age, having been not just written off but laughed off after Iowa and New Hampshire, and he’s the favorite to win the White House.
Overall, night four and the convention as a whole worked well. Mostly very well. I found myself persuaded and even inspired by most of the segments that featured the “regular” Americans. Sherrod Brown with that couple that ran the machine tool shop. That Latina girl talking about her undocumented mother. The Democrats did an effective and sometimes beautiful job of showing viewers their America, the America they want to achieve, so different from the Trump/Stephen Miller/Republican America.
But what I think the Democrats could have done better this week is attack and define Trump. Yes, yes; Michelle and Barack’s speeches, and Bill Clinton’s too, and some others.
But trust me: They did not really drive home a narrative about Trump’s failures and outrages. To me, a segment of each night should have been thematized around a Trump failure: lies, corruption, incompetence, and destruction. Just doing that, giving the attacks a name and theme, would have given every anti-Trump American some concrete post-convention talking points.
You may think they were tough on Trump. Believe me. Watch next week. You’ll see a tough you didn’t know existed.
But maybe “tough” wasn’t job one. Job one was to establish that this election is a choice between a man who is a complete fraud and gangster in every aspect of his life and a man who cares about everybody he meets and wouldn’t even know how to be a fraud if he tried. And that was communicated. Joe Biden, arguably past his time, is the right man for the moment.