Joe Biden’s speech that closed the book on this year’s virtual Democratic National Convention was the best one that the former vice president could have delivered. Biden spoke clearly with a poise and conviction that have been absent in nearly two years of campaigning for the 2020 presidential election.
This was possible because Biden stuck to his strengths. He talked about his biography, the influence of his father, the deaths of his first wife and his eldest son. He spoke broadly about the “possibilities” of American life and the dignity of work. He did not say Donald Trump’s name, though he alluded several times to his failings.
Biden’s remarks were just as remarkable for the other things they did not contain. Here is a man who has spent virtually his entire adult life in politics, who served in the United States Senate from 1973 until 2009 who, upon being nominated for president, has absolutely nothing to say about that experience. He did not volunteer a single accomplishment during his time in that office of which he was proud. As far as he and his fellow Democrats are concerned, he might as well have been a random grandfather in Wilmington whom Barack Obama selected as his running mate in 2008 after picking a name out of a hat.
This amnesia was characteristic not only of Biden, but of virtually every speaker during the last four nights of this convention. Rather than defend his decades of slavishness toward financial interests, his reactionary views on crime and immigration, his embarrassing comments on American race relations, his bizarre and unedifying role in the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, or his ever-shifting views on abortion and other social issues, the other guests offered platitudes about how Old Joe is such a nice guy.
Over and over again we were told about how Biden always calls, how he holds your hand, how that one time he said something that made you feel really good about yourself, how he remembers your name and buys you a cup of coffee for the train ride back, how he loves his children and grandchildren. I have previously described the last four days of the DNC as “funereal.” This was not accidental. The things former colleagues and opponents from the Democratic primaries have said about this year’s nominee were what one expects to hear at a wake. Biden’s flashes of anger during his own remarks might briefly have conveyed a sense of urgency and vitality. But the unmistakable impression made by the proceedings was one of impending death.
The rhetorical value of these obsequies is very much an open question. It is not clear to me that the current president’s supporters voted for him in 2016 because they thought he was a nice man or because they were hoping that one day he would tell them something that made their days better. In fact, it is the total absence of these qualities, Trump’s almost pathological inability to say something that is not either hyperbolic praise of himself and his accomplishments or a mean-spirited insult, that has endeared him to half the country.
If Biden fails to unseat Trump in November, his political obituary will already have been written by his own party.