Joe Biden has been running for president for nearly as long as I can remember, and before this year, he had never come close.
There’s a reason for that. He had never stood out. He was Joe. We know Joe, as we’ve heard a thousand times this week, but I know I never thought of Uncle Joe as presidential material.
But this year, in his 77th year, he caught a break. He found the perfect opponent in Donald Trump, who stands for everything that Joe Biden doesn’t, starting with Biden’s well known empathy and his inarguable decency.
And the timing — with America in crisis — was the exact right time for steady Joe to set the terms of the race.
In his speech Thursday night, a speech that was a runaway success by Biden standards, he spoke of character, science and decency. Light, he said, not darkness. Unity, not division. It was all so clear. Biden would be the president, he insisted, even for those who would vote against him.
“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long — too much anger, too much fear, too much division,” Biden said. “Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
Biden never mentioned Trump by name. He mentioned only the person in the White House who had not met the moment — the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic, the economy in deep recession, the social-justice movement that Trump has tried to tie to antifa.
He tied Trump to darkness where Biden said that he would be on the side of “hope and light.”
“Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation,” Biden said. “He’s failed to protect us. He’s failed to protect America. And, my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable.”
Biden went on to say that if Trump were re-elected, it would become only worse because, even now, Trump has no plan, if you don’t count his boosting of untried vaccines, the latest courtesy of the My Pillow guy.
If you were looking for a blow-by-blow indictment of Trump, though, you had either speech by the Obamas to lean on. Biden went for optimism instead, for a new beginning.
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And if Trump was looking for evidence for his charge that Biden would be a stooge for the Democratic left, Biden didn’t give him much to work with. The speech was short on policy, except in generalities. Again, he left the hard work to all the speakers who had preceded him. We’ll have to wait until next week to hear Republicans give us the exaggerated version of the Biden platform, which, if you read it, is more liberal than I’d have guessed.
As Andrew Yang put it — h/t Vox’s Zack Beauchamp — “The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable. If he comes with an ambitious template to address climate change, all of a sudden, everyone is going to follow his lead.”
Yang’s comment came in a roundtable of Democratic primary contenders, the losers, as Trump might put it, who told us funny stories about the campaign trail and unanimously praised Biden, including a much relaxed Bernie Sanders. (Why Mike Bloomberg, of all people, got a big prime-time slot afterwards, I can’t begin to tell you. It was the botched moment of the night.)
If there are many books written about the Trump era — and there will be books for a hundred years — there will also be not a few written about how Biden got to this moment. In the primaries, he had been left for dead after embarrassing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, only to have his campaign ultimately saved by Rep. Jim Clyburn and mostly Black Democrats in South Carolina.
From there, Biden ran away with the field. Democrats passed on youth. They passed on progressives. They passed on candidates of color. They passed on debaters who stood out while Biden often stumbled. Yang may have gotten to the heart of it.
Democrats looked for the so-called winnable candidate, which didn’t come to mean winnable so much as the candidate who was the anti-Trump — not in policy, but in temperament. Since the campaign, Biden has worked with Sanders, and he has worked even more closely with Elizabeth Warren. The convention featured diversity everywhere, young people everywhere. As I mentioned before, the real triumph for Democrats was how unexpectedly united they seem.
All that was left was the speech. And as if the expectations from many Democrats weren’t low enough, Trump made it seem that if Biden could simply keep upright throughout the night, he could declare victory. Trump and his team — meaning, Fox News — have spent months basically saying Biden was senile and feeble and didn’t even know where he was half the time.
But Biden didn’t just pass the test. He aced it. His speech was strong enough that, as Chris Wallace said on Fox, it “blew a hole” in the Trump caricature of Biden.
The speech followed what many saw as the most moving moment of the convention. Young Brayden Harrington — a 13-year-old who had met Biden during the New Hampshire primary and had bonded with him over a common issue, stuttering — stole the show, and not a few hearts.
“He told me that we were members of the same club. We stutter,” Harrington said in a pre-taped video. “I’m just a regular kid and in the short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life.”
It was that speech you had to think about as you listened to Biden’s confident speech later in the evening.
“Joe Biden cared,” Brayden said. “Imagine what he can do for all of us. Kids like me are counting on you to elect someone we can all look up to.”
There were other strong moments. There was the John Lewis tribute. There was the tribute to Beau Biden, Joe’s son who had died of cancer. There was also an appearance by the GOP’s favorite Biden, Hunter, who along with his sister, Ashley, introduced their father.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, my favorite veep, was the moderator of the night, and she took the expected hard shots at Trump, not all of which seemed to hit on a night of mostly deadly serious speeches. I did like the one where she kept reminding viewers to text 30330, to learn more about your voting options. “An easy way to remember 30330,” she said, “is that it’s the year Donald Trump will finally release his tax returns.”
Meanwhile, Trump was having enough troubles of his own. His former top campaign adviser, Steve Bannon, was charged with defrauding donors in a private fundraising effort for something called We Build the Wall. You know which wall, the one Mexico was supposed to pay for. And it just so happens that the P.O. Box address for this apparent scam was in Castle Rock. And on the board — get this — was Colorado’s own Tom Tancredo, who wasn’t charged and, for all I know, may have done nothing more sinister than hang around with people like Steve Bannon.
Depending on whom you count, that’s at least the seventh Trump campaign adviser to have been indicted. Bannon was arrested while on a $35 million yacht off the coast of Connecticut. And if it wasn’t all bad enough for Trump, agents doing the arrest were, yes, federal postal inspectors. Biden didn’t bring that up, either.
Biden had a different ending in mine. The night ended, strangely enough, in a Delaware parking lot, with fireworks going off in the distance, the Bidens and the Harrises waving to supporters sitting in their cars as if at a drive-in movie. It was fitting for such a weird and strange week.
And in Biden’s closing, he quoted his favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, Biden asking those in the TV audience if they were ready for change. “This is our moment,” he told them, “to ‘make hope and history rhyme.'”
Given the surprising fact that Biden has come this far, he just might be able to do it.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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