POLITICS
08/21/2020 01:02 EDT | Updated 08/21/2020 03:29 EDT

Joe Biden’s Most Unifying Message: Human Decency

In a divided country, Democrats think the former vice president’s character is his strongest selling point.

Michelle Obama said it. So did Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And Ohio’s former Republican Gov. John Kasich. Over and over again, speakers at the Democratic National Convention described former Vice President Joe Biden with the same adjective: “decent.” 

For four days, the virtual convention headquartered in Milwaukee, attempted to paint Democrats as the party with the biggest tent; progressives and liberals, moderate Republicans and disaffected Trump voters could all come together under the premise that Biden is a better human being than President Donald Trump.

“Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot,” Biden said in his final remarks accepting the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday night. “And the choice could not be clearer. No rhetoric is needed. Just judge this president on the facts.”

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Former Vice President Joe Biden accepts the Democratic Party nomination for president on Thursday in Wilmington, Delaware. “Character is on the ballot," he said.

It was something almost every speaker, whether former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or the longtime Republican voter from Rhodes Island, Michael, said about Biden in the lead-up to Biden’s acceptance speech.

There’s not a lot of policy that can unite such a broad coalition of voters. Which is likely why the convention was light on policy specifics. There was little to no mention of the details of Biden’s health care plan or that his campaign has backed ending subsidies for fossil fuels. 

Instead, the thread running through each night was Biden’s nature. As a grandfather, he calls his grandchildren every day, his granddaughters said in a recorded video. There was the story about the time Biden was late to a TV interview because he was talking to a congressional staffer’s grandmother on the phone. The woman who presented Biden’s nomination at the convention was Jacquelyn Brittany, a security guard at the New York Times building and Biden super-fan who him met in the elevator on his the way to a meeting with the Times editorial board in January. 

And perhaps the most memorable moment from the four days came from Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old New Hampshirite with a stutter. Biden bonded with Harrington over their shared struggle with stuttering. Now Harrington credits Biden with helping him overcome his speech impediment. Although not explicitly stated, the moment felt particularly poignant given all the times Trump and his allies have mocked Biden for his stutter.

“I’m just a regular kid,” Harrington said. “And in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared. Imagine what he could do for all of us.”

“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 of the darkness,” Biden said in his remarks Thursday night. 

Biden has always emphasized character on the campaign trail. His rallying cry is to restore the “soul of the nation.” And voters often cite his affability when explaining why they support him.

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Jill Biden, presidential nominee Joe Biden, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, greet supporters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday.

For the Democratic convention, Biden leaned into that core strength ― and left policy-hungry voters with little to work with. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts discussed Biden’s plan to make child care affordable for all Americans. Ady Barkan, a progressive activist dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, warned ― in a computerized voice that allows him to speak ― that a victory for Trump would jeopardize recent gains in health insurance coverage. 

And Biden himself spoke about his plans to implement an infrastructure program designed to both revive the country’s economy and make America a leader in the burgeoning renewable energy sector. He intends to fund it, he said, by rolling back Trump’s tax cuts for the super-rich and corporations.

But for every discussion of the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform, gun control and climate action, there were several more discussing how empathetic Biden is as a human, how faith and the loss of loved ones have shaped his life and informed his bipartisan legislative style.

“In Joe Biden, you have a human being who is empathetic, who is honest, who is decent,” Sanders said in a discussion with six of his rival candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. “And at this particular moment in American history, my God, that is something that this country absolutely needs.”

One area in which Biden was willing to provide more details about his policy agenda was in his enumeration of how he planned to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. He outlined a vision for implementing rapid and reliable virus testing, producing essential medical supplies in the United States, ensuring a reopening of schools that doesn’t jeopardize public health, and mandating that all Americans wear masks. 

Our current president has failed  ― in his most basic duty to the nation. He’s failed to protect us.Joe Biden

“Our current president has failed  ― in his most basic duty to the nation. He’s failed to protect us,” Biden said. “He’s failed to protect America. And my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable.  

“As president I’ll make you a promise: I’ll protect America. I’ll defend us from every attack ― seen and unseen, always, without exception, every time.”

The tone of the convention was different from the party’s most recent confabs. In 2008, then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama was the country’s first Black presidential nominee ― and the convention reflected that milestone. It also had the optimistic tone of a country mired in economic chaos trying to turn the page on the George W. Bush presidency. “Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another journey that will bring a new and better day to America,” Obama declared.

Again, in 2016, the convention marked another first, as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to accept the presidential nomination of one of the two major political parties. The convention had an air of inevitability as well, with Clinton riding high in the polls and conventional wisdom developing that a man as buffoonish as Trump could not lose to Clinton. Obama told convention-goers that “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”

The formal anointment of the Biden-Harris ticket, by contrast, was at once more urgent than its recent predecessors and less ambitious in scope.

Biden and his varied validators cast him as a man capable of restoring the dignity of the presidency and giving direction to a rudderless country cowed by a COVID-19 pandemic that has made the United States an international embarrassment.  

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks outside a manufacturing plant in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, on Thursday. Joe Biden sees Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as a key weakness.

Biden even recapitulated his reaction to Trump’s remarks after the violent neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The president, Biden recalled with disdain, had said of the white supremacists squaring off with liberal counterprotesters that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“That was a wake-up call for us as a country and for me, a call to action,” Biden said. “At that moment, I knew I’d have to run. Because my father taught us that silence is complicity.”

Biden didn’t mention Trump by name. But his message was easily inferred: Trump is not decent. 

In fact, the entire convention was built as a repudiation of Trump’s vision for America. While Trump has sought to close America’s borders, the convention celebrated the voices of immigrants, especially Harris’s parents: Her father was born in Jamaica, her mother in India.

While Trump has demeaned people from marginalized groups, Democrats gave them voice with segments elevating undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence and civil rights heroes.

While Trump has cast the protests against police brutality and racism that have swept the nation since late May as the provocations of dangerous radicals, convention speakers in Milwaukee spoke of the opportunity that this moment presents to heal the country’s festering wound of racial inequity.

“History has thrust one more urgent task on us: Will we be the generation that finally wipes the stain of racism from our national character?” Biden said. “I believe we’re up to it. I believe we’re ready.”

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