Biden’s Speech Played to His Advantage
Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Delaware on Aug. 20, 2020. (Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

Biden’s Speech Played to His Advantage

Are you ready?

That’s what Joe Biden asked at the end of his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, a speech the convention spent the whole week waiting for. He promised competence and empathy, which everyone had earlier praised him for and which he gave as the reason Americans should trust him to deliver.

These convention speeches are normally...well, they’re easy. They almost can’t go wrong. The candidate typically has months to prepare.

He or she has the services of every one of the party’s best wordsmiths. Not to mention the trained professionals who design the platform, the lighting, the sound, signs and banners and whatnot — everything to make it as impressive as possible for the people watching at home. There are four days of build-up to set the themes, and then there’s a bio video, usually with lots of family good humor, always with impressive-seeming highlights of a career, and often with some tragic emotion.

Missing in 2020 was the convention hall, packed with the candidate’s strongest supporters, who have been waiting all week for the big moment, ready to bring the house down even if the candidate trips and drools. Also, there are normally balloons.

I wasn’t sure that Biden’s speech would be so easy. He had most of the normal stuff, but without the thousands of cheering delegates, would it work?

It did.

Most of that was probably just about nomination acceptance speeches being easy. But Biden and the convention certainly did what they could to sell it. The basics were simple: The current president (whom Biden didn’t mention by name) had botched the pandemic, botched the economic response, and botched other things as well. Donald Trump is a target-rich environment for Democrats, and Biden at various points gave a quick tour of some of those weaknesses, whether it was Trump’s recent effort to eliminate funding for Social Security or his habit of praising authoritarian leaders.

But this wasn’t a policy speech, at least not compared with normal Democratic speeches, the pandemic being the exception. There, Biden laid out the case that “it didn’t have to be this bad” and, going into some detail, what he would do about it. He also used the key phrase “economic plan.” Although he discussed it less than most Democratic nominees would probably have done, that portion of the speech was important, especially in contrasting what he would do with what Trump has done.

The case was strong on the merits. It was even stronger for those who had watched the whole convention and were reminded that Biden had been involved in managing public-health crises before and economic recoveries, too.

But the emphasis in the speech, as it had been throughout the convention, was that in a national moment of, as the kids say, all this, he promised to be a president uniquely able to make sense of it for us and help us through to the other side. Biden and his campaign would probably have chosen to center his convention around his compassion regardless of the situation. But given what the nominee called the “four crises” — pandemic, recession, racism and climate — the focus was natural and successful.

It helps, of course, that the former vice president is someone whom everyone believes is capable of handling the office. (As for the ugly Republican claims about his current abilities, if his ability to give a prepared speech can’t dispel such talk, then clips such as the one shown earlier in the evening in which he spontaneously and eloquently answered a town-hall question about his faith, even invoking Kierkegaard somehow, should.) Biden doesn’t have to build up his qualifications, unlike most nominees. It left him, and the convention, more time for other things.

The main function of conventions as advertising is to alert partisans who don’t pay much attention that the election is coming and remind them why they like the party to begin with. It’s also aimed at giving more politically active partisans who perhaps supported another candidate and don’t really like the nominee much something to like.

Neither of these things is that hard to do, since, again, the campaign has months to make the case for the nominee’s positive traits, and most of those voters are inclined to climb on board anyway. It’s hard to be certain, and the low numbers of undecided voters this year suggests there isn’t even much of that persuading to be done. But it sure seems as if the convention and Biden’s speech did what they had to do for those who were looking for reasons to support him.

Oh, and yes — no balloons, but there were fireworks. I guess we’ll find out later when they were planned. About the only thing we know about Trump’s convention next week is that he was planning on having fireworks. I can’t imagine he was very happy to see himself scooped on that one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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