Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the Democratic convention and the nomination of Joe Biden.
The Democrats staged their convention this week, officially nominating Joe Biden for president. Other than demonstrating a shared opposition to Donald Trump, what did it accomplish for the party?
It wouldn’t matter what else the convention accomplished if it didn’t accomplish one big thing: a performance by its 77-year-old nominee confirming that he was a plausible chief executive of the United States. No matter the highs and lows along the way, the four days were, for me, a nail-biter until the final half-hour. At which point Joe Biden walked to the podium and gave what is surely the speech of his very long career.
The speech landed not because it offered soaring “presidential” rhetoric or said anything new but because it seemed written in the direct, sometimes corny, down-to-earth voice of the guy who delivered it. There was policy in it, but never in the form of a party platform’s bullet points. The substance was always knit into either Biden’s personal history or his overall themes of compassion, character, and resilience. It was a nice passive-aggressive touch to refuse to mention the narcissistic Trump by name while lambasting all his failures. And it was smart to focus most on Trump’s calamitous, ongoing mismanagement (or perhaps one should say non-management) of the pandemic, a calamity that stalks every American. Even a Democratic nominee’s obligatory salute to the governmental activism of FDR during an epic national crisis was linked to the specifics of our moment when, with a slight catch in his voice along the way, Biden noted that Roosevelt was “stricken by a disease, stricken by a virus.”
And his delivery? Crisp, energetic, and sober, paternal without being paternalistic. The speech benefited greatly from the lack of crowd-pleasing applause lines — indeed from the lack of a cheering partisan crowd and those network-television cutaway shots to the delegates in over-the-top political apparel whooping it up on an arena’s floor. The mood that prevailed instead was that of the serious business at hand for the country, accentuated further by the dark backdrop of the deep stage, against which, as the text’s oratorical trope would have it, Biden stood front and center as a figure of light and hope.
Trump’s first attack tweet of Biden afterward made no mention of “Sleepy Joe.” The president had to look only as far as Fox News to hear, as Chris Wallace put it, that the speech had been “enormously effective” in blowing “a hole — a big hole” in Trump’s monthslong campaign to brand his opponent as a “mentally shot” shut-in kidnapped by the “radical left.” The Democrats’ strategy to dole out Biden’s public appearances sparingly since his primary victory turned out to be brilliant. By the time the convention arrived, Trump, as well as his political and media allies, had persuaded themselves that “hidin’ Biden” would be exposed and humiliated before a national audience on his big night like Professor Marvel at the end of The Wizard of Oz. Instead Trump and his troops were ambushed like General Custer at Little Big Horn.
Anything else the convention accomplished or failed to accomplish is secondary to that denouement. But that reality shouldn’t diminish Barack Obama’s moving and at times anguished speech — arguably the best of his career too — which fiercely laid out the high stakes that Biden would address the following night. Kamala Harris had the unenviable assignment of following Obama, but made it work by taking an almost joyous tone to her biography and tart political agenda. For me, her speech was crystallized by almost a throwaway line — “Let’s fight with confidence” — because her own confidence is potentially contagious.
My guess is that the only Trump supporters watching the Democrats were hate-watching. Nothing that happened this week, or any week, can sway them. Perhaps some of that small pool of undecided voters will have a Eureka moment after sampling some of the convention, but who knows. Perhaps, too, the Democratic base, especially Black voters, will be more energized to turn out than it was in 2016, but the election is more than two months away and other convention high points, including the rousing speeches of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, could fade in the tumultuous weeks to come. Though the Democratic Party is far from united, the convention, typified by Bernie Sanders’s magnanimity, did suggest that the temporary truce between the Biden old guard and the rising generation of progressives will hold until November. The proxy debate over whether the Republican apostate John Kasich should have received a speaking spot or not, a pale semblance of the usual Democratic convention-floor ideological brawls, was as quickly forgotten as Kasich himself.
Meanwhile, the onus is on Trump and his party to recover from Biden’s coup and their own depressed poll numbers. As one who was anticipating some outrageous, potentially game-changing stunt from Trump to throw the Democrats off-balance this week, I was heartened to see that he never got his act together. If the best “surprise” he could mount was a bogus “pardon” to Susan B. Anthony, he’s losing his touch.
There was Trump counterprogramming to the convention all right, but he was not the programmer. What filled the vacuum was a Godfather-worthy montage further dramatizing the scale of his mob operation: the bipartisan Senate report finding that his campaign manager Paul Manafort was an asset for Russian intelligence; a judge once again throwing out Trump’s bid to shield his tax returns from a New York criminal investigation; the arrest of Steve Bannon for allegedly pilfering more than $1 million from Trump zealots who decided to chip in for the border wall when Mexico failed to do so; and the apparent assassination attempt conducted by Trump’s honorary 2016 and 2020 campaign chair, Vladimir Putin, against the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
Now we have the GOP convention to look forward to! Aside from the unethical confiscation of the White House lawn for a setting, few plans have been made public. Trump has made noises that he disapproves of the virtual presentations that dominated the Democrats’ show, but even if he liked them, it’s hard to picture him having the discipline required to plan and execute them. He can’t read from a teleprompter in any case. A presidency defined by chaos all but guarantees a chaotic improv convention. Today Trump is no doubt ripping up whatever plans the RNC did have.
One thing is certain: Hope will not be on this convention’s agenda. Having lost the crutch of “Sleepy Joe,” Trump and his party are likely to go full white supremacist. One of the few announced bookings — an appearance by the St. Louis couple who confronted peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters with guns — is an apt preview of coming attractions. In an appearance outside Biden’s hometown of Scranton this week, Trump warned ominously that “mayhem” is “coming to your town and every single town in America.” His definition of “mayhem” of course is Black people — Black people marching or kneeling for their rights, Black people moving next door to “suburban housewives,” a Black woman running for vice-president, Black people going to the polls. The next week is going to be grotesque, but at this late date it’s the last election strategy Trump has left before his final gambit of thwarting, stealing, or nullifying the election itself.