By almost all accounts, Joe Biden’s convention acceptance speech exceeded expectations. I spoke with columnist Jonathan Chait and correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about why his performance worked and how it will affect the race going forward.
Ben: Well, that was something. After a pretty boilerplate first few minutes of his keynote convention address, Joe Biden delivered what grew into a stirring call to action, defense of Democratic values, and rebuke of Trump in utterly coherent and cogent fashion. The reaction from most of our co-workers and online observers was one of almost universal approval, with many saying this was the best speech he’s ever given. Do you agree with that assessment? Granted, I know you haven’t witnessed all of Biden’s public speaking engagements over the last 50 or so years …
Jon: He was better at Larchwood in ’77. No, everybody thinks it was the best Biden speech ever — I certainly can’t remember a better one.
Gabriel: The energy I’m detecting from Dems, especially those in Obama’s orbits right now, is very “right after the Biden-Ryan debate in 2012.” Which is to say, very, very celebratory.
Ben: Why do you think the speech worked particularly well?
Jon: Well, he mixed in more specific policy content than he has in most speeches, not just relying on the “soul of America” stuff. His delivery seemed very strong. He has struggled before — he has trouble conveying passion without shouting, and then overcorrects by whispering. He seemed to find that balance this time.
Gabriel: I agree, Jon. As far as specifics go, I especially think his foregrounding of the modern civil-rights movement and the climate crisis were especially effective. But the reason this speech was a success overall wasn’t because of any one policy point he hit, or even that he was able to deliver it convincingly. It was more about the sweep of his message, I think, which was clear and obviously picked up where Obama left off last night.
Ben: How much of its effectiveness also stems from the fact that nobody was really expecting such a barnburner? Biden is not known as a particularly great speech deliverer, and it seemed likely that Michelle and Barack Obama’s addresses would be the ones to remember from this convention. But he may have eclipsed them.
Gabriel: Sure, that was definitely part of it. It’s not just the Trump team’s insistence that Biden can’t string a sentence together. He clearly has not been an extremely compelling speech-giver or even debater during this campaign. But in the past he has been pretty good, and here he showed a set of skills he hasn’t rolled out in at least a few years. I still think the Obamas’ speeches, and Bernie Sanders’s, will be remembered. But Biden absolutely did beat the expectations, which were essentially just “He’ll be fine.”
Jon: Clearly he’s no Obama. But the Trump expectations strategy is looking ridiculous. Like Trump has been told that every time he mentions Biden saying something he has to point out Biden had no idea what he was even saying. It’s silly.
Ben: One has to wonder what the Trump messaging has to pivot to now. They’ve made the mistake of lowering the bar, which Biden has already exceeded. Are they going to suddenly claim that he’s an undisputed master of rhetoric now?
Jon: It’s weird that the general strategy politicians follow is to promise their supporters they’re going to kick ass in the debate, like a teenager saying he’s going to kick your ass in the parking lot after school, until about a week before, when they suddenly switch 180 degrees and start insisting “actually he is going to kick my ass.”
Gabriel: I mean, they’ve changed their messaging on him every like 12 hours. So maybe? But Trump usually doesn’t let evidence get in the way of his branding.
Jon: Why doesn’t anybody play the low-expectations game from the beginning? I’ve never understood.
Gabriel: If you can find me any evidence that the “expectations game” matters in a tangible way except to make political reporters seem “savvy” on Twitter — especially when it comes to someone like Trump, who is so well known and who is always going to say his opponent is destroying humanity and hates puppies, well, I’d like to see it.
Scratch that, Trump probably actually doesn’t like puppies, since he always compares people he doesn’t like to dogs.
Jon: I guess Bush-Gore 2000 is an example when the press bought one candidate’s expectations and produced coverage that favored him on that basis. People thought Gore won, but the press coverage of the debate swung the polls toward Bush.
Gabriel: Sure, though I’d argue the media environment now is VERY different.
That’s almost Trump conceding the speech was good.
Gabriel: The Trump tweet is interesting, because it gets to one of his major messaging issues. The “Biden never did anything” line is hard to square with the “Biden is a secret radical” line, which itself is hard to square with the “THIS is Biden’s America” line they’ve been using, pointing at Minneapolis and Portland. That incoherence, I think, is more of a problem for Trump than his inability to convincingly make the case that Biden is senile. (The biggest, though not the only, problem with that third message, obviously, is that … it’s literally Trump’s America.)
Ben: Looking at the convention as a whole, capped off by the Biden speech that hit its marks — did Democrats match, fall short, or exceed what you thought was possible given the pandemic restraints?
Jon: It’s far too soon to know if the convention worked — but the ending, which got universally strong reviews, will probably lead to a few days of positive media coverage.
Gabriel: Agreed, and none of us knew what to expect, right? But what we got was a series of very memorable speeches — Biden, the Obamas, Bernie — and some interesting moments that highlighted the Democratic Party’s diversity and varied voices in occasionally very effective, and affecting, ways. I have no idea if we’re going to see a traditional “convention bounce” out of this, but it’ll be a lot easier to judge after the Republican convention next week.
Jonathan: Going into this, there was certainly much more downside risk than normal. It could have been awful. I think we’ll have a better gauge when we see how Republicans use the format. A week from now, we might see the DNC as primitive or as a clever workaround in comparison to a disastrous RNC.
Gabriel: One big downside was the limited speaking time, so some groups within the party will likely feel aggrieved about not getting enough minutes in the spotlight. And that will, often, be fair. (Progressives, in particular, were upset, and an in-person convention would’ve also highlighted more local and state-level candidates, not to mention union leaders.) But that also kept everything crisp and on-message, and complaints about speaking time are obviously secondary to the content, which was mostly unobjectionable across the party. Reports suggest that Trump was watching closely for clues on how his convention should look. So … we’ll see.