WASHINGTON — If the first night of the Democratic National Convention was any indication, Joe Biden plans to stick to the safest route possible in the final months of his campaign to defeat President Donald Trump.
That means Trump up front, policy in the back.
Biden’s ideal coalition includes the Democratic base, swing voters and some longtime Republicans turned off by Trump’s manner. When Biden and his surrogates talk about their disdain for Trump, that coalition unites; when they talk about a progressive policy platform, it is more likely to fracture.
At times, viewers who tuned in to the two-hour opening session could have been forgiven for thinking they had stumbled onto a C-SPAN replay of an old Republican convention: After a prayer and the national anthem came endorsement speeches from 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich and 1996 Republican convention keynote speaker Susan Molinari.
Along with former first lady Michelle Obama, two-time Democratic runner-up Bernie Sanders, and a procession of prominent politicians and previously lesser-known voters, they portrayed Trump as deficient in competence, character and compassion and Biden as a paragon of these virtues. With their words, the various speakers called Trump divisive and dangerous; by echoing each other’s sentiments, they demonstrated that Biden can appeal across partisan and ideological lines.
“Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy,” Obama said, batting cleanup as the keynote speaker. “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me they can; and they will, if we don’t make a change in this election.”
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Kasich sought to assure Republicans and independents that Biden won’t “turn sharp left” if they help elect him.
Like Biden’s broader campaign, the opening night largely amounted to an argument about the incumbent — that Trump has mishandled his job, and the response to the health and economic crises wrought by the coronavirus in particular, because of fundamental personal flaws that won’t change if he is re-elected. Perhaps the most bruising criticism came not from elected officials but from someone Trump can’t attack as partisan — or at all — without significant political risk.
Kristin Urquiza said her father went to a karaoke bar with friends in Arizona in May after stay-at-home rules were lifted.
“He had faith in Donald Trump. He voted for him, listened to him, believed him and his mouthpieces when they said that coronavirus was under control and going to disappear; that it was OK to end social distancing rules before it was safe,” she said. “[H]e died alone in the ICU with a nurse holding his hand. My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”
What few spoke of in any way — save Sanders — was Biden’s agenda.
Trump Republicans hoping to turn Biden into a champion of a socialist dystopia were left without new video clips, as his campaign’s press secretary, Hogan Gidley, noted in a statement.
“Democrats can try to conceal the dangerous truth with a Hollywood-produced infomercial, but they can’t hide the fact that the radical socialist leftist takeover of Joe Biden is complete,” Gidley said.
Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, praised Biden for supporting a $15-an-hour minimum wage, pro-unionization efforts, infrastructure spending and efforts to combat climate change.
But, like Kasich, he made a point of noting that he is backing Biden despite stark differences in certain policy areas. That’s exactly the kind of message Biden wanted to send: Sanders and Kasich, who could hardly have been more ideologically different when they served together in the House, disagree with each other and with Biden on the details but they both think he’s the right person to run the country.
Trump brought the unlikely pair together.
“Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country,” Sanders said. “As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.”
Biden’s bet is that most voters will view Trump the same way as Sanders and Kasich do: so menacing that it’s worth giving ground on ideals and working with adversaries to get rid of him.