(Bloomberg Opinion) — Forget the Democratic platform. In his acceptance speech at the virtual Democratic convention, Joe Biden made it clear what he is really running on: not being Donald Trump.
Just how to run against President Trump was one of the debates in the background, and sometimes the foreground, of the Democratic primaries this year. If Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who got the most votes in the first three contests, had won the nomination, he would have made his revolutionary policy agenda the center of the campaign.
Not Biden. He has a policy agenda, but what motivates him — and what he thinks will win the contest in November — is character. There are those on the Left who see Trump as the inevitable result of the pathologies of American conservatism and the Republican party. In his speech, Biden presented Trump’s personality as the core of what’s wrong with his administration.
Biden is, as he said, a proud Democrat. His positions are squarely in the mainstream of his party, and have moved leftward as it has. When he said that he would govern for the whole country, not just his party, he was drawing a contrast with the incumbent. (“While I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president.”) But he was also making a strategic choice to base his campaign on a critique of Trump rather than a critique of the Republican party. (Many Republican strategists want to do the reverse: make their campaign about a left-wing Democratic party as much as, or more than, about Biden.)
For much of the primary season, online progressives derided Biden as yesterday’s man. His pride in a career of making deals was worthless nostalgia in a polarized era, his stated desire to transcend partisanship naive. But it turned out that Democratic voters, who lapped up a similar message from Barack Obama, didn’t disdain that sentiment — just as it turned out that Democratic voters weren’t all sold on abolishing private health insurance.
Having beaten the Left, Biden now feels free to run a campaign that is true to what he believes. A policy-heavy acceptance speech wouldn’t have sounded like him. The one he gave instead dwelt on the characterological themes he favors – and especially on empathy. It’s historically a Democratic advantage and one of Biden’s own strong points. Trump, by contrast, has not managed to express sympathy on any consistent basis for those grieving over losing loved ones to Covid-19.
Even when Biden raised policy issues in his speech, he generally did it to illustrate his values rather than to promise accomplishments. He didn’t talk about taxes in the context of an economic strategy. He talked about them morally: He wants to side with “work” rather than “wealth.” He wants to “build back better,” a slogan that is closer to a return to normalcy than to a revolution.
If his discussion of public policy was vague, it wasn’t an accident. To be a successful president in the way that Biden presented himself in his speech, he doesn’t have to create a new public option for health insurance — part of his platform that went conspicuously unmentioned. All he has to do is not threaten to destroy protections for people with pre-existing conditions, not create rifts in our alliances, not “fan the flames of hate and division,” not make everything about himself.
All he has to do, in other words, is not be Donald Trump.
Progressives want a lot more than that from a Biden presidency, and will get a lot of what they want if he wins. But for now that minimal promise appears to be working.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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