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Biden put ‘character on the ballot’ at the DNC

An illustration of stylized flags
(Los Angeles Times)

In designing the last act of the country’s first virtual political convention, Democratic planners confronted two big problems, one inherent in any challenger’s campaign and the other a product of this year’s specific constraints.

Every challenger needs to find a way to get voters to see him or her as a potential president — to transform in their eyes from just another candidate to the person behind that big desk in the Oval Office. To complicate the task, Joe Biden faced the unique problem of delivering a convention acceptance speech without a live audience, one that would not depend on the energy usually generated by applause lines.

The Biden campaign’s solution: Give the speech the feel and framework of a televised White House address to the nation, a format that for many Americans conveys an almost automatic, subliminal sense of gravity and consequence.

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From the opening moments — Biden striding forward into the light of the podium, echoing the familiar chief executive’s walk down the corridor of the White House and into the East Room — to its closing words a brisk 24½ minutes later, the speech’s context, as much as its text, aimed to convey a single message: This is what a president looks like.

The clear contrast with the incumbent, who has only seldom tried such a speech, and never successfully, went without saying.

Four days, three messages

The convention packed scores of speakers, dozens of videos and a few musical numbers into a bit more than eight hours and did so with considerable discipline. Nearly all speakers conveyed one of three basic themes: The country faces a crisis, Democrats offer a big tent and Joe Biden is a decent man of faith and great empathy who can heal a broken nation.

Of the three, that last received the most attention, and for good reason.

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“The vote for president is the most personal vote people cast, and this convention delivered the message that Joe Biden is a good person,” said veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

Biden underscored that in his speech by declaring, as he often did during the primary campaign, that “character is on the ballot.”

Honing the content down to those three ideas provided a way to cut through the noise and convey a consistent message. That came with a cost, however. The program was relatively light on policy.

The convention put the spotlight on problems that Democrats consider important — systemic racism, climate change, a dysfunctional immigration system, gun violence and, above all, the COVID-19 pandemic. But with a few exceptions, notably progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, few speakers focused on specific solutions.

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That was true of Biden’s speech, as well. The famously loquacious former vice president delivered the shortest acceptance speech since at least 1984 — half the average length of the previous nine nominees’ orations, according to C-SPAN’s archives — and what he mostly left behind, in addition to applause breaks, was the typical laundry list of policy proposals.

In part, that was a way to avoid highlighting splits within his coalition over specific plans. An electoral coalition that stretches from John Kasich through Michael R. Bloomberg to Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to divide quickly when the conversation turns from problems to solutions.

But the focus also reflects a clear strategic decision by Biden and his advisors to fight President Trump on the issue of character — a field where they believe they have an overwhelming advantage.

“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long,” Biden said. “Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division.”

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“I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”

That decision to focus on Trump’s character echoes, to some extent, the strategic choice that Hillary Clinton‘s campaign made four years ago. Then, too, the Democrats focused heavily on Trump’s behavior and personality, believing that voters would find him too repellent to elect.

Clinton’s gamble failed, but Democrats have good reasons to believe a spotlight on Trump can work better this time.

Most importantly, while Clinton could easily persuade voters that Trump had a flawed character, she could never quite make the case that those flaws would matter to Americans’ lives.

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Four years later, Democrats believe the pandemic has given them more than enough evidence — 170,000 lost lives and counting. All week, speakers repeated the message that those deaths “didn’t have to happen.”

“Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to this nation,” Biden said. “He failed to protect us.”

“If he’s given four more years, he will be what he’s been the last four years: a president who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division.”

The president, he said — he never mentioned Trump by name — “will wake up every day believing the job is all about him. Never about you.”

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Moreover, in Clinton’s case, the campaign did succeed in driving down voters’ view of Trump. By the time election day came around in 2016, voters overwhelmingly viewed Trump negatively.

The problem was that voters viewed Clinton negatively as well, and the large number of voters who disliked both candidates decided to go with the outsider, splitting heavily in Trump’s favor.

This time, polls show voters have a significantly more positive view of Biden than they did of Clinton. And the group of voters who see both candidates negatively — a much smaller group than four years ago — leans strongly toward the challenger.

Trump will try to change that: Next week’s Republican convention almost surely will include heavy doses of anti-Biden messages.

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But the Trump campaign already has spent more than $1 billion on his reelection, with a significant chunk going to attacks on Biden. Trump was willing to court impeachment in pursuit of information that he believed could be turned into a weapon against the former vice president. So far, the Republicans don’t have terribly much to show for their money and risk.

The Democrats’ heavy emphasis this week on Biden’s character — from testimonials to his faith to the unforgettable speech by Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old boy whom Biden helped with his stutter — was all designed to counter the coming GOP attack.

And the forceful presentation Biden made with his speech easily rebutted the image that Trump and his allies have tried to sell of Biden as senile — an overdone caricature that was doomed to backfire.

The conventions this week and next probably won’t provide much of a boost to either candidate in the head-to-head standings — Biden’s lead in polls has remained very steady for months — but it wouldn’t be surprising to see voters enter September with a more favorable impression of Biden than they held before the conventions started.

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As Hart said, “conventions do not win elections, but this Democratic convention gave the Democrats an excellent launching pad.”

Convention analysis

My colleague Janet Hook and I teamed up to analyze each night of the convention.

At the outset, I wrote about Democrats’ concern that Biden is “well known, but not known well,” and how the convention aimed to fill in the blanks that voters have about key moments in his life.

Hook examined the contradiction of Democrats’ wanting young voters, but showcasing old faces as the party’s baby boom generation stays in the spotlight.

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With a noticeable presence of Republicans, and few speakers from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, the convention leaned heavily to the center, but drew only muted outcry from the left because of the priority all factions are putting on defeating Trump.

Democrats remain anxious, despite Biden’s lead in polls, but his speech was designed, in part, to counter that anxiety by putting forward a hopeful message about the country’s future.

Miss a key moment?

Odds are, if you’re a reader of this newsletter, you watched significant parts of the convention. But not a lot of people watched the whole thing.

Here’s a collection of our full coverage of the convention.

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Was there a speaker you missed whom you’re curious about? We’ve probably got you covered. Here are some of the individual speeches that my colleagues wrote about:

  • Jill Biden, who likened the nation under Trump to a broken family.
  • Jacquelyn Brittany, a security guard at the New York Times building who spoke of her brief, but meaningful, encounter with Biden.
  • Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, familiar convention speakers who this time appeared in the roles of elder statesmen.
  • Hillary Clinton, who warned voters about complacency.
  • Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a key Biden ally.
  • Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, who attacked Trump for his coronavirus failures.
  • Kasich, the former governor of Ohio and a major Republican endorser.
  • Steph and Ayesha Curry, the Golden State Warriors star and his wife, a chef and author, who appeared in a video with their two children endorsing Biden.
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost her legs on a mission in Iraq, labeled Trump the “coward-in-chief.”
  • Former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who highlighted gun violence, as well as Biden’s empathy.
  • Cindy McCain, who spoke in a video about Biden’s friendship with her late husband, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
  • Michelle Obama, the former first lady, whose speech Monday night was one of the convention’s strongest.
  • President Obama, who denounced Trump in scathing terms.
  • Ocasio-Cortez, who spoke on behalf of Sanders, but has emphasized her endorsement of Biden.
  • House Sperker Nancy Pelosi, who rebuked Trump for disrespect to women.
  • Colin Powell, the former general and secretary of State, who headed a parade of Republican former national security officials endorsing Biden.
  • California billionaire Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor in 2010.
  • Sally Yates, the former acting U.S. attorney general, who accused Trump of “trampling the rule of law.”

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The policy choice

Trump and Biden disagree on pretty much any policy area one can think of. There’s seldom been a presidential election with such a stark set of choices. Is there a policy subject you’re particularly curious about? Check out our comprehensive look at where the two candidates stand on immigration, healthcare, climate change and more.

Another Trump associate indicted

Stephen K. Bannon, one of the architects of Trump’s victory and a former top White House official, was charged with fraud by federal prosecutors. The charges stem from his involvement with a group called We Build the Wall that raised about $25 million, ostensibly to help build the border wall that Trump has long promised.

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As Eli Stokols wrote, however, the federal indictment charges that Bannon and three associates diverted millions of dollars from the fundraising, including hundreds of thousands that Bannon allegedly used to cover personal expenses. Federal postal agents arrested him on a yacht anchored off the Connecticut shore,sd and he was arraigned on Thursday. He has pleaded not guilty.

Los Angeles congressman seeks leadership post

Rep. Tony Cardenas, who represents much of the San Fernando Valley, plans to run for the No. 4 position in the House leadership, seeking to replace Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the only Latino currently in leadership, who is running for Senate from New Mexico.

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