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Trump and Biden agree on one thing: This election is about the person more than the policy

President Trump speaks on stage at the Republican National Committee convention site in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

For all their differences, Donald Trump and Joe Biden share a similar view of the 2020 election: It’s more a choice between two men than between competing agendas.

“Character is on the ballot,” Biden says often. His acceptance speech last week focused far more on the kind of person he is than on what he would do as president. At the Democratic convention, the portrait of Biden as a kind, empathetic family man was a studied contrast to the thrice-married, bombastic reality show star who is now president.

At this week’s Republican gathering, Trump’s supporters also framed the election as a test of leadership character.

“We see the choice clearly,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). “Strength or weakness. Energy or confusion. Success or failure.”

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Trump lost no time putting himself front and center, appearing Monday for an early, preliminary acceptance speech after the roll call that officially made him the GOP nominee for a second term.

But as he has done all year, he made little effort to articulate a second-term agenda, instead attacking Biden and rehashing groundless accusations about mail-in voting.

Trump has said so little about his plans for a second term that for the first time since 1856, the GOP decided not to adopt a detailed party platform, instead approving a statement of support for administration policy, whatever it may be.

The result in the coming months could be a presidential campaign unusually devoid of policy contrasts — surprisingly given the huge policy differences between the two parties and voters’ clear hunger for solutions to pressing economic, health and social problems.

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“More than ever before, it is revolving around the character of the two individuals rather than their agendas,” said Peter Wehner, a former advisor to President George W. Bush and a prominent Trump critic.

Some Republicans worry that focus could be disastrous for the GOP and hope this week’s convention will give voters something more substantive to chew on.

“If the presidential election is a personality contest, Joe Biden will win walking away,” said Ken Spain, a former GOP campaign official. “If this is a battle over who has the better economic plan and can deliver on kitchen-table issues, then Trump has a fighting chance.”

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Trump trails Biden in most national and swing-state polls, but those surveys show he still holds a small advantage among voters for his handling of the economy. That creates an opening for Trump, but whether he can exploit it remains unclear.

“The political discourse that is emerging doesn’t match the needs of what Americans want — information about the solutions needed to move this country forward,” GOP pollster David Winston said.

If there is an economic message out of the GOP convention this week, it’s a negative one — opposing the Democrats. Trump began to send that message Monday by portraying Biden as the purveyor of a radical, left-wing agenda.

“Our country will never be a socialist country,” he said.

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Just as Democrats put heavy emphasis on inspiring fear of giving Trump another term, Republicans portrayed a Democratic takeover in dire terms.

“Make no mistake: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “A fundamentally different America.”

During the Democratic convention, the party did draft and adopt a platform that had been worked out during extensive negotiations between the party’s moderate and progressive factions.

But during the four-day nationally televised proceedings, the details of those plans got relatively little attention. Biden’s acceptance speech discussed his plans to contain the spread of COVID-19, combat climate change and fight racism, but only in broad terms.

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There were political benefits to downplaying the particulars of the platform — some of the planks may be too liberal for swing voters Democrats hope to appeal to, others may not be liberal enough for the progressives Biden needs to motivate.

By contrast, there were no dissenting Democratic views about Biden’s character, as speaker after speaker told stories of his kind gestures and perseverance in the face of family tragedies.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the GOP, poked fun at that, saying, “Their argument for Joe Biden boiled down to the fact that they think he’s a nice guy.”

Monday’s GOP program did take a stab at humanizing Trump, through testimonials from people who had been helped by his policies or personal efforts. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) told of how attentive Trump was while he was recovering from a gunshot wound in 2017. Videos showed Trump interacting with healthcare and postal workers and with former hostages whose releases were secured by his administration.

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Still, it would be hard to close the empathy gap with Biden. Even one of Trump’s top GOP allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), once said of Biden: “He’s the nicest person I think I’ve ever met in politics.”

Now, Graham says he is not looking for a nice guy to be president; he thinks Trump’s “bull in a china shop” style may be just what the country needs.

The 2020 election, like most involving a president seeking a second term, inevitably is a referendum on the incumbent, both a report card on what he has accomplished and a mandate for what is to come next. Typically, however, that referendum turns in large part on the incumbent’s plans for the future.

“You need a second-term agenda,” said Jim Messina, manager of President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. “Swing voters want to know where you will take the country, especially — like Obama and Trump — when the existing economic conditions are problematic.”

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In advance of this week’s convention, Trump stumbled over multiple requests — by Sean Hannity and other sympathetic interviewers at Fox — to articulate why he wants a second term.

The resolution the party passed last weekend in lieu of a platform said, “The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden administration.”

That shortcut was derided by never-Trump Republican Bill Kristol on Twitter: “It’s no longer the Republican party. It’s a Trump cult.”

A big part of Trump’s opening message to his party Monday was a litany of his 2016 campaign promises — including a video devoted entirely to “promises made, promises kept” on issues including job creation and helping veterans. But those were promises made under dramatically different circumstances. A reelection campaign built around “more of the same” is risky when the status quo is a stubborn and profound economic downturn and a global health emergency.

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“In 2016, Trump actually was the person of the moment and delivered: He promised to shake things up and absolutely he shook things up,” said John Del Cecato, a former Obama advisor.

“The difference in 2020 is: This is not simply a referendum on what you promised in 2016; it’s about how the world changed and whether you are equipped to handle that change.”


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