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Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Biden delivers

2020 isn’t 2016 and Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton

In January, when I followed the Democratic hopefuls on the campaign trail in Iowa for The Critic, I described Joe Biden as a “walking reset button” pitching himself as the “we’re better than this candidate” candidate. Watching him accept his party’s presidential nomination last night, it was remarkable how little has changed.

When he launched his presidential bid last year, Biden described the 2020 election as a “battle for the soul of America”. Yesterday, speaking from his home state of Delaware on the final night of the Democratic Party’s four-day virtual convention, the theme was the same. “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness,” he said.

Since day one, the great strength of Biden’s candidacy has been the precision with which he has read the public mood, identifying that the best chance of Democratic success was with a campaign focussed on Donald Trump’s shortcomings as a man and as a president, and not with the kind of economic and political revolution promised by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This year’s turbulence — the coronavirus, the accompanying economic slowdown and the reckoning over racial diversity — has only underscored President Trump’s failings and fortified Biden’s central argument.

However, the most important thing about Biden’s speech wasn’t what he said, but how he said it. The Democratic nominee’s biggest weaknesses are his age and unfortunate record of rhetorical clumsiness. The Trump campaign is desperate for the caricature of a doddering grandfather to stick in the public imagination. There should be higher hurdles for presidential candidates to clear than demonstrating they are compos mentis, but we are where we are, and last night Biden was lucid and energetic. Even the Fox News anchors had to hand it to him.

It is easy to see past the electoral potency of Biden’s unexciting centrism. But a reminder of the alternative — and what many assume to be the future — came in short remarks by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Wednesday.

She expressed her “fidelity and gratitude to a mass people’s movement… striving to recognise and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonisation, misogyny, and homophobia, and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.”

In its focus, its jargon — “to propose and build reimagined systems” — and its view of America’s past, the short speech from the freshman congresswoman from New York (the only freshman congressperson given a primetime standalone slot) left me wondering if the long-term prospects of the left-wing of the party aren’t wildly overstated.

Though the two wings of the Democratic Party are united in their commitment to defeating Trump in November, their diagnoses of the Trump problem could hardly be more different. For progressives, Trump is the apotheosis of what they see as America’s various structural sins: the logical end point of an individualistic, racist society. To moderates like Biden, he is the opposite: an aberration who contravenes everything America stands for.

In the most rhetorically impressive performance of the week, Barack Obama — still the party’s most effective communicator — placed himself in the second camp, delivering an old-fashioned liberal argument for the United States’s ability to live up to its founding values.

These internal divides are philosophical, but they also happen to separate those who know how to win national elections from those who don’t. Biden’s primetime speech was preceded by pre-recorded packages on faith and military families — not things the left would have lingered on.

As Dalibor Rohac and Jan Zilinsky argued for The Critic this week, Donald Trump hasn’t changed as much as you might think about US politics. It’s worth remembering that, as Dalibor and Jan point out, Trump was perceived by voters as more moderate than Romney, McCain or Bush Jr. For all the talk of “energised” bases, presidential elections are still won in the centre. This is something that Obama, Biden and the many Obama campaign alumni staffing Biden’s campaign appear to understand. 

With a large lead in the polls, a party united around the short-term goal of defeating Donald Trump, and, in Kamala Harris, a running mate who has injected some vigour and youth into proceedings, Biden’s campaign is in rude health. Perhaps most importantly, he has so far convincingly countered the central attack of the Trump campaign that he is a senile pawn of the radical left. If you squint, you can identify weaknesses and many remain traumatised by misplaced Democratic confidence four years ago But, as this week’s convention made clear, Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton and 2016 feels a long way away from 2020.

***

The biggest non-DNC news of the week was the arrest of former Trump campaign chief and Rasputin of the populist right Steve Bannon on charges of fraud. Bannon is accused of funnelling funds from We Build The Wall, a crowdfunded initiative that raised $25 million to build stretches of wall on private land along the US-Mexico border.

I visited one of the walls the organistion did build, in Sunland Park, New Mexico, for The Critic in December. (You can read the story here; though I’m sorry to say that the fraud alleged by New York prosecutors this week alluded my investigative skills.)

When I spoke to We Build The Wall founder Brian Kolfage, he told me they would “keep building until the money runs out”. Now, he too faces charges of fraud having allegedly received funds that he spent on home renovations, cosmetic surgery, jewellery and a fishing boat called “Warfighter”.

Ominously for Bannon, Kolfage and co, Trump expressed very little sympathy with the defendants when asked about the case in the Oval Office. “I haven’t been dealing with [Bannon] for a very long time.. I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons… It was something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.”

It is a far cry from the enthusiastic support offered to We Build The Wall by Don Jr last year. The president’s son described the project as “private enterprise at its finest. Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else. What you guys are doing is amazing.”

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