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Joe Biden Has Found His Big Idea

It’s not just about defeating Donald Trump, but providing an off-ramp from this all-consuming political moment.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Not that long ago, Democrats spoke of ideas. The 2020 presidential primary was rooted in policy: universal health care, the Green New Deal, immigration reform. It also bravely faced what it meant to be “political.” Over the course of more than a year, dozens of presidential candidates acted out what was, in essence, an existential crisis, not just over how best to beat Donald Trump but over what, exactly, the Democratic Party is meant to represent.

Joe Biden was, for quite a long portion of that seemingly endless contest, oddly out to sea. He’d reliably end up on the center of the debate stage, but his presence was almost airy. A back-slapping transactional type behind the scenes, Biden is a feelings-first retail politician, hardly a wonk. While nearly every candidate had a signature idea—Medicare for All (Bernie Sanders), universal basic income (Andrew Yang), the very concept of ideas (Elizabeth Warren), good vibes (Marianne Williamson)—Biden had, well, not much more than moxie and a bumper sticker’s love for the Spirit of America. He often seemed to not know much about the policies he was promoting. For most of 2019 and some of 2020, Biden’s main purpose seemed to be a friendly reminder of what America was like before the 2016 election: an archeological relic, anchoring us to a memory of the Before Times.

It made sense for Biden as a candidate to mine a vein of nostalgia for his electoral ambition. The Obama years, those good old days of recent past, were at least a more humane era. But Joe couldn’t quite shake that golden oldie vibe, the notion that he was also a living, breathing reminder of missteps and policy failures dotting the landscape sowed by four decades of Democrats—mass incarceration, student loans, banking, Anita Hill, Iraq. His first major interaction with the woman who is now his running mate opened up ancient grudges over school segregation. These were unhealthy reminders.

And yet thanks to Jim Clyburn—with an assist from the rest of the Democratic field, save Bernie Sanders—it didn’t matter. Biden essentially ended the contest in South Carolina with the smooth stage-managed coronation that ensued; a pandemic that blew in from distant shores only added further incentives for Democratic voters to end the grand esoteric argument of the party’s future. Now, Biden has a sizable lead in nearly every reputable poll. It’s enough to make you wonder what all the arguing was even for.

But the question of what a President Joe Biden would stand for, let alone a Democratic Party led by him, has remained unanswered by this convention. Over four days, Democrats did everything they could to avoid political questions. While the president was indicted, constantly and lustily and with increasing pointedness over the past few days, the convention strained itself to avoid making similar indictments of a radical Republican Party that built a home for Trump and which will welcome Trumpian extremists into its midst for the foreseeable future.

It was as if everyone was forbidden to mention the existence of this second political party. As former political reporter Meredith Shiner pointed out on Twitter, the convention offered Sara Gideon—the Democrats’ hope for defeating Susan Collins for the Maine Senate seat—time to introduce a musical act but not to say “Susan Collins” or “Brett Kavanaugh” or “Mitch McConnell.” If the total omission of the central battle of ideas between a Democratic Party and a Republican Party wasn’t conspicuous to viewers, it will become more so next week when the Republican Party is likely to pull out all the stops depicting Democrats, writ large, as socialist extremists.

The void in the center of the convention was primarily filled by a constant reminder that Joe Biden wasn’t merely not Donald Trump; he is the anti-Trump–man of deep feeling, an empathetic listener who feels the pain of anyone who strays within fifty feet of him. But along with it, a signature idea has emerged. It’s not exactly a chicken in every pot or healthcare for every family, though Biden would love to see you obtain those things. Rather, Biden is promising to not merely dispatch Donald Trump to the dustbin of history but to provide all of America with an off-ramp from this all-consuming political moment. Biden’s promise goes well beyond the notion of having a competent leader at America’s tiller or a prevailing wind of sanity and humanity blowing o’er the land. The promise of Biden is that after four years of white-knuckling it on a daily basis, we will be able to let go of politics, of arguments, of partisanship, and rancor. At last, we shall lay our weary heads down and rest.

This couldn’t help but invite incoherence. Political conventions are typically optimistic affairs, opportunities for candidates to make the case that better days are ahead—as long as they are ultimately elected. But these are not particularly hopeful times: the coronavirus, economic collapse, police brutality, the rise of fascism. Democrats didn’t avoid these issues; in fact, they piled on more. But this left an impossible distance between the state of the world and their ultimate promise of blissful statelessness.

Although there was much hand-wringing about how it would work, the unique aesthetics of the virtual convention actually went a long way in helping to shape this dynamic and smooth over some of the more jarring disconnections and contradictions. The overall feel of the proceedings resembled an odd but strangely pleasant mash-up of an infomercial, the Grammys, AM radio, and a Zoom call with extended family. It was an affably jaunty ride that encapsulated the core themes of Biden’s campaign—so damned normcore that arguing with its wholesomeness seemed petty.

The issues that dominated the Democratic primary during its pre-coronavirus period animated the convention; gun violence, climate change, racial justice, and gender equality were just some of the issues that swam to center stage. But these matters, once live issues argued about during debates, were de-politicized here. With their complicated edges sanded off, the existence of political forces beyond Trump that might take issue with the Democratic position was forgotten entirely, stuffed in the memory hole. Instead of settling the raucous debates about how Joe Biden will solve the problems that were wrestled with during the primary, we were treated to moving videos that pulled at the heartstrings.

This is probably a distillation of how Biden will approach politics in the weeks to come: He’ll rely on his deep reservoir of empathy, assert his “get the job done” reputation, and, as Bill Clinton testified in his convention speech, lead with his feelings—and unlike Trump, offer positive vibes only. As Andrew Yang, temporarily abandoning his beloved math, proclaimed on Thursday night, “The magic of Joe Biden is everything he does becomes the new reasonable.” Biden’s lack of ideological commitment in this telling becomes a kind of superpower; Biden can reap incredible results for America simply by not believing too strongly in anything except the need to remove Donald Trump, the entity that’s forced such strong beliefs upon us.

As I wrote yesterday, the convention imagined the political universe to have one lone flaw in its harmonious design, in the form of Donald Trump. The issues of intransigent Republican legislators and a judiciary fully arranged to uphold conservative rule for a generation were entirely stashed out of sight. In the place of the rude mechanics of democracy, Democrats wrote the story of one man on a hero’s journey to mend the soul of the nation.

“I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness,” Biden said at the start of his convention speech. “Decency, science, democracy—they’re all on the ballot.” Biden made himself out as a protector in chief. “Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He’s failed to protect us…. And my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable.” This is a “life-changing election.”

It is, of course, this. This has been a period of abnormalcy. “This is not normal” has been, perhaps, the defining quote of Trump-era, invoked with each new horror that has emanated from this administration. Biden finally found his big issue: He can make America normal again.

Perhaps the only real political content of the convention—the one thing that couldn’t get magically shuttled from the grimy Now of Trump to the sun-dappled Future of Biden—was the issue of voting itself. The urgency of voting, and the need to overcome the suppressive obstacles in the way of exercising the right to vote, was the only theme of the DNC larger than the testimonials to Biden’s wholesome emotional core. The promise offered by Biden and his fellow Democrats was clear: The possibility of a life untrammeled by politics and its attendant anxieties is within reach if you only vote in November. For four days, it was possible to sustain this magical notion. But this week’s reverie won’t last. Politics will still be around, still grinding its way through our lives tomorrow and the day after the election, no matter how much this convention wanted to pretend otherwise.