Joe Biden may not be the perfect presidential candidate — there has never been such a person — but even the most carping Democrat would have to concede that his speech in Iowa yesterday, framing the stakes in the next election, was an eloquently impassioned shout-out to a benighted nation in dire need of moral ballast. That speech was arguably the best 20 minutes of the Democratic campaign, and if Biden wins the nomination, it should constitute the core of his convention acceptance speech.
Yes, the policy issues facing America are crucial, even existential — everything from climate change to health care — and they’ll continue to be debated in granular detail by the Democratic contestants. But if Democrats are smart (a big if), they’ll distill the choice in 2020 to its essence, as Biden did yesterday:
“Everyone knows who Donald Trump is. We need to show them who we are. We choose hope over fear. Science over fiction. Unity over division. And, yes — truth over lies.”
How hard should it be for Democrats to carry that message? We’re at a point beyond liberal vs. conservative. In Biden’s words, the next election is about “winning the battle for the soul of this nation,” a choice between Trump and the traditional values of Western democracy.
Buoyed by the latest evidence of Trump’s unpresidential behavior — after calling for “unity” on Monday, Trump predictably attacked Democrats and the news media on Tuesday — Biden minced no words: “Trump offers no moral leadership, seems to have no interest in unifying this nation, no evidence the presidency has awakened his conscience in the least. Indeed we have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism and division.”
Biden deftly documented his allegation: “Days before the midterm (elections), he fomented fears of a ‘caravan’ heading to the United States, creating hysteria, saying, ‘Look at what is marching up, that is an invasion … An invasion’… At a (March) rally in Florida, when he asked a crowd, ‘How do we stop these people?’ meaning immigrants, and someone yelled back, ‘Shoot them,’ he smiled … How far is it from Trump’s saying, ‘This is an invasion,’ to the shooter in El Paso declaring, quote, ‘This attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas’? How far apart are those comments? How far is it from white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville — Trump’s ‘very fine people’ — to the shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh … It’s both clear language and in code, this president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation.”
Unless I’m radically misreading the tea leaves, this seems like a far more important Democratic campaign theme than whatever Biden said or did in the Senate 45 years ago. Indeed, anyone still upset about his 1994 tough-on-crime law — which virtually all congressional Democrats voted for, in that era when the crime rate was higher — should note that the law featured a landmark 10-year ban on assault weapons. That ban was allowed to expire in 2004. Biden now has the moral high ground to again champion what he sponsored.
But he was at his best — talking the way a real president talks — when he spoke about “the American creed,” about what it means to be an American. The contrast with Trump could not have been starker:
“Unlike every other nation on earth, we’re unable to define what constitutes ‘American’ by religion, by ethnicity, or by tribe. America is an idea … It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth … The most powerful idea in the history of the world beats in the hearts of the people of this country. No matter your race, your ethnicity. No matter your gender identity, your sexual orientation. No matter your faith. It beats in the heart of rich and poor alike. It unites America — whether your ancestors were native to these shores or they were brought here forcibly and enslaved, whether they were immigrants generations back, like my family from Ireland, or those coming today looking to build a better life for your family. The American creed — that we are all created equal — was written long ago. But the genius of every generation of Americans has opened it wider and wider and wider, to include those who have been excluded in a previous generation.”
That’s a message with a bipartisan pedigree. What Biden said yesterday virtually echoes Ronald Reagan’s description of America as a shining city on the hill. Reagan called us “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace — a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
That’s what most conservatives and Republicans used to believe, until they lashed themselves to Trump’s mast, living in fear of his ire, selling the nation’s soul to the Russians. Biden may not be the most visionary candidate in the Democratic pack, but if the early polls are correct (he tops Trump nationwide by a solid margin), his message of American restoration might be enough to stop our precipitous plummet. In a national emergency, we need to prioritize. It’s also noteworthy that, in Pennsylvania, a potential Biden stronghold, only 38 percent now say that Trump deserves to be re-elected; 61 percent say, “It is time for a change.”
And while Biden was speaking yesterday, Trump was busy again on Twitter, displaying his version of presidential behavior: “Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy. It will be over for them, not to mention the fact that our Country will do poorly with him. It will be one big crash…”
Wait a second: Our country “will” do poorly with Biden? It “will” be one big crash? Is Trump indeed suggesting, perhaps via Freudian slip, that Biden might beat him? If so, score one small victory for the soul of our nation.