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DNC Night 4: Biden Veers Toward The Center, Calming Dems With A Strong Finish To A Mismanaged Convention

Joe Biden in Clear Lake, Iowa in August 2019. Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

Vice President Joe Biden wrapped up the Democratic Convention Thursday night, putting an authentic and well-received closing argument at the end of an otherwise halting, depressing and frankly alien four-day rally, and previewing what may be the campaign’s calculation that a Kamala Harris VP provides left-wing cover for a rapid return to messaging from the Democratic Party’s political center.

Biden used the 25-minute speech, delivered from an empty convention center in Wilmington, Delaware, to contrast President Donald Trump’s “darkness” with his own “light,” and continued to stress the moderate credentials that have been a major theme of the Democratic National Convention. His words gently repudiated the more radical shifts of the Democratic Party, including anthem protests, demonizing white people, and The New York Times’ anti-American “1619 Project.”

Americans, Biden said, must, “Live up to the promise of our sacred founding documents that promise our rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The highly contentious “Black Lives Matter” group powerful Democrats have literally bowed to went unmentioned, replaced instead with the late Rep. John Lewis’s call for America to “lay down the heavy burden of hate.” A mere moment later, however, Biden paid homage to “systemic racism” — the concept that America is a racist country that’s very systems conspire to subjugate minorities.

“No miracle is coming,” he angrily charged, blaming the president for the Chinese coronavirus and later adding, again with anger, that “the president still does not have a plan, but I do.” His plan, he said, is to make and distribute tests (as the president has done), “to take the muzzle off our experts” (who have dominated the White House press conferences for months while liberal tech companies censor and punish expert dissent), and to “have a national mandate to wear masks,” describing it as “a patriotic duty.”

Free the experts already running the country and mask the people is a very strange message, but played to the entire four days of coronavirus cowering. While public gatherings are allowed in every state of the union, many restaurants and bars are open, people are returning to work, politicians have locked arms with protesters, and riots have raged in the streets, the Democratic Convention paid high homage to the insistence that gathering in America is a deadly exercise.

Despite the existence of rapid-result tests, as used by the White House Press Corps — and by wealthy Hollywood Democrats for their social parties — the Bidens kept their distance from his vice presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and her husband. Despite President Donald Trump meeting multiple times a week with reporters, daily with his staff, and traveling the country speaking to crowds of cheering supporters, neither the Bidens nor any other Democratic speaker appeared with or in front of the public.

Although forceful at points, Biden, just three years older than Trump, seemed far older than the spirited and combative president, who spoke to a public crowd earlier the same day in his opponent’s hometown. The vice president, to Democrats’ relief, did not commit any gaffes or lose his place during his longest speech since winning the primary, making strides against the increasingly bipartisan observation he is fighting a losing battle against cognitive decline.

It is difficult to imagine four days of empty seats and moderate messaging, capped with a strong and well-delivered speech by Biden, will make up for months of dodging interviews, banning questions, and sheltering in place while shifting increasingly leftward. Conventions are almost never a messaging anomaly, though, and are most often used to set the campaign’s tone for the rest of the race.

If that’s the case here, then the campaign has calculated that the nomination of a black woman will satiate the party’s activist wing thoroughly enough to provide cover for a rapid return to the party’s political center. Biden, after all, won the primary from the center of the party. Casual observers might have forgotten this, given his post-win shift left and socialist Bernie Sanders’s enthusiastic stumping on his behalf. Fortunately for Biden, if Sanders’ playful appearance Thursday night is any indicator, the personal animus the senator held toward Hillary Clinton is absent this time around.

Biden’s speech closed out a night that lurched awkwardly from segment to segment, room to room — and always without an audience. The convention’s deficiencies were obvious for everyone but a Washington Post theater critic. Even the master of ceremonies, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, opened her set with a joke that the first three nights had gone so well they were going to add a fifth.

The theme of tragedy and loss has dominated the convention’s effort to reintroduce Biden to the public, with Tuesday night revolving around it, and death and sadness still circling Thursday’s more triumphant, patriotic-toned videos and speeches. Beyond the story of his eldest son Beau’s death of cancer five years ago, a documentary-style remembrance of John Lewis delivered a touching moment, ending with a moving performance of “Glory” by pianist and singer John Legend, rapper Common, and a Gospel choir.

These 10 minutes were among the most flawless emotional peaks of the convention, drawing tragedy up into political resolve and a biblical, godly crusade for justice and the people — all to a great tune. Like so many moments, however, the DNC almost immediately squandered it.

“Wow, that was so beautiful, ” Louis-Dreyfus followed up with the tone you might use with a child showing you a bowl of Cheerios for the fifth time that morning. “Wow,” she repeated for good measure before launching into a repeat of a joke about mispronouncing Vice President’s Mike Pence’s name (because mispronouncing “Kamala” is racist now) and one about Trump cheating at golf. There was no one in the audience, so no one laughed, and for the following eight minutes we were subjected to Jon Meacham, who most people don’t recognize, talking about our souls.

After Jon, Rep. Deb Haaland came on the screen. She told us about her “people, the Pueblo people,” and drew on her mother’s military service. No one knows who she is either, but when a San Felipe Pueblo Indian family with 60 years of military service in just two generations asked her to help them bury Master Sgt. Joseph Velasquez with the honors he deserved during COVID, Haaland ignored her constituents. The congresswoman did, however, find the time during Covid-19 to attend George Floyd’s funeral — and to represent military service and the Pueblo people during a DNC speech.

After Jon and Deb, viewers were treated to the baseless conspiracy theory that President Donald Trump made the Post Office bad. This isn’t all to give a play-by-play of the convention, but to illustrate how badly the emotions the DNC worked tirelessly to evoke were wasted on stupid segments.

One portion that managed to get beyond the terrible awkwardness of speeches to empty rooms was a playful conversation between some of Biden’s defeated opponents, recalling their favorite memories of Joe from the trail. Another strong segment featured a veteran of World War II and Korea remembering his combat jump, listing his NRA membership, and saying that he will change his vote from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. The veteran’s short story kicked off a military-themed portion on Biden’s devotion to our servicemen and women.

In the end, the documentary-style medium — one invented for television audiences — won out over nearly every speech, which is great for a long commercial but rough for eight hours of primetime television. Biden’s closing speech can’t give the burst of energy a successful public convention would have, but the sighs of relief from consultants, pundits and supporters increasingly wondering if he could still give a strong speech will have to suffice, and the increasingly uncomfortable defense of a hidden candidate will certainly get a burst of energy.

On Monday evening, the Republican National Convention will begin. While details are still being finalized, early reports indicate the president will speak from the South Lawn of the White House, Pence will speak from Fort McHenry (of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame), the public might be treated to a fireworks show on the National Mall, and many or all of the speeches will be delivered in front of live audiences.