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American political conventions are an odd tradition. In theory, they are about formulating policies and choosing candidates. But it’s been 68 years since a party risked not choosing a presidential candidate on the first ballot and probably longer than that since anyone really cared what a party had placed in its official platform.
Instead, political conventions are an opportunity for political parties to publicly work out a version of their ideal selves and display it to the nation. In one sense, all the speeches, including the nominee’s, are just so much hot air. But in another, who gets speaking time at these conventions and what the nominee has to say gives you real insight into how these candidates view themselves and the country, and how they hope to govern.
The Democratic convention was a cavalcade of inclusiveness featuring speakers ranging from democratic socialists to conservative Republicans. One of the highlights of the last night featured a speech from a young boy Joe Biden had met on the campaign trail and had coached with his stuttering. This was meant to illustrate Biden’s belief in paying it forward.
It was quite an effective bit of oratory and one couldn’t shake the feeling Brayden Harrington may well dust this clip off and play it at another political convention in 2060. We don’t know the full lineup for the Republican convention, but the word is that it's going to feature those two gun-waving lawyers from St. Louis.
Joe Biden's bright vision for America
And then there’s the acceptance speech. We don’t know, exactly, what Trump’s 2020 acceptance speech will be, but we know what he had to say in his “only I can fix it” 2016 speech and it’s unlikely to be much different, at least not in tone. Trump shared a dark, dystopian vision of an America motivated by fear and distrust. At over 90 minutes long, it was also interminable.
Biden’s speech could not have been more different. First, he kept it under 30 minutes, which, I believe, is a modern record. Second, Biden didn’t shy away from addressing the problems facing the country. And he acknowledged that this is “a life-changing election” that is an inflection point in American history.
But his speech, while occasionally somber, was also hopeful, almost Reaganesque. Where Donald Trump sees American carnage, Joe Biden sees a shining city on a hill.
In Biden’s view, America has a clear choice to make:
“This ... (election) will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency. Science. Democracy. They’re all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation, what we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be. That’s all on the ballot. And the choice could not be clearer. No rhetoric is needed.”
And despite all the difficulties we face, the outcome isn’t in doubt: “This is a great nation. And we’re a good and decent people. ... This the United States of America. And there’s never been anything we’ve been unable to accomplish when we’ve done it together.”
We can reject Trump's dark world
Of course, Biden wasn’t all inspiration and exhortation. He took his shots at President Trump, too. But he took those shots almost respectfully and resisted the opportunity to put the boot in.
For example, Biden rebuked Trump for his handling of the pandemic: “Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He failed to protect us. He failed to protect America.” Someone with slightly sharper elbows would have directly quoted Trump’s own acceptance speech from four years ago, “The most basic duty of government is to defend the lives of its citizens. Any government that fails to do so is a government unworthy to lead.” Biden apparently really does believe that no rhetoric is necessary.
And he’s probably right. To quote Trump, “It is what it is.” Trump and Biden are both known quantities. No amount of sniping is going to redefine either of them. And Biden is also correct that the choice could not be clearer.
That choice isn’t about policy differences. Biden almost lost the nomination because he refused to jump on the progressive bandwagon. Uniquely in our lifetimes and probably in American history, this election is about exactly what Biden claimed it was about when he declared his candidacy: a battle for America’s soul.
America is now faced with two competing visions, one built around fear and grievance and the other based on optimism and a shared future. “This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here, tonight, as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation."
If the purpose of a convention is to lay out a vision for America and define what the election is about, I don’t think Biden and the Democrats could have done a better job. There’s no question that a lot of Americans believe in Donald Trump’s world, but if they could, they’d like to live in Joe Biden’s.
Republican Chris Truax, an appellate lawyer in San Diego, is CEO of CertifiedVoter.com and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DNC: Joe Biden's vision builds America up; Donald Trump's destroys