Wednesday night was about fighting back. The speakers took on Donald Trump, with former President Barack Obama – normally the calm, measured voice of moderation – launching what may have been the most blistering attack on a sitting president by a former president in modern American history. (It was brilliant.) Sen. Kamala Harris (also brilliant) showed that her main role with be taking on Trump.
But Thursday night was an echo of 2004, when a young US Senate candidate named Obama spoke to the convention with a message of unity. “There are no red states and blue states,” he said. “There is just the United States.”
He got elected president four years later, and found out that his message was entirely wrong. There were, indeed, red states — with Republican senators and members of Congress who had no interest in unity; they wanted only to destroy him and his agenda.
Joe Biden tonight delivered a powerful, emotional address accepting the nomination. He talked about his life and his losses. He talked about the lessons he learned from his father. He talked about the challenges facing this country – and how convinced he is that we can take then on. “Together.”
He promised to “unify” the country, to bring us all together in common purpose. That’s what the first night of the convention was about.
It is, the talented operatives who are running the Democratic campaign, an effective message. Trump is the divider in chief; Biden will be the uniter in chief.
Biden did good. His speechwriter hit all the proper notes for this campaign. He appeared empathetic at times, forceful at times, and never a bit distracted. As Hollywood goes, a five-star moment.
The entire convention went that way. The formal nomination process, when the states cast their votes, is usually boring; this year, it was the highlight of the convention, a moment when the Democratic Party really seemed to be the party of the diversity of the United States. I am a general cynic about these conventions, and I was moved.
But only once tonight, in a brief mention, did Biden suggest that the wealthiest individuals and corporations – many of whom have made billions in new wealth during the pandemic — should pay more for the massive costs of rebuilding the country. This was it:
We don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work. I’m not looking to punish anyone. Far from it. But it’s long past time the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations in this country paid their fair share.
Redistributing wealth from the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates isn’t “punishment.” It’s what this country did for much of the 20th Century, during some of the greatest periods of economic growth in history, when tax policy and labor unions created an American middle class. And the rich don’t need to pay their “fair share;” a tax program focused on equity would tax them far more than the “share” paid by the rest of us.
The concept that redistributive taxes are “punishing success” is a trope that goes back to Ronald Reagan, and has been part of the neo-liberal talking points for decades. I was a bit sad to see Biden use that language.
The Sanders campaign talked seriously about wealth, class, and economic inequality in this country, and put those issues in the mainstream of the political debate. The Biden campaign is scrupulously avoiding the entire issue.
But the campaign is only beginning. There’s always hope.