Once upon a time, a dozen Democratic primary candidates spent most of the debates bickering about the nuances of various health care plans. You probably don’t remember it because it was centuries ago, in 2019 and early 2020. Back in that distant time, when Sanders and Warren seemed to be setting the rhythm, the Democrats plotted themselves on an ideological axis: the question was how far left would the Democrats go, and how hard they would have to fight to get there.
But Biden cinched the nomination in March, and since then has worked to build a coalition defined by decency, not dogma. Personal connection, not progressive zeal, is the coin of the realm in Bidenland. And now, with the Democratic National Convention well underway, it’s clear the party is singing a different tune: ideology has taken a backseat to emotion.
From the primetime speeches to the montage segments, the first two nights of the DNC were all about creating tear-jerker moments that would reach voters’ hearts, if not their minds.
On Monday, rather than articulating the policy failures that led to more than 170,000 deaths from COVID-19, the campaign chose to highlight the story of Kristin Uzquira, whose father—a supporter of President Donald Trump—died of the disease. Rather than linger on the details of Biden’s health care plan, a video montage and speech by health care activist Ady Barkan focused on the heartbreak and hope of living with a deadly disease. Rather than dissect the political differences between Biden and the late Republican Senator John McCain, his rival in the 2008 campaign, a video made with the help of the McCain family focused on their decades of friendship across the aisle.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.
On Tuesday, Biden was officially nominated by Jacquelyn, a security guard in the New York Times building whom Biden had briefly befriended in the elevator on his way to his interview with the editorial board, which did not endorse him. “In the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell that he really saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him. And I knew, even when he went into his important meeting, he’d take my story in there with him,” said Jacquelyn, who declined to make her last name public. “That’s why I nominate my friend, Joe Biden, as the next President of the United States.’
By the end of the night, the message was clear: Joe Biden isn’t about politics or policy or plans, Joe Biden is about people. Who cares if the wonks at the New York Times snubbed Biden for their endorsement; the ordinary people taking him on the elevator to the editorial meeting loved him. If you were an alien from another planet who had never heard of the Vice President before, you’d come away with a simple message: President Trump is a danger to Democracy, and Joe Biden seems like a pretty nice guy.
This, to Biden and his allies, is the point. “Thank you to DNC for conveying what I have struggled to express since April 25, 2019,” Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi Biden, tweeted on Tuesday night. “That rather than age, experience, past beliefs—the ability to listen, willingness to be convinced, and readiness to evolve are what make a leader progressive & a President FOR the people.”
Of course, there were exceptions. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s speech on Monday night and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech seconding Sanders’s nomination on Tuesday night stood out for resisting the gauzy platitudes. In his speech, Sanders focused on the policies that a Biden administration would implement: a $15 minimum wage, 12 weeks of paid family leave, universal pre-K for 3 and 4 year olds, transitioning to 100% clean energy in fifteen years, lowering the Medicare eligibility to 60. In his brief speech, he seemed to quote more numbers than nearly any other speaker so far. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez seconded Sanders’s nomination, representing “a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny and homophobia, and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.”
Nobody who has heard Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez talk before would be surprised to hear them addressing policy specifics or systemic injustice. But in a Convention that was mostly was about stories of tearful grief or feel-good friendship , their speeches felt like bringing an electric drum set to a Kumbaya-circle.
But doubling down on emotion is the strategy that has worked for Biden, not just in the 2020 primary, but across his entire political career: Make people feel good, make them feel seen and heard and understood, and the rest can follow. People come first, policies come second. Most ordinary Americans, Biden knows, are not sitting at home calculating how much their premiums would go down under different health care plans. Activists and Twitterati are fueled by ideology—American voters respond to emotion. And Dr. Jill Biden’s speech at the end of Tuesday night provided plenty of that.
Perhaps more than any other of the convention so far, Dr. Biden’s speech emphasized the central pitch of the Biden campaign: that he can heal the nation through love and fortitude, and that policy is just one part of this larger emotional mission. “How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole,” said the former Second Lady. “With love and understanding—and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith.”
“We have shown that the heart of this nation still beats with kindness and courage,” she said. “That’s the soul of America Joe Biden is fighting for now.”