Just before the Democratic National Convention, the Pew Research Center released a poll finding that the single biggest reason Joe Biden supporters preferred him to President Donald Trump was that he wasn't Trump.
Looked at one way, this was less a reason than a tautological statement of fact: Biden is Biden and Trump is Trump, and never the twain shall meet. But it was also an electoral strategy in waiting, a readymade narrative for a campaign that needed a story to tell. In this result you can understand why the convention took the shape it did. Over four nights this week, Democrats went about making the case for Biden's campaign by pointing out, over and over, that he is very much not Donald Trump.
Trump, in this telling, is a man of low character, devoid of empathy or decency, unable to care about anyone but himself. He is not just a bad president but a bad person, a soulless and addled narcissist who cannot be redeemed or trusted. Biden, the speakers implored viewers to understand, was the precise opposite of this: a man of decency, integrity, and empathy, someone who has known personal tragedy and can feel others' pain.
Sometimes this contrast was implicit, as in the repeated, heartbreaking invocations of Biden's personal losses: his wife and daughter as a young man, his son as an elder statesman. The convention gave viewers a Biden haunted by personal tragedy who had the personal will—the strength of character—to carry forward anyway.
At other times the contrast was explicit. "Character is on the ballot," Biden said in last night's acceptance speech. "Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be." It wasn't just Biden's character that was at stake. It was the character of the entire country. The election, as Biden has said before, would be "a battle for the soul of this nation."
The appeal of this pitch is clear. Even among those who support the president, many grumble about his tweets and offhanded offenses, his coarseness and lack of focus. Trump's counterpunching style has its fans, of course, but it has always been polarizing, to say the least. And it sidesteps more prosaic political disagreements over, say, trade policy or taxes. To focus on Trump's character, and how Biden departs from it, is in many ways the safe and obvious choice.
Yet this approach also has drawbacks, and it served to obscure as much as it revealed, minimizing Biden's actual plans for the presidency. The convention told us plenty about who Biden was. But it said much less about what exactly he would do.
Yes, Biden sketched out a plan to fight the coronavirus—produce medical supplies, make sure schools have resources, develop rapid tests, impose a national mask mandate—but the sketch was brief to point of seeming almost pro forma. Early in the week, a segment on health care promised to build on Obamacare but spent far more time on stories of personal tragedy than on the particulars of Biden's plan. A determined viewer could find an agenda for a Biden presidency, but it was the kind you could fit in a tweet.
Biden's defenders might offer any number of excuses for the decision to relegate policy to a glossy, emotionally laden skim: the compressed nature of the convention, the need to hook viewers with individual stories rather than boring policy explainers, the availability of more detail online, the widespread sense that personal decency is actually the most urgent issue in this election. All of these reasons have at least some degree of validity.
And yet there remains a certain disconnect with the liberal project that rose up during the Bush presidency and dominated through the Obama years, a project that insisted that policy, and policy detail, mattered more than the personalities on stage. There were variations to this approach, but the underlying idea was that for too long politics had been covered as a personality contest, a sweeping drama of presidential wills and colorful characters, rather than a technocratic discussion of policy merits built around white papers and expert legislative analysis. Mainstream journalism outlets put together special teams and sections just to cover policy, and policy journalists—often with good reason—criticized Republicans for being too vague, too unconcerned about policy particulars.
Biden's campaign isn't substanceless. Since he started running, he's put forth any number of policy proposals, and a group of Biden affiliates recently released an extensive list of policy recommendations negotiated with Biden's primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.). But aside from a brief appearance by Sanders himself, the convention mostly left this aside, focusing on what Pew found to be his primary advantage, and what has arguably become his signature issue: not being Trump.
Character may well be the deciding factor in the election. Trump is no policy savant, and throughout his political career has defined himself largely via his performance in culture war skirmishes, moments in which he demonstrated his character, almost always to his detriment. And it certainly true that in the Oval Office, character influences policy, which Trump has shown time and time again, particularly (but not only) when it comes to trade and immigration.
Yet as important as character is, it only tells you so much about how a political candidate will act in office. And the DNC, for the most part, was a brief for character, not policy, for decency, not ideology. That's not nothing, especially when you're deciding who will occupy the White House, and it may well be enough to win in November. But it won't be enough to govern in the years that follow.