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Democrats are Losing at Political Rhetoric

While Joe Biden has struggled to say anything truly memorable to voters this year, it’s a malady shared by his party’s key figures in the post-Obama era.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

On Thursday, The New York Times Magazine’s Jason Zengerle offered the latest lengthy look at the state of Joe Biden’s housebound campaign. Although the technical challenges of getting a camera set up in his home have been surmounted, Biden is still clearly out of his element online, and the ideas his team has invented to provide his virtual campaign with structure remain poor substitutes for ordinary events and interactions with voters. “Here, at the dawn of the general-election campaign—a time when he should be barnstorming the country, appearing in front of cheering crowds with his defeated rivals, bringing Democrats together to do battle with Donald Trump in November—he finds himself confined to his basement,” Zengerle wrote, “forced to talk to a camera instead of a person, struggling to make the human connections he typically forges and so visibly desires.”

There’s no real solution for recovering those in-person connections as long as the demands of social distancing persist. For the foreseeable future, Biden will have to make do with virtual rope lines and all the rest. But the campaign now has everything it needs to reach voters en masse—a setup that allows Biden to deliver statements and speeches that can travel widely on the internet and air on television. The original technical challenge has been supplanted by the challenge of giving Biden interesting things to say.

Six months out from the general election, the Biden campaign has yet to produce a particularly memorable speech or ad, save a spot that vainly and irresponsibly tried to out-tough Donald Trump on Red China. His best speech, delivered at a victory rally after South Carolina’s primary, was significant mostly for the energy with which he delivered it and what the moment meant for his candidacy—you’re welcome to try remembering a single word he said. The line that’s come to define his campaign, “a battle for the soul of the nation,” is fairly ho-hum and was introduced in the announcement that kicked off his campaign over a year ago. It’s also a line the campaign has evidently retreated from in the wake of the pandemic, as Mother Jones’s David Corn noted earlier this month.

Biden isn’t the best communicator. In the months before he announced his bid, he referred to himself as a “gaffe machine,” and most who have followed his career, and this campaign, would probably agree. But setting his gaffes entirely aside, Biden also isn’t really known for being a compelling translator of political ideas or for offering the kind of messaging that drove the last successful Democratic presidential campaigns. His infamous plagiarism of a speech by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1987—and his appropriation of Kinnock’s family background—was a grasping effort at rhetorical highs he couldn’t reach on his own.

In fairness to him, most politicians are nothing special when it comes to messaging or oratory, and the Democratic Party as a whole has spent the post-Obama years in a rhetorical rut. Some of the notable figures who’ve risen to prominence or captured the fickle press’s attention for a season have simply patented their own variants of the approach Obama and his speechwriters rode to success—a message of hope, appeals to comity, and a teleological narrative of American progress offered in almost melodic, shifting registers. Jon Ossoff, now a primary candidate in Georgia’s Senate race, is perhaps the eeriest of the Obama clones.

Among the candidates in this year’s Democratic primary, Cory Booker came closest to replicating this rhetorical style, although Obama didn’t share the New Jersey senator’s gushing excesses (it’s hard to imagine anyone but Booker riffing on “a conspiracy of love”), and his enthusiasm wasn’t as contagious among the Democratic electorate. Beto O’Rourke started not too far from the Obama mode but had moved to a darker, righteously angry place by the end of his bid, speaking more candidly about gun violence, American history, and racism on the right than Obama ever had. None of it worked. While he also bore Obama’s influence, Pete Buttigieg tried out a different rhetorical framework early in his bid, one animated by old anxieties about ceding concepts such as freedom and security to the right. But Democratic voters weren’t particularly taken by it, and he eventually moved on to workaday messaging against Medicare for All and Democratic divisions. Bernie Sanders’s manner of forceful, gruff, and unfussy repetition won support for his policies among voters but failed to allay concerns about his electoral viability. Warren’s more conspicuously wonky and personable brand of progressivism didn’t, either.

As they did in 2016, Democratic voters have chosen a candidate who didn’t have to speak and message his way to wide name recognition and who might have fared worse if he had. Biden’s patina of authority and simple, avuncular charm may well be all he needs to win in November, especially now that we’ve been thrown into a deadly crisis deepened by the president’s buffoonery and loose talk.

Biden’s efforts to demonstrate leadership by communication through the pandemic so far have revolved around offering advice and crafting proposals that he’s not in the position to implement or see through. There are nevertheless other ways he could do some good. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser noted last week that Trump has yet to formally memorialize those who’ve been killed in the pandemic, an extraordinary break from presidential tradition. “Even those Presidents who aren’t particularly good at speechifying—think of the two George Bushes—have considered public commiseration amid national tragedy part of the job description,” she wrote. “Have we ever had a President just take a pass on human empathy, even of the manufactured, politically clichéd kind?”

When that piece ran, the pandemic’s death toll sat at around 50,000. Now over 60,000 are dead. And Glasser’s critique can be broadened. While governors and other elected officials tend to speak to our losses and pain in the course of explaining what they’re doing to address the crisis, no major public figure in this country has taken 30 minutes or an hour to deliver a speech focused on memorializing what is already one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

Biden could give it a shot. For all of his deficiencies, Biden’s misfortunes have given him years of experience communicating and publicly working through grief. It’s hard to imagine a better occasion for putting that experience to use. There is a chance, though, that the public might prove to be indifferent. After all, Trump owes his presidency in part to a large share of the electorate’s boredom with the standard models of political leadership and ordinary political language. November will tell us whether the novelty’s worn off.