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roger cohen
Where Hope and History Rhyme by Roger Cohen New York Times

Where Hope and History Rhyme
Joe Biden’s speech did not soar. That’s good. America is looking for decency and competence.
Roger Cohen

Aug. 21, 2020

Joe Biden accepts the Democratic nomination for president at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday night.
Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden said: “Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy.”

The first, character, is the most important for without it the rest are mere words. Donald Trump has given America the definitive lesson in the scourge of indecent narcissism. Russia was about him. Race was about him. The virus was about him. You can’t sculpt in rotten wood and you can’t rule from a rotten core.

Biden’s speech did not soar. That was good. America, after its season of lies, is ready for simple declarative sentences. Truth is on the ballot, too.

The Democratic nominee conveyed who he is: a plain-spoken American schooled from his Scranton youth in the nation’s can-do spirit, deepened by suffering, consoled by faith, driven to end the carnage of the president’s self-obsession. Biden left no doubt that he has lived this presidency as an offense to America — and to himself.

“We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege,” Biden said.

Each of those goals is important. Truth is fundamental to democracy. Lies are the stuff of authoritarian regimes, which is why Trump likes them. But fairness is the most relevant compass for Biden because the Democratic Party has failed in the 21st century to place fairness before privilege — and in 2016 Americans made clear they were done with that game.

Biden came across as genuine. He spoke not from calculation but his core. This was his task; he succeeded. On character, he delivered. The nomination came his way because Americans were not ready for a revolution. They wanted an anchor in a world upended.

Trump triumphed in 2016 as an impostor. He won as the voice of the dispossessed, the mouthpiece of the unsayable. Exploiting fear, he restored violence to a wan political stage of PowerPoint slides. He cut through the anesthetized language of globalized elites. He attacked money-wooed Democrats estranged from their white, blue-collar constituencies. He aimed a howitzer at what the Clintons’ Democratic Party had become.

Because Biden was so much a part of what the Democratic Party had become, I wrote in May last year that he was not the candidate to beat Trump. Three months later, I wrote that the who-can-beat-Trump test led to Kamala Harris, because “she’s tough, broadly of the center, has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women.” I quoted her calling Trump a “predator” and calling predators “cowards.”

In the end, a Biden-Harris ticket is the best pick for the Democratic Party, its best hope to fire Trump. Because the pandemic prioritized a safe pair of hands; because Biden, prodded by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, has adjusted leftward without losing centrist Democrats; because Biden no longer looks like the tired restoration of an old order but an essential pivot to sanity, decency and competence, and because the ticket embodies ideas of racial justice, generational balance and reconciliation (between the two candidates and all Americans).

“We don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work,” Biden said. That’s scarcely rocket science. If elected, Biden will be measured on whether he can change the tax code, a foundation of the growing inequality and injustice in a fractured America whose ability to cohere has been lost.

This is the America of five million infected with the Covid-19 virus, of 170,000 dead in the pandemic, of over 50 million unemployment claims, of, as Biden said, “by far the worst performance of any nation on earth.”

And, as Biden failed to say, of major United States stock indexes at or close to record highs. The virus, destroying small businesses, has completed the financial money game’s takeover of the economy. Trump is counting on this, and on blather about Democrats’ “socialism,” to win. His chances should not be discounted. The state of a 401(k) is a significant vote indicator. But less so, I think, in this desperate America of Trump’s making.

In recent weeks, I have been watching the United States from a Europe orphaned of its American ally. “It’s not this bad in Canada. Or Europe,” Biden said. It’s not. Confronting a crisis with a plan does help. Under Trump, an American passport in Europe has become a good thing not to have.

Biden understands an alliance undergirded by values. The passion in his voice rose as he said: “I will be a president who will stand with our allies and friends. I will make it clear to our adversaries the days of cozying up to dictators are over.”

Hope is often unfounded, but it is not an irrational response to human experience. The miracle of a peaceful Europe today is built on joint American-European defiance, in freedom’s cause, of fascism and totalitarianism.

Biden quoted the Irish poet Seamus Heaney on how, every now and again, “hope and history rhyme.” Gazing this week at the beauty of Florence, where my uncle Bert Cohen, of the Sixth South African Armored Division, 19th Field Ambulance, came from Johannesburg in 1944 to join the fight for freedom, I thought, yes, they do.

After Biden’s sober speech the chances they will again in November have risen.

Roger Cohen

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