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Editorial: Keep your cool, Joe

  • Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about climate change and wildfires affecting western states, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Published: 9/19/2020 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 9/19/2020 10:10:02 PM

Our greatest political leaders are able to appeal to our most widely held ideals in ways that help them both to frame the issues of the day and to stay above mere partisanship. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is probably the most notable example, a short speech that focuses as much on what a leader and a nation cannot achieve as on what they can.

Maybe it’s harder to have that effect now in our up-to-the-minute news cycle, but that doesn’t mean politicians shouldn’t try. Too few of them do, and as a result end up looking like miniature figures compared to the inspiring leaders of old. The occasions are there, but no one on the national stage seems able to rise to them. Big challenges call for big ideals, spoken plainly and humbly, but our leaders seem always to be cutting not just each other but themselves down to size.

Joe Biden recently presented us with a piquant example of this phenomenon. Handed the news that President Donald Trump had said in a taped interview in early February that he knew how deadly the novel coronavirus is and chose to downplay it, Biden responded in an unfortunately small-minded way, by deploying the same kind of verbal abuse his opponent is so adept at wielding. Whoever is advising Biden failed him, or perhaps he failed himself.

“It’s beyond despicable,” Biden said on the stump in Michigan. “It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace.” Later, speaking to CNN, he said, “It was all about making sure the stock market didn’t come down, that his wealthy friends didn’t lose any money. He waved a white flag. He walked away. He didn’t do a damn thing. Think about it. Think about what he did not do. It’s almost criminal.”

His charges have merit, and the anger he flashed is both warranted and shared by millions of other Americans who want and deserve to see the urgency they feel reflected in those who would lead them. And while there is no doubt a need to take one’s opponent down a peg, here’s why this was a missed opportunity for the Democratic standard-bearer: It did nothing to demonstrate that he can rise above the poisonous atmosphere choking our national debate.

Biden could have left that kind of talk to surrogates, bloggers, opinion writers and other Democratic candidates across the country and taken a different line that showed he can cool a fevered country. He could have shaken his head and calmly stated, “It’s deeply troubling that the president responded the way he did. He should have calmly leveled with us, told us the truth and taken some basic steps to protect the public, and that’s what I would have done. Why he didn’t do those things is for him to answer. Next question.” Instead, he responded to the heat of the moment with more heat.

While we believe it is critical for Biden to show he has the passion and vitality required to win in November, that wasn’t exactly what was needed at that moment. It also isn’t what Biden needs. He can’t simply attack Trump, since the fiercely partisan arena is where the president seems to thrive and where he’s best able to rally his supporters. Attacking brings Biden down into the grime of the current debate. The former vice president has wisely played his campaign on the cool side until now. He needs to find his inner fridge and show his calm if he’s to prove he can lead us out of this fire and be the expansive president the nation needs. Additionally, a cooler approach would allow those moments of legitimate anger to stand out more prominently.

He also needs to make clear that the way we’re engaging in politics isn’t serving us well, and the best way for him to do that might be to pitch his campaign tent at a higher elevation.

Those big themes — American leadership abroad; compassion, humility and sacrifice at home — might yield not only a victory, but a turn toward the light.

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