Trump’s insult backfires catastrophically
Donald Trump has spent months telling American voters that Joe Biden is practically senile.
"Biden can't put two sentences together. They wheel him out, he goes up, he repeats, they ask him questions. He reads a teleprompter and then he goes back into his basement," Mr Trump said during a recent interview.
"Joe doesn't even know he's alive, OK? He doesn't even know he's alive."
You'll find some variation of those quotes in most of Mr Trump's interviews and speeches. He has been pushing the message non-stop: Joe Biden is not all there, he's lost it, he is mentally shot, he has no idea where he is, there is something wrong with him.
Today we saw the inevitable result of these recurring insults.
Mr Biden is being lauded by people on both sides of US politics for managing to competently deliver a relatively unremarkable speech.
"Joe Biden just hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth," said former White House press secretary Dana Perino, a Republican.
"He had pace, rhythm, energy, emotion and delivery. So I think that, if he looks back, he's probably got to say, 'That's the best speech I've given in my life.'"
"I thought it was an enormously effective speech," said veteran Fox News political journalist Chris Wallace.
Even some commentators who are naturally hostile to Mr Biden, such as the network's conservative evening host Laura Ingraham, have conceded he "exceeded expectations".
for once i'm struggling to locate the appropriate sports metaphor.... but we're watching an old ballplayer whose skills have diminished turn in a career-best performance in the biggest game of his life. remarkable to witness.— Tim Alberta (@TimAlberta) August 21, 2020
Of course he exceeded expectations. Because thanks to Mr Trump, those expectations were farcically low.
All Mr Biden had to do to prove the President's caricature of him wrong was show up, look like a human being in possession of his mental faculties, and read some words off a teleprompter without any horrendous screw-ups.
He cleared that bar easily. How could he not?
The address itself was fine, if a little hokey, and occasionally a little shouty.
"The current President has cloaked America in darkness for far too long," he said.
"Too much anger, too much fear, too much division.
"Here and now, I give you my word. If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I'll be an ally of the light, not the darkness."
We're not dealing with particularly inspired oratory here. I mean, it sounds like something out of Star Wars.
The former president can make even the cheesiest of lines sound profound, which is a rather useful talent for a politician.
Mr Biden can't. He is at his best when he speaks in grounded tones, like a regular person.
"This is a great nation, we're a good and decent people. For Lord's sake, this is the United States of America," he said at one point. That line worked. It sounded natural.
"This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme. With passion, and purpose, let us begin, you and I together," he said a few seconds later. That did not work. It was confected to the point of absurdity.
What I'm getting at here is that Mr Biden's speech was objectively not a "home run".
Far too often, it felt as though the words didn't fit the man who was speaking them. It was like listening to Mr Trump deliver the Gettysburg Address.
But Mr Biden is graded on a curve. He gets extra credit for the sort of simple competence that would be a basic expectation of most candidates.
And whose fault is that? Donald Trump's.
If the President keeps forging ahead with his argument that Mr Biden lacks the most basic mental abilities, the same thing will happen in the upcoming presidential debates.
He will create such low expectations for the Democratic nominee that avoiding a catastrophic gaffe is all Mr Biden will need to do to impress voters.
And the task ahead of Mr Trump is difficult enough already without handing his opponent such easy victories.
He is a deeply unpopular incumbent, presiding over economic ruin and a bungled coronavirus response that has given the US the world's worst death toll by far.
And despite the havoc wrought on their convention by the pandemic, the Democrats accomplished their goal this week. They largely breezed past contentious policy issues, and instead focused on contrasting Mr Trump's self-absorption with Mr Biden's empathy.
Let me illustrate that point. One of the speakers on the final day was 13-year-old Brayden Harrington. Like Mr Biden, Brayden suffers from a stutter.
"Without Joe Biden, I wouldn't be talking to you today," he told viewers.
"A few months ago, I met him in New Hampshire. He told me that we were members of the same club. We stutter.
"It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became vice president.
"He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he'd read out loud to practise. He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud. So I did the same thing today.
"And now I'm here talking to you today about the future, about our future.
"We want the world to feel better. We need the world to feel better.
"I'm just a regular kid, and in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that's bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared. Imagine what he could do for all of us.
"Kids like me are counting on you to elect someone we can all look up to. Someone who cares. Someone who will make our country, and the world, feel better."
Merely transcribing Brayden's words robs them of their power, so I urge you to watch his speech below. The teenager's bravery brought some viewers to tears.
Under all the corny rhetoric about light and dark, this was essentially the core pitch in Mr Biden's speech - that he cares. That he is a normal human being who feels empathy. That he actually gives a damn about other people's suffering, because he has lived through it himself.
That is the message Donald Trump has to counter at his own convention next week, and it is not something he can achieve by hurling his usual overblown insults.
The President needs to make a positive case for his own re-election. Let's see what he comes up with.
Be sure to follow our live coverage of the Republican National Convention, which starts on Tuesday AEST.
Originally published as Trump's insult backfires catastrophically
After Biden mopped the floor with Paul Ryan in 2012 VP debate, I looked at him and said “you will never have a better performance than tonight.” I was wrong. Tonight is better.— Jim Messina (@Messina2012) August 21, 2020