If there is one overwhelming message from the Democratic convention and Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, it’s that Democrats want to make this election about two things: Donald Trump’s personality (which was an asset to them in 2016, but not enough to win the election) and how Donald Trump has done his job as president. Barack Obama hit these themes last night, and so did Joe Biden tonight. These are, of course, entirely fair game in a presidential election. But the omissions were noticeable. Biden’s discussion of policy issues tonight was purposely vague, a far cry from detailing his agenda, and he offered very few criticisms of Republican policies or proposals. For a guy who has spent years in the trenches of the judicial-confirmation wars, he was strikingly quiet on the courts and the issues they control — he did not mention the courts once. He left to his running mate the latest promise of legislation by executive fiat:
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act will ensure every voice is heard and every voice is counted.
If Senate Republicans don’t act, it will be one of the first things @JoeBiden does as president.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 21, 2020
This may be enough: Biden is banking that Trump is such a liability, and so detatched from any policy agenda, that you don’t actually need to talk people out of Republican ideas or into Democratic ones. This convention as a whole put more effort than the Democrats did in 2016 to pitching themes sympathetic to swing voters, the 2016 election having shocked Democrats at least temporarily out of their 2012-era smug certainties that running hard to the base would be all they would ever need again to win. Still, it gives Republicans an opportunity (if they are up to the challenge, a big if) to talk at their convention about what a Biden-Harris election really means. It also means that Biden isn’t really using his platform to build a mandate for a post-election agenda, or to promote down-ticket Democrats in the Senate races that will decide how much power the next president will wield. That’s the safe play for the White House, but it may be a lack of ambition that Democrats live to regret.