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How Biden can use this speech to fire Trump (Opinion)

CNN logo CNN 8/20/2020 Opinion by Paul Begala
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a rally in Tougaloo, Mississippi on March 8. © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a rally in Tougaloo, Mississippi on March 8.

I can't help it. I got into this business as a speechwriter and every time a major political speech comes up, the keyboard calls to me.

Presidential nominee Joe Biden is trying to get America to tell President Donald Trump, "You're fired!" That has only happened to four presidents in the past 100 years. So, there is a lot riding on Biden's speech tonight. As one of the folks who helped Bill Clinton write his convention speech in 1992 -- the last time we fired an incumbent president -- I have some thoughts.

First, though, it must be said that Joe Biden's campaign has been masterful. His convention has been magical. He and his team don't need my kibitzing. But I can't help it. Here's what I think he needs to accomplish in his acceptance speech:

Tell Us Who You Are. Folks who obsess about politics know all about how Joe Biden and his family have been touched by searing tragedy. But most people are just learning his story for the first time. Presume nothing. I know Biden's been in politics a long time, but he needs to tell us who he is, where he comes from and how he got to be the man he is today. It is no doubt difficult for Vice President Biden to give voice to that pain, but he must. He has been through what Scripture calls a "fiery trial." Life has broken his heart, but he has emerged, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, strong at the broken places. He needs to tell us how.

Show How Your Values Drive Policy. Too many Democrats lead with their heads. They fancy themselves the intellectual party, when in point of fact neither party has a monopoly on brains. A position paper, no matter how perfectly conceived, is of only the most marginal use unless it is informed by values. And those values come from lived experience. For example, Joe Biden is for comprehensive childcare not because some think tank came up with a plan, but because he was a single dad, commuting for hours every day to put his shellshocked sons to bed each night, and fix them breakfast each morning. Show us what's in your heart if you want us to believe what's in your platform.

Politics is About Addition. Reject the pointless debate between electrifying the Democratic base and reaching out to swing voters. Biden has to do both. Over 172,000 families are experiencing the pain of losing a loved one to Covid-19. That pain is the same whether they live in the bluest city or the reddest rural area. Besides, division is Trump's brand -- unity is Biden's. He must stitch together the frayed fabric of our nation and restore the ties that bind. Biden received 17.3 million votes in the Democratic primaries. He'll need up to 70 million to fire Trump. The road from 17.3 million to 70 million requires lots and lots of addition -- by definition the addition of people who did not participate in his party's primaries. A big tent is not only the best political strategy, it is the only way to govern this enormous, complex, and deeply divided country.

Focus on the Windshield, Not the Rearview Mirror. Biden has been in public life since, I believe, Millard Fillmore was on the Whig Party ticket. He has done so much good for so many people: passing the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate, implementing the Economic Recovery Act in the White House, standing strong for American allies and American values around the world. Those accomplishments are nice, but they're in the past. Elections are about the future. He needs to spend twice as much time telling us what he will do as President than reminding us of what he has done in the past.

It's About the Voters, Stupid. This is the fatal mistake I made in 2016: I allowed Trump's piggish personal behavior to distract me from focusing on voters. Sure, it is shameful that Trump mocked a man's physical disability, attacked the heroism of POW's and bragged about sexual assault (he denies it). But I failed to connect those character flaws to the lives of a farmer in Wisconsin, a retiree in Pennsylvania, an office worker in Michigan. Indict Trump not for what he is, but what he has done and what he has failed to do. People are dead. Others are ill. Businesses are closing, jobs are lost, farms are foreclosed, schools are in crisis. Our troops have a bounty on their heads. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are on the chopping block in Trump's budget.

Getting the American people to fire a President is not easy. If Biden keeps his eyes on the prize -- making the lives of the American people better -- his speech can be an important step toward that goal.

Paul Begala wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera © Provided by CNN Paul Begala
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