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Former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden delivers a speech for the largely virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 20, 2020.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

Now we know why big-dollar Democratic donors were sent parcels of “Cup of Joe” coffee to mark the beginning of the party’s virtual national convention this week. That medium-roast joe perfectly matched the man – and the medium roast of his rival that Joe Biden served up in his acceptance speech Thursday night.

His criticisms of Donald Trump came in demitasse spoonfuls – not quite as robust as the critique that former president Barack Obama and vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris offered earlier in the week. And yet his description of “too much anger, too much fear, too much division” in a period of “shadow and suspicion” was not a tepid decaf declamation either.

This was the most important speech of a political career that spanned a half-century, and it was steeped in classic American virtues and values.

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“This is not a partisan moment,” Mr. Biden said. “This is an American moment.”

And entwined in that speech – embedded in almost every riff – was the special Biden challenge in this unusual presidential race against an unusual presidential incumbent.

American national-convention acceptance speeches customarily are a delicate balance. In ordinary times they play two often contradictory roles. They are delivered before fervent activists who are in the conventional hall principally because they are devoted supporters of the very person standing on the rostrum, and so the remarks must be designed to stir the emotions of the audience. But those remarks also are seen by a nationwide television (and, this year, streamed) audience of voters less fervent, less committed and less congenial to a partisan jeremiad. One audience craves a rally, the other a reasoned argument.

This year that balance is as vital as ever, perhaps more so, and as a result the Biden convention speech was a delicate equipoise, the climax of a convention that itself was a delicate balance: a celebration of American diversity and a critique of American adversity.

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The Democrats’ newly minted nominee spoke of “America’s promise.” He spoke of “a perfect storm” of crises and challenges. He said the United States was in “a time of real peril but also of extraordinary possibilities.”

But if nothing else, his acceptance speech underlined that Mr. Biden’s campaign is a jumble of personal isn’ts, not a distillation of ideological isms.

He emerged from a large Democratic field because he isn’t an ideologue. He won his party’s nomination because he isn’t an alienating figure. And if he wins the presidency, it likely will be because he isn’t Mr. Trump.

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The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll makes that clear. More of those who plan to vote for Mr. Biden (58 per cent) say they will do so because he is not Mr. Trump than because he is Joe Biden (36 per cent). Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932 because he wasn’t Herbert Hoover, who occupied the White House as the Great Depression unfolded. That was an exception. Abraham Lincoln did not win the White House in the 1860 election because he was not Stephen A. Douglas. General Dwight Eisenhower did not become president in the 1952 election because he was not Governor Adlai Stevenson.

But in an empty hall in tiny, three-electoral-vote Delaware, the former vice-president sought to retain the support of those who revile Mr. Trump even as he sought to build support for himself – in short, to burnish the Biden brand and perhaps to extend it.

“Character is on the ballot,” Mr. Biden said. “Compassion is on the ballot.”

This a soothing message for a country badly in need of ministration. Mr. Biden is running to be the nation’s president but really to serve as the nation’s pastor. That suits his temperament, his inclinations, his style, his skills. The question is whether after four years of hellfire and brimstone and burn-down-the-house outbursts from the White House, Mr. Biden, who would be 78 years old on Inauguration Day, is himself an antique with a style (his vow to “restore the promise of America to everyone”) that is antiquarian.

He spoke of “purpose.” He argued “we are a good and decent people.” He said he saw “an America that is generous and strong, selfless and humble.” It was rhetoric torn from the yellowed pages in the archives of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. With this nominee, the Democrats are embarking on a grand but dangerous experiment, testing whether this approach can work in the Trump era.

Throughout the convention, and especially in Mr. Biden’s acceptance speech, the emphasis was on the familiar – and on the family. The Biden family is a portrait of resiliency, Ms. Harris’s family a portrait of diversity.

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When the American vocal group Sister Sledge introduced the phrase “We Are Family” in a spirited 1979 anthem of the same name, one of the verses spoke of “high hopes we have for the future/And our goal’s in sight.” That was the message of the Democratic convention, and of Mr. Biden’s acceptance speech.

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