Nothing dates a period as much as the quaintness of its scandals. In 1987, the unattributed use of some rhetoric from a British politician was enough to scuttle Joe Biden’s first bid for the White House. Looking back, only the content, not the fact, of what we might call this intellectual-property breach was interesting. The “first in his family to get to a university” was playing the everyman against a gilded US president. Class was his theme in a country that sometimes purports to transcend such things.

Swap Donald Trump for George HW Bush, and Biden is resuming the unfinished business of 33 years ago. There is awesome pressure on the Democrat to engage with the cultural schisms of the day: over race, policing, free speech and what it means to be male or female. Trump tried to lure him on to some of this fraught terrain in Cleveland, Ohio, where the two men “debated” on Tuesday. But Biden dwelt on another kind of divide. He referred (when the president took breaths betwee...

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