The Washington Post
Mr. Biden’s missed opportunity
You don’t persuade people by scolding or demeaning them.
IT IS a depressing reflection of the dangerous political situation in which the nation finds itself that President Biden felt compelled to deliver a prime-time address decrying political violence and election denialism and calling on Americans “to unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy.” Indeed, democracy is under assault in the United States. Rallying to its defense is an urgent task, and it does the nation no service to pretend that this is a problem of bipartisan dimensions. The leader of one party peddled the false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, sought to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, incited his adherents to storm the Capitol, and continues to stir anger and unrest. As Mr. Biden put it in Philadelphia on Thursday night, “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”
The difficult, perhaps insurmountable, challenge that Mr. Biden confronted — just eight weeks before midterm elections that will determine the future course of his presidency — was how to convey the message of defending democracy in a way that summons patriotism rather than partisanship. Here, as much as we agree with the president about the urgency of the issue, is where he fell short, too often sounding more like a Democrat than a democrat. You don’t persuade people by scolding or demeaning them, but that’s how the president’s speech landed for many conservatives of goodwill.
Mr. Biden was wrong to conflate upholding the rule of law with his own partisan agenda, which he called “the work of democracy.” You can be for democracy but against the president’s policy proposals to use government to lower prescription-drug prices and combat climate change. “MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love,” Mr. Biden proclaimed. But many conservatives — not just “MAGA forces” — agree with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. It was disappointing that Mr. Biden chose to omit that the infrastructure, gun-control and burn-pits legislation he praised had passed with Republican votes. Pointing this out would actually have strengthened his effort to draw a contrast between “MAGA Republicans” and “mainstream Republicans.”
Moreover, Mr. Biden’s clarion call for democracy would carry more credibility if he were willing to call out his own party for its cynical effort to elevate some of the same “MAGA Republicans” he now warns will destroy democracy if they prevail in the general election. During the primaries, Democrats spent tens of millions helping dangerous election deniers defeat better-funded “mainstream Republicans,” including in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Biden, not coincidentally, chose to speak.
We offer these critiques of the president because we agree with him about the stakes involved. Mr. Trump announced during a radio interview just hours before Mr. Biden’s speech that, if he becomes president again, he will issue full pardons and a government apology to the Jan. 6 rioters. Mr. Trump also revealed that he met with Jan. 6 defendants in his office this week and that he is “financially supporting” some insurrectionists. “What they’ve done to these people is disgraceful,” Mr. Trump said. What’s truly disgraceful, and what formed the backdrop for Mr. Biden’s speech, is this: Mr. Trump’s continuing contempt for the rule of law; the complicit silence of the supposed leaders of his party, such as House Republican leader Kevin Mccarthy; and the real threat that Mr. Trump could again be his party’s nominee in 2024.