PHILADELPHIA — President Joe Biden used Philadelphia as the launching point Thursday for a blistering speech warning that “MAGA Republicans” are a threat to American values, and urging voters to choose a different path.
Here are six takeaways from the address:
A warning for democracy
Standing in front of Independence Hall Thursday night, President Joe Biden said it was his duty to warn the country that the democracy born there is under direct threat.
“As I stand here tonight, equality and democracy are under assault. We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise,” he said early in his roughly 25-minute speech. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the foundations of our very republic.”
He pointed to attempts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election, the riot at the U.S. Capitol, inflammatory denunciations of the FBI, and the wave of Trump allies who have won primaries across the country and are now a step from gaining power, and potentially overseeing critical elections in key swing states, including Pennsylvania.
“They tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people,” Biden said. “This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.”
A call to action for November
The warnings about the fate of American values in many ways echo the threats Biden cited when he ran for president in 2020. But while he framed the cautions as his civic obligation, there’s clear political motivation as well.
The speech came just days before Labor Day, the traditional launching point for campaign season. It was an attempt to reframe this fall’s midterm elections from a referendum on Biden’s administration to a choice between Democrats and the MAGA Republicans he says threaten the nation. Several times in the speech Biden explicitly appealed to voters to choose a different path than the one laid out by the GOP — “it’s within our power, it’s in our hands, yours and mine, to stop the assault on American democracy,” he said. In other words, he was saying, choose Democrats.
(And, of course, he was standing in Pennsylvania as it hosts some of the country’s most pivotal races for governor, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House).
Politically, it makes sense. The party in power almost always loses ground in the midterms, and Biden’s approval ratings, while ticking upward, are still struggling. But Trump is also deeply unpopular, and for years has driven Democratic turnout and swung many moderate suburbanites away from the GOP.
In putting the attention-loving Trump in the spotlight, Biden is both raising an alarm over a threat that showed itself in 2020, and aiming to boost his party’s prospects in 2022.
Citing abortion, Biden makes a wider case against MAGA
While attacks on democracy were the main focus of Biden’s speech, he also tied his warning to social issues, including the recent Supreme Court decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
“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,” Biden said, pointing to other rights that liberals believe could come under attack. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas offered a roadmap to doing just that in his concurring opinion to the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro has made a similar case as he runs for governor, linking voting rights to other rights that he says are at risk.
While Democrats believe the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and attempts to throw out the 2020 election were beyond the pale, many of their political strategists also believe that public opinion on those incidents is pretty much settled, and unlikely to move voters any more than they already have.
But Democrats also believe election denialism is one element in a wider picture of GOP extremism on other issues — and in making that case Thursday, Biden laid out a path for Democrats to follow as they try to weave together an array of issues they’ll campaign on this fall.
Republicans don’t see much unity in Biden’s message
Biden’s speech was one of the sharpest political attacks of his presidency.
While Democrats on hand cheered a message that some believe was overdue, Republicans said it insulted millions of voters and exposed as hollow Biden’s 2020 campaign pledge to heal the country’s political divisions.
“The president who claims to promote unity has branded half the country as terrorists, basically. If you didn’t vote for Biden, he’s talking about you. It’s a remarkable declaration of war against tens of millions of Americans,” tweeted Tim Murtaugh, a former Trump campaign spokesperson with Pennsylvania roots.
Biden said he “wanted to be clear” that he wasn’t speaking about all Republicans, or even a majority of them, but said the GOP has become “dominated, driven, and intimidated” by Trump and his allies.
“Joe Biden is the divider-in-chief and epitomizes the current state of the Democratic Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country,” said Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee.
Many liberals scoffed at Biden’s pledge to seek unity in 2020, saying there was no hope for a compromise with the current iteration of the GOP. Biden seems to have agreed.
Will the message motivate voters?
Biden delivered his charge to Americans, one he’s been building toward in stump speeches for the last week. The question now becomes, will voters respond to it?
An Aug.22 NBC Newssurvey found that threats to democracy were the top issue among voters nationwide. Cost of living was second and then jobs and the economy were third. (Though if added together, these pocketbook issues were No. 1).
Still, that’s the highest that concerns about democracy have ranked in recent surveys.
And Biden supporters and Democratic organizers at his speech on Thursday said they see it mobilizing people in their communities.
“The president is right — our democracy is truly on the line,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, organizing director of the Working Families Party. “This election is about whether we will have a democratic or authoritarian government in the U.S.A.”
Rosalind Holtzman, an organizer of Tuesdays with Toomey, a group that has opposed Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s tenure in the Senate, said she thinks voters remain motivated because the number of Trump-aligned candidates running have only increased since 2016.
“I have felt that since Trump started running, like every alarm bell that I had was going off,” she said, “and unfortunately my fears have not been dissuaded.”
Jeff Garris, a director of 99% PA, a progressive think tank, said he thinks voters are more inclined to show up to the polls when they feel their basic rights are at stake. Still, he noted voting is only effective if it’s accessible.
“We see over and over efforts to try to come up with ways to make it difficult for people to vote and participate in democracy,” he said. “I think we have to be very, very vigilant in fighting back.”
Independence Hall stole the show
Choosing Independence Hall for a big speech on democracy was both politically smart (have you heard about the importance of Pennsylvania’s midterm elections?) and symbolically fitting.
If the intent was to sound the alarm about threats to the Republic with gravitas, it’s hard to beat the theatrics of the clock tower tolling as the Marine Corps Band played Hail to the Chief and Biden emerged from the building where the country was born.
Independence Hall, awash in red, white and blue, made for a dramatic backdrop for a speech in which Biden several times invoked the Constitution.
“We’re a big, complicated country. But democracy endures only if we the people respect the guardrails of the republic,” he said. “Only if we the people accept the results of free and fair elections. Only if we the people see politics not as total war, but mediation of our differences.”
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