AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Last Thursday, in a speech that was billed as an address to the “soul of the nation,” President Joe Biden attacked what he termed “MAGA Republicans” as a “threat to Democracy,” blaming them for undermining the integrity of key American institutions and violating democratic norms. There is certainly something to be said for a warning about the state of American Democracy: after all, the United States does have a major political party whose members have rejected the authority of the Supreme Court, denounced the legitimacy of the Electoral College, and suggested they would not recognize a defeat in future elections, and who in June failed to denounce an activist who attempted to assassinate a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Self-reflection for the Democrats was not, however, on the agenda. If Democracy in the United States is in danger, and if part of the reason for it is a refusal by increasingly large portions of the country to accept defeat on issues, then the Democratic attitude of “rule or ruin” plays a key role. Republicans are not above gerrymandering, or playing hardball, but it is Democrats who refused to accept legislative defeats on guns, abortion, and student debt relief, and insisted on reversing them through highly questionable executive orders. If Biden has a point in warning about the behavior of a future Republican administration, a large part of that fear is that the next Republican president might try to do exactly the kind of overreaching that Biden has done.
If the goal of Biden’s speech was national healing, or to address the drift toward polarization, the speech was without a doubt a mistake. By singling out only one side, and ignoring the wider context, Biden ensured anyone interested in de-escalating on the Republican side would tune out. Meanwhile, by failing to call out the behavior of his own supporters, he made no effort to tone down their absolutism. It was a call not for peace and reconciliation, but for surrender. It was an ultimatum, not an olive branch.
Clearly, however, that appears to have been the point. A narrative has taken hold, driven by Democratic successes in special elections, most recently in Alaska, and by marginally rising poll numbers, that Biden and the Democrats are recovering. This alleged recovery correlates in the minds of Biden and his team with their decision to abandon efforts to win over swing voters in favor of mobilizing their own base, especially on divisive issues like abortion. As a result, the Biden White House has adopted a strategy of deliberate polarization.
Since June, Biden has “delivered” for his base on a series of policies – the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act,” “student loan relief,” raiding/harassing Donald Trump – all of which are without a doubt popular among left-wingers and the Democrat base. It is understandable, then, that at least some of those who disapproved of Biden’s performance because he was ineffective at delivering on left-wing priorities, not because he was too left-wing, would begin to express approval. This speech was merely the most dramatic example of this approach, driven by the perception in the media that it is working.
The problem for Biden is that this approach to a recovery has a ceiling. While it might be useful in improving his ratings from the 37-38% range to the 42-43% range by rallying left-wingers, many of these policies are either divisive (as with student loan relief) or outright unpopular (as with his spending bill). Biden, then has helped to alleviate the charge that he was an ineffective left-winger by demonstrating that he could be an effective left-winger. Unfortunately for him, he has, in the process, demonstrated to ordinary Americans that he is indeed what Republicans have alleged: a partisan left-winger.
If anything, Biden’s behavior, including presumably authorizing the raid on Donald Trump’s home in Florida and comparing “MAGA” supporters to fascists, seems designed to reinforce his image as a partisan rather than a unifying figure.
The one issue where Democrats had an opportunity to score a legislative victory on a “cultural issue” and rallied moderates, same-sex marriage, was one they lost interest in. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill codifying federal recognition of same-sex marriages with 47 Republicans voting in favor. To the shock of Democrats, who seem to have planned the bill as a political ploy, it suddenly looked like it would also pass in the Senate. Rather than welcoming this, Chuck Schumer seemed upset, and declined to schedule a vote, instead choosing to force through the budget-busting “Inflation Reduction Act” on partisan lines amidst warnings it might kill the same-sex marriage bill. Democrats were not interested in the issue as policy, nor in bipartisanship, and they were not going to allow it to pass by mistake and ruin their portrayal of Republicans as extremists.
Instead, they preferred to double down on abortion as a suitably divisive issue. Protecting the legal rights of same-sex couples, especially if legislation passed with protections for religious believers, risked bringing too many Americans together and removing an issue with which Democrats could frighten their voters.
It is important to keep this context in mind when it comes to analyzing or even discussing any impact of the Dobbs decision. The media, along with both Republican and Democratic analysts, have come to cite a “Dobbs effect,” alleging that the position of the Democratic Party has improved since the Supreme Court’s abortion decision. This appears to be the case insofar as, prior to the decision in June, Republicans were motivated and eager to vote, while liberals and Democrats saw little reason to. Now, Republicans remain motivated to vote, but Democrats and liberals are also much more willing to turn out.
But this phenomenon is also the result of the way the issue has played out. Unlike same-sex marriage, which after all is still governed by a controlling Supreme Court precedent declaring it legal nationwide, abortion law is now so fragmented among the states that Democrats were guaranteed to be able to find some jurisdiction to demonize.
“Failure” on abortion might not provide voters a reason to back Joe Biden, but it does provide Biden and his team with a reason why Democrats and liberals must turn out to vote against Republicans. And that is precisely what we have seen. To the extent that Democrats’ numbers have improved, it has largely been due to a shift in turnout dynamics in their favor, rather than winning over swing voters.
Will it work? The media thinks so. Politico suggests that Republicans are becoming reconciled to “fewer gains” while the Washington Post suggested the “unthinkable”: that Democrats could hold the House and make gains in the U.S. Senate. But, as I noted two weeks ago, it is easy to confuse movement for momentum. Both Republican and Democratic media figures exist heavily within the exact demographics (millennial city-dwellers with graduate degrees) where Biden’s base mobilization strategy has been most effective. It does not represent the scale of the task Democrats face, or whether the strategy is working at all with the Hispanic voters Democrats have been losing.
As for Republicans who are panicking over a Democratic ”comeback”, some seem to be exaggerating it for their own ends. Ben Shapiro blamed it squarely on Donald Trump’s increased prominence in order to advance his own argument that the party should redouble its efforts to move on from the former President.
This much is true: Any Democratic revival has been driven by Biden’s efforts to mobilize Democrats and liberals through division, and that requires an enemy. If Donald Trump did not exist, Biden would have to create him, which arguably is what he did with the recent raid—at least insofar as Trump goes as a midterm voting issue. In that sense, Shapiro is wrong to see this as easily avoidable. What the GOP should do is recognize that Democrats have benefited from shifting the debate from issues where they are on the wrong side of most of the public, such as school closures and wokeness, to ones where the public is split more evenly.
Republicans should respond with caution, but before Democrats celebrate, they should keep in mind that this sort of strategy is excellent for going from 37% to 44% of the vote. It is much harder to get to 50-51% if you are passing divisive spending bills, accusing your enemies of fascism, and obsessing over inside baseball issues such as the location of classified documents.
It may be the only strategy available to Biden—but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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