Opinion The GOP reaction to Biden’s speech shows that his anti-MAGA strategy is working

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HR King
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By Max Boot
Columnist |
September 5, 2022 at 10:04 a.m. EDT
President Biden walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland en route to Philadelphia to deliver a speech at Independence Hall on Sept. 1. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
For the past two years, ever since he became the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden has been pushing a message of bipartisanship that grated on the ears of younger and more progressive Democrats. You could hear the grumbling: He’s too old, he has been in Washington too long, he doesn’t understand how the Republican Party has changed.
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But Biden stubbornly insisted that he could pass bipartisan bills — and he did. He passed legislation to stimulate the economy, build infrastructure, fund semiconductor production, pay for veterans’ health programs, regulate gun sales, lower prescription drug prices and roll back greenhouse gas emissions. He hasn’t gotten everything he wanted, but from a legislative standpoint, this is one of the most successful presidencies in decades.
Now that Biden has gotten so much of his agenda enacted, and with the midterm elections looming, he has switched to a more combative mode. His Thursday speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia was billed as a salvo in the continuing battle for “the soul of the nation,” but it was really a well-justified expression of rage and despair about what the Republican Party has become. The president is finally telling Democrats what they want to hear: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” This comes only a few days after he described the MAGA philosophy as “semi-fascism.”
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As if on cue, Republicans screamed bloody murder, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accusing Biden of choosing “to divide, demean and disparage his fellow Americans.” So does this mean that Biden’s previous commitment to working with Republicans was merely transactional and has now been discarded in the heat of the campaign?
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That is certainly the right-wing interpretation of his speech, with conservatives accusing Biden of discarding his campaign pledge to “unite our country” and not stoke “division.” (Republicans demonstrated their own commitment to unity and uplift after the speech by comparing Biden to Hitler and accusing him of being a “raving lunatic.”)
But note that Biden wasn’t calling out all Republicans — he was not, contrary to the GOP talking points, attacking “half the country.” He was careful to differentiate between normal Republicans and MAGA Republicans. “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” he said. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.”
What Biden is doing is smart, if difficult to pull off: He is attempting to draw a dividing line between those Republicans who threaten U.S. democracy and those who don’t.
The problem, as he acknowledged, is that the MAGA Republicans aren’t some fringe movement: “The Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.” As Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) showed by losing her primary by nearly 40 points, there is no room for Trump critics in the Republican Party outside of a few blue enclaves such as Maryland and Massachusetts.
A recent Economist-YouGov poll showed that 69 percent of Republicans don’t think that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, thus failing a basic litmus test of democracy. By some other measures, the number of MAGA Republicans is smaller — an NBC News poll found that only 41 percent of Republicans support Trump more than the party. Other polls show that only about 25 percent of Republicans approve of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Whatever figure you use for MAGA Republicans, it’s clear that they account for tens of millions of voters and pose a major threat to our democracy. But there are also millions of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who aren’t hardcore Trumpkins and who are up for grabs. This includes “Never Trump” former Republicans like me. In elections that are likely to be decided at the margins, in a handful of swing states or competitive districts, relatively small shifts in sentiment can produce a political earthquake.
In 2020, Biden got 6 percent of Republican votes compared with Hillary Clinton’s 4 percent in 2016 and, more importantly, 52 percent of independents compared with Clinton’s 42 percent. That was enough to oust Trump from the White House, with Biden flipping five Trump states by a combined margin of only 279,000 votes.
By focusing on “MAGA Republicans,” Biden is trying once again to persuade independents and the small number of moderate Republicans to support Democratic candidates. His strategy could backfire by simply firing up enthusiasm among Trump supporters (as was the case with Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment), but there is evidence to suggest it might be working.
While Biden has started attacking “MAGA Republicans,” Democrats’ election prospects have improved, boosted by gains among independents. A lot of that shift is because of support for abortion rights, a decline in gas prices and Democratic success in passing legislation, but a recent NBC News poll found that voters rank threats to democracy as their No. 1 concern. The GOP reaction to Biden’s speech has been so hysterical, one suspects, precisely because Republicans fear that his strategy — of turning “MAGA” into a toxic brand — might succeed.