President Biden’s speech commemorating the first anniversary of Jan. 6 this morning treaded a fine line: on one side, condemning and promising to fight a burgeoning anti-democracy movement committed to former President Trump.
But on the other side, Biden took a lighter tone. He offered an off-ramp for conservatives who can differentiate between policy disagreements and the democratic system in which they are contained.
It made for a speech filled both with strident denunciations of the former president and paeans to Republican politicians of bygone years.
Biden took a direct line in trying to reach an audience that he appeared to view as composed of millions of Americans who regularly vote Republican, but who support the basic Democratic bargain: you obey the will of the people — if you lose, and if you win.
He spoke about the GOP’s forebears, including Ronald Reagan in a list of Republican presidents that he respected, while adding that too many members of today’s party “seem to no longer want to be the party of Lincoln.”
He pitted that vision — of a Republican party that had policy differences with Democrats, but that was fundamentally committed to democracy — against the post-Jan. 6 Trump movement: one built around a man who “can’t accept that he lost,” and which is now trying to enable state legislatures to submit alternate, anti-democratic slates of electors.
“You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said. “You can’t obey the law only when it is convenient. You can’t be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies.”
Biden was trying to persuade a group of voters that already benefit dramatically from the counter-majoritarian structures of American democracy. Republicans last held a popular vote majority in the Senate in 1996; since then, they’ve won two electoral college presidential victories while losing the popular vote.
The distinction that Biden drew came directly from the insurrection last year — a question of who will accept the election results, and who will not.
He ran through, in detail, the basic reasons why the Big Lie myth that Trump was robbed of his rightful place as president made no sense. Among them, he noted, was the fact that Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives — results that nobody contests, delivered on the same ballots that sent Trump down to defeat.
“The former president didn’t lose those races,” Biden said. “He just lost the one that was his own.”
To those who believe the feverish myth that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and regard November 2020 as the “real insurrection,” Biden said he was ready for a fight.
“I will not shrink from it,” Biden said. “I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of Democracy.”
The more lighthearted way in which this manifested itself was in Biden’s attempts to use the speech to needle Trump’s ego.
After all, the Big Lie, insurrection, and attendant attempts to empower state legislatures to appoint slates of electors separate from those voted on by the populace are, in a large part, the product of one man’s “bruised ego” and grievance.
Biden refused to call Trump by his name, for example, instead referring to him as the “former president.”
“He can’t accept he lost,” Biden said, placing the emphasis on the final two words.
It’s not clear whether the rhetorical distinction that Biden drew between a significant portion of persuadable Republicans and a movement that’s all-in on MAGA authoritarianism is real.
Out of hundreds of Republican House members, only a handful have consistently and effectively spoken the truth about the 2021 insurrection, including most notably Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
Top Republican officials like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former Vice President Mike Pence recognized in the hours after the attack what it was: an insurrection. But they’ve downplayed the catastrophe since then, with McConnell voting to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial and Pence suggesting recently that Democrats were using the day to “demean” everyone who voted for Trump.
To Biden this morning, there was daylight between that behavior and former President Trump’s.
“The former President of the United States created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said. “He’s done so because he values power over principle.”