Former president Barack Obama on Friday made his first midterm campaign stop. He gave a rip-roaring speech that echoed the themes Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans have been sounding for 18 months. He urged the crowd and the country to “vote because our democracy depends on it,” joking that “some of you may think I’m exaggerating when I say this November’s elections are more important than any I can remember in my lifetime. I know politicians say that all the time. I have been guilty of saying it a few times, particularly when I was on the ballot.”
He then got to the meat of his remarks:
Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do, that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time.
And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in, and people of goodwill from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear mongers and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature. . .
A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. No promise to fight for the little guy, even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful. No promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further. They appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all. Sound familiar?
While much of his speech focused on policies that Democrats champion (health care and immigration reform), he reminded Republicans that Trumpism is not conservatism:
… over the past few decades, the politics of division, of resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican party. This Congress has championed the unwinding of campaign finance laws to give billionaires outside influence over our politics. Systematically attacked voting rights to make it harder for young people and minorities and the poor to vote. Handed out tax cuts without regard to deficits. Slashed the safety net wherever it could, cast dozens of votes to take away health insurance from ordinary Americans, embraced wild conspiracy theories like those surrounding Benghazi or my birth certificate, rejected science, rejected facts on things like climate change, embraced a rising absolutism from a willingness to default on America’s debt by not paying our bills to a refusal to even meet, much less consider, a qualified nominee for the Supreme Court because he happened to be nominated by a Democratic president.
None of this is conservative. . . . It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical. It’s a vision that says the protection of our power and those who back us is all that matters even when it hurts the country. It’s a vision that says the few who can afford high-price lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda, and over the past two years, this vision is now nearing its logical conclusion.
That led him to issue an unusual appeal, one that many #NeverTrumpers (yours included) have made:
I am here to tell you that even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy, even if you believe in more libertarian economic theories, even if you are an evangelical and our position on certain social issues is a bridge too far, even if you think my assessment of immigration is mistaken and the Democrats aren’t serious enough about immigration enforcement, I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.
It should not be Democratic or Republican. It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents. Or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.
It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them enemies of the people. It shouldn’t be democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray.
We are Americans. We’re supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination, and we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad.
That’s a message independents and persuadable Republicans need to hear over and over again. This is not normal. No president has attacked our institutions in the way President Trump has; no Congress has abdicated its role as a co-equal branch to the extent this Congress has. Because Republicans refuse to shoulder their constitutional obligations, voters concerned about fortifying our democracy must deprive the GOP of majorities in one or both houses. It’s the only way to get oversight, to hold Trump accountable and to begin the process of restoring democratic norms.
Obama is making this case from the Democratic perspective, but shouldn’t some Republicans join him to make the case for ridding us of one-party government? There are those who served in Republican administrations — Michael V. Hayden (CIA and National Security Agency), Robert Gates (defense secretary under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, as well as a former CIA director) and others in the national security realm who protested Trump’s decision to strip former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance. During the 2016 election there were a batch of former Republican officials and lawmakers who backed Hillary Clinton for the very reasons Obama now cites as requiring a Democratic Congress. Some or all of them can be enlisted once more.
These Republicans put country above party in 2016 by trying to prevent a disastrous Trump presidency. Events have proved them prescient about the threats Trump poses to our democracy. So now it’s time to again put country before party to urge voting against Republicans in the midterms. Even if you think the GOP can be saved (I remain highly skeptical), it has to get wiped out in its current incarnation in order to rebuild.
Republicans willing to sacrifice policy objectives to shore up our democracy could send a powerful message to voters. They should get out there in the advance of the midterms. Obama could use the help.