The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When Biden imitates Trump, he is on a dangerous path

President Biden speaks during a news conference at the White House on Jan. 19. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Democracy depends on respecting the results of elections, even when you don’t like the outcome. That is the chief lesson of 2020.

But now, in a disturbing echo of sore loser Donald Trump, President Biden and other top Democrats are saying that the only way Democrats can lose in 2022 is if Republicans successfully prevent them from voting.

“Well, it all depends,” Biden said Wednesday at a White House news conference when asked whether the coming elections would be legitimate. When another reporter followed up to ask whether the president really fears the midterms won’t be free and fair, Biden imagined Republican election officials discarding votes. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be legit,” he said defiantly.

There are several problems with this. First, it just ain’t so. The GOP is quite likely to win control of both the House and Senate in November — fair and square. Gallup pegs Biden’s approval rating one year into the presidency at 40 percent, which means most Americans don’t think he’s doing a good job. If history is any guide, Biden’s party could lose badly this year. The results may not need any interpretation.

Biden acknowledged that he is struggling and that he lacked enough Democratic support in the Senate to pass two election-related bills. But that didn’t stop him from wrongly suggesting that those measures were necessary for November’s elections to be fair. “The prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these ... reforms passed,” he said.

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Comments like this are conditioning the Democratic base to view divided government in 2023 as illegitimate, which will only deepen our nation’s divisions and make compromise harder. What makes Biden’s comments especially problematic is that they didn’t appear to be off the cuff. His more aggressive tone, including with the speech on voting rights in Georgia last week, seems intentional and strategic.

Democratic strategists privately say that warning minority voters that the other side is trying to disenfranchise them can help mobilize turnout this year. It has worked for Democrats before.

But they’re playing with fire to talk that way now. The risks to democracy are far higher than any short-term advantage to Democrats.

Interviewing Vice President Harris on Thursday morning, NBC “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie pointed out that it’s “astonishing” to hear Biden echo Trump, who liked to say ahead of the 2020 election that the only way he could lose was if the results were “rigged.” When Guthrie asked whether the results this year would be free and fair, Harris twice declined to directly answer. Instead, the vice president said that 55 million Americans will feel the consequences of states passing new laws making it more difficult to vote. She said that “the solution” is the two bills — which had died the night before in the Senate. “Let’s not be distracted by the political gamesmanship,” Harris said.

About two hours after Harris’s cringeworthy interview, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that Biden wasn’t casting doubt on the legitimacy of the next election. “He was explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact,” she said.

Which is pretty much what Trump said in 2020, that he would accept the results — if Democrats didn’t cheat. Now, the White House is saying Biden will accept the results — if Republicans don’t cheat.

It’s time to decouple legitimate concerns about states restricting ballot access in ways that disadvantage racial minorities from the liberal dream of federalizing elections. Election Day does not need to be a federal holiday. Ballot drop-boxes make voting marginally more convenient, but they’re not essential. Requiring people to show an ID to vote is not Jim Crow 2.0. Democrats and Republicans both need to respect the rules and follow them.

Republicans who called out Trump for not accepting the 2020 results are right to criticize Biden for doing the same. “It was unacceptable then,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), “and it is unacceptable now.”

Exactly right. Biden and Harris are climbing a wobbly and dangerous ladder of escalation. Someone on their staffs should help them find a way back down, and fast.