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Opinion Biden’s MAGA speech was designed to protect Democrats, not democracy

President Biden delivers remarks in Philadelphia on Sept. 1. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg News)

President Biden’s prime-time speech on Thursday was promoted as a call to protect democracy. Its highly inappropriate partisanship shows that its true intent was to protect Democrats.

Presidents have public and political roles. Their public role is to serve as the nation’s chief executive, while their political one is to advance their party and its agenda. Presidents have historically taken great care to separate the two roles.

Biden disregarded that distinction, crucial to a functioning democracy, on Thursday night. He gave what was essentially a Democratic campaign speech during an official White House effort, complete with Marine guards standing ominously in the background. Casually ignoring a bipartisan democratic norm in a speech ostensibly devoted to protecting democracy dials chutzpah up to 11.

But that’s par for the course for Democrats this year. On the one hand, they tell Americans that MAGA Republicans are the greatest threat to the United States ever seen. On the other, they have spent nearly $50 million trying to promote ultra-MAGA candidates in Republican primaries, believing they would be easier to defeat in general elections. Just Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s political action committee placed more than $3 million in television ads to promote ultra-MAGA Senate candidate Don Bolduc in New Hampshire’s GOP primary. Cynically promoting people you believe to be threats to democracy for partisan gain is despicable.

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There’s a reason Biden and the Democrats are waving the bloody shirt: Polls show they will likely lose the midterm elections if they don’t.

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counterpointWhy Biden chose the perfect setting for a difficult message

Biden’s recent uptick in job approval merely hikes him into the low 40s. That’s still pathetically, historically low. The parties of presidents polling this poorly this close to the midterms usually get annihilated. Since World War II, no party with a sitting president who polls this low on Election Day in his first midterm has lost fewer than 26 House seats — that was Ronald Reagan, in 1982. The last three Democrats who polled this poorly each lost their majorities in the House, giving up between 54 and 64 seats. A similar loss this November would be disastrous for Biden and his agenda.

That’s why Biden is turning up the political heat when the pot is already boiling over. He ostensibly targeted only a portion of Republicans, but his argument that MAGA Republicans would turn back the clock on issues such as abortion showed this speech to be an ordinary partisan attack, not a call to national unity in the face of mortal peril. Many Republicans agree on the issues Biden emphasized, including the heinousness of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the need to respect the peaceful transfer of power once election season is over. But if it’s a sign of MAGA Republicanism to be pro-life, then what Biden really means is the slur that there is no distinction between traditional conservatism and Donald Trump’s MAGA movement.

Biden’s partisan brinkmanship wouldn’t be that unusual in U.S. history had it not been part of an official White House address. We haven’t heard this type of lurid talk in a long time, but it has a long pedigree. Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided speech,” given when he was a U.S. Senate candidate, essentially accused the chief justice of the United States and President James Buchanan of engaging in a conscious conspiracy to bring slavery to the North. Franklin D. Roosevelt frequently said that his opponents were royalists and Tories opposed to the very idea of American democracy.

The official White House imprimatur, however, means everything. Biden is now saying that opposing Republicans — and that’s what his partisan rhetoric meant, no matter how often he said there are Republicans who aren’t in his sights — is official American policy. Two years ago, Democrats angrily attacked Trump for improperly mixing his official and partisan roles when he used the White House lawn to accept the Republican nomination. Today, the lemmings have fallen in behind their leader.

None of this excuses Trump for his genuinely appalling attempt to remain in power on Jan. 6, 2021. Republicans should have impeached and convicted him for that. The continued efforts to relitigate the election and even contend that states should rescind their certifications of the 2020 vote are repulsive and dangerous. They should be fiercely opposed by people from all parties.

None of that justifies the spectacle we endured on Thursday night. Biden identified democracy with boilerplate Democratic agenda items and, worse, suggested that a victory in the November elections by his political opponents — not just the MAGA ones — would be a grave threat to the American experiment. A desperate man and his desperate party mixed public and partisan roles that have historically been separated, except during the 2020 Republican convention under Trump. Apparently, the United States can now be legitimately united only under one political banner. That’s something I thought I would never live to hear my president utter.