SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2022
Charles Blow, disappointed: Who was Joe Biden talking about in his blood-red, September 1 speech?
Former president Donald J. Trump was the one person Biden named. Aside from Trump, who were "the extreme MAGA Republicans" who, according to President Biden, were "committed to destroying America?"
In this September 7 column, Bret Stephens criticized Biden's speech, seeming to say that Biden had attacked with much too broad a brush. (Headline: "With Malice Toward Quite a Few.")
By the time Biden was done, he had seemed to attack almost every Republican voter—or so Stephens said. Stephens said that President Biden should have focused on the "sinister" Donald J. Trump.
For what it's worth, we generally agree with that general view—but who had Biden been talking about? It was hard to tell from his speech, which was remarkably accusatory but also remarkably vague.
Who had Biden been talking about? Right to this very day, the answer remains unclear.
Four letters in this morning's New York Times help illustrate this basic point. The first letter says this:
FIRST LETTER (9/10/22): While declaring Donald Trump to be the “gravest threat American democracy faces” out of one side of his mouth, out of the other Mr. Stephens decries President Biden’s harsh words for the MAGA Republicans fervently supporting Mr. Trump.
He can’t have it both ways.
Many Republicans in Congress to this day refuse to admit that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Until these Republicans can bring themselves (and convince the majority of their party) to acknowledge that the presidency was not stolen from Mr. Trump, sharp words to save our democracy are warranted.
That writer seemed to think that Biden had mainly been savaging "many Republicans in Congress," or at least that he should have done that.
In our view, that's one of the leadership groups Biden should have focused on. But is that who Biden specifically meant? In our view, the answer remains unclear.
As a second writer groped the elephant, he seemed to offer a somewhat similar view. This writer said he agreed with Stephens' criticism, but he added this:
SECOND LETTER: Bret Stephens nailed it. The threat to democracy is not Republicans or even just MAGA Republicans. It is the sinister and buffoonish Donald Trump, plus his inner circle that pushed his lies in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
This second writer seemed to agree that Biden had cast too wide a net. But he shouldn't have attacked Trump alone, this writer said. He should have attacked Trump "plus his inner circle," and he should have left it there.
We agree with that general view. That said, a third writer said he disagreed with Stephens' criticism of Biden:
THIRD LETTER: While I acknowledge the validity of some of Bret Stephens’s criticism of President Biden’s speech in Philadelphia, I take issue with his conclusion: “The gravest threat American democracy faces today isn’t the Republican Party, MAGA or otherwise. It’s Trump.”
This overlooks the fact that Trumpism has metastasized and infected the entire Republican Party. And getting rid of Donald Trump won’t eliminate the damage to our politics and electoral system that he leaves in his wake.
This writer is challenging Stephens, not Biden. But he seems to say that the problem Biden was discussing does involve "the entire Republican Party," presumably including tens of millions of Republican voters.
That was the sweeping message Stephens took from Biden's speech. He thought Biden had been savaging the Republican Party's rank and file, not just its leadership groups.
A fourth writer offered a narrower definition of "MAGA extremists." Is this what Biden was talking about? In truth, he had provided no way to tell:
FOURTH LETTER: I agree with much of what Bret Stephens says about President Biden’s speech. I was a registered Republican from 1970 to 2016. I left the party the day Donald Trump got the nomination.
I think there is one simple litmus test that separates the MAGA deplorables from the regular or moderate Republicans. If you deny that Joe Biden won the election, if you insist that it had to be rigged, if you attended the Jan. 6 riot and acted violently, then yes, you are a MAGA extremist bent on the destruction of our democracy. It’s that simple.
This letter writer tickled the keys with a callback to Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" language. He seemed to say that if someone, including a mere Republican voter, thinks the last election was stolen, then that person qualifies as "a MAGA extremist bent on the destruction of our democracy."
In this writer's view, even a misinformed Republican voter is "bent on the destruction of our democracy!" That voter isn't (misguidedly) trying to save our democracy. He's bent on tearing it down.
That judgment strikes us as harsh, unintelligent, politically unwise. But could that be what Biden meant?
As of September 1, the president had made three speeches about "the extreme MAGA Republicans." But in a massive failure of presidential rhetoric, there was no way to know if he had meant to assert some such judgment. The president had failed to say, with any real clarity, who he was talking about.
In Stephens' view, Biden had pretty much indicted every Republican voter by the time he was through. Was Stephens right in that assessment?
With the exception of one brief and fleeting disclaimer, Biden's rhetoric had been quite unclear. But hay-yo! This past Monday, on Labor Day, President Biden may have adjusted his rhetoric.
That very morning, we criticized the rhetoric the president had been using about "these extreme MAGA Republicans."
In his blood-red speech, the president had described this group in blood-curdling terms. They were "committed to destroying America," he said—but he kept failing to specify who he was talking about.
His rhetoric struck us as dangerous. In our view, he was blowing past a key distinction—the distinction between Republican leadership cadres and the Republican rank and file, between the misleaders and the misled.
But then, on Labor Day afternoon, a curious harbinger happened. During the 2 P.M. hour, on CNN, a Democratic strategist said this:
CAMEROTA (9/6/22): Zac Petkanas is a Democratic strategist and former rapid response director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Zac, I will start with you.
President Biden more and more has been trying to draw this distinction between basically old-school Republicans that he knew and worked with and what he calls "MAGA Republicans." Is he giving an off-ramp to Republicans? Why is he hitting this so hard?
PETKANAS: Well, look, I think it's really important what President Biden is doing.
He's distinguishing between Republican voters who are mainstream, normal, just want to get by, to have food on the table, to send their kids to school, and Republican leaders, who are increasingly showing this level of extremism. And we're seeing it at the rallies. We're seeing it by calls by state legislatures to criminalize abortion, even in the cases of rape and incest.
These are things that are Republican leaders' priorities, but not Republican voters' priorities. And distinguishing that is really key to winning the midterms.
Say what? The president had been "distinguishing between Republican voters" and "Republican leaders?" It was Republican leaders, not Republican voters, who were "increasingly showing this level of extremism?"
Is that who Biden was talking about—the misleaders, not the misled? That's the distinction we had advised—but is that what Biden had been saying in his three speeches?
It's easy enough to voice that distinction; Petkanas had just done so! It's easy to include an additional phrase about the way the misleaders have been aggressively misleading the misled.
It's easy enough to do so such things. But in his three speeches to date on this topic, Biden had made little such effort.
We were struck by this new account of what Biden had been saying. And then, sure enough! During the 4 o'clock hour, Kaitlan Collins aired a brief excerpt of the president's speech in Wisconsin:
COLLINS (9/5/22): We're just 64 days away from the crucial November midterm elections and President Biden is visiting two battleground states, first in Wisconsin this afternoon, where the president once again tried to clarify what he meant by defining some Trump supporters, some Republicans, as "MAGA Republicans."
BIDEN (video): The extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress have chosen to go backwards, full of anger, violence, hate, and division. But together, we can and we must choose a different path.
COLLINS: Next hour, President Biden is going to be speaking in Pennsylvania as well. His third visit to the commonwealth in just a week.
According to Collins, the president had once again tried to define who he was talking about. But now, he was railing against "the extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress." He had added two words to his brief.
You can read the text of the Wisconsin speech. Repeatedly, the president specifically attacks the behavior and the intentions of "these MAGA Republicans in Congress."
He was specifically citing that leadership cadre, not the rank and file. In our view, he should have drawn that distinction all along.
Suddenly, Biden seemed to be narrowing his indictment. At least for one brief, shining moment, he was aiming his harsh rhetoric at the misleaders, not the misled.
That said, some people don't like this sort of thing. They prefer to do their loathing en masse—by the tens of millions.
That morning in the New York Times, Charles Blow had already complained about Biden's fleeting refusals to categorize every single Republican voter as a "MAGA Republican."
Charles Blow is a good, decent person—but he's also a person person. We humans are wired to loathe en masse, even when such wholesale loathing makes no earthly sense.
On Monday, we'll consider Blow's column by the numbers. He wanted every Other attacked, even including the millions of Others who were moving away from Trump.
Tomorrow: Charles Blow, by the numbers