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Semafor LogoMorgan Chalfant
Morgan Chalfant
politics

'Struggle for democracy': President Biden tells Americans to vote like their republic depends on it

With David Weigel

Morgan is a Political and National Security Reporter for Semafor, joining us from The Hill. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.

Dave is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.

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Title iconThe News
President Biden speaks during a Democratic National Committee event at the Columbus Club in Washington. November 2, 2022.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

President Biden put democracy at the center of his closing campaign pitch on Wednesday night, warning of the threat posed by former President Trump and Republicans who refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election.

Biden portrayed a country in the midst of a “struggle for democracy” and called on Americans to reject political violence. He spoke from Union Station in Washington, D.C., less than a week after an assailant attacked the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at her home in San Francisco in what the Justice Department says was a plot to kidnap the speaker.

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“Extreme MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections, but elections being held now and into the future,” Biden said, referring to Trump a handful of times only as the “defeated former president.”

“With democracy on the ballot we have to remember these first principles: Democracy means the rule of the people, not the rule of monarchs or the monied, but the rule of the people. Autocracy is the opposite of democracy, it means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party,” he continued. “What we’re doing now is going to determine whether democracy will long endure.”

It was the second speech Biden has delivered in the past two months focused on threats to democracy in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The address comes as polls indicate Democrats are likely to lose at least the House majority.

Democrats have fretted out loud that a focus on “democracy” is more compelling to party donors and activists than persuadable voters. Their paid messaging has largely focused on other issues, with exceptions in specific races where GOP candidates, like Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano or Texas Rep. Mayra Flores, had participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection or the post-2020 “Stop the Steal” campaign.

On Tuesday night, Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin welcomed Republican Rep. Liz Cheney to her central Michigan district for an hourlong forum on democracy. Six hundred voters packed into an East Lansing gym to hear them talk about the threat to America posed by election denial – which, Slotkin admitted, might not be her most winning issue.

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"It is not, I'll be honest, the first thing I heard about on the street in my district,” Slotkin said. But the second-term Democrat challenged the idea that protecting elections was not a “kitchen table” issue.

"It's the ultimate kitchen table issue,” said Slotkin. “It's not even the kitchen table, it's the foundation of the home in which the kitchen table sits."

Biden’s speech also comes in the context of elevated concerns of political violence and voter intimidation across the country as the country nears Election Day next Tuesday.

He opened his remarks with a reference to the attack on Paul Pelosi and demanded Americans stand against political violence and voter intimidation, calling out a “distinct minority” for condoning such violence.

“We don’t settle our differences in America with a riot, a mob, or a bullet or a hammer,” Biden said.

Republicans were dismissive. After a rally for Michigan congressional candidate John Gibbs on Wednesday night, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused Democrats of “demonizing voters” with his democracy rhetoric.

“There is a contempt for the voters that we see from today's Democrats that I think is new and dangerous,” Cruz told Semafor. “I hope that after a shellacking at the polls, that at least some sanity returns to some Democrats – that they realize attacking the voters and running to the socialist extreme is not a path to victory.”

An RNC spokeswoman called Biden's speech “pointless, pathetic, and out-of-touch.”

Title iconMorgan and Dave's View

Many Democrats saw the remarks as an obvious and smart move, particularly in the wake of the violent attack against Paul Pelosi.

“The third highest ranking official in the United States of America is under attack by the same people or the same sentiment of those that attacked the country on Jan. 6,” said former DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile. “I thought tonight was about saying to America, we’re better than this, we don’t do this.”

The venue gave Biden the opportunity to both talk about a topic that comes naturally to him and try to inspire voters to show up to vote with less than a week to go until the midterms, at a time when the tide seems to be against his party. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said in an interview that invoking Jan. 6 and threats to democracy could help motivate the Democratic base.

“It is particularly salient to younger Democrats who we always have trouble in off year elections getting out,” she said.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, argued that while it’s important for Biden to discuss threats of political violence and election doubters, he’s better served to keep his attention trained on the economy.

“I think he’s missing the opportunity to talk about the real threat to democracy, which is people’s deteriorating standard of living,” Geevarghese said in an interview. “At the end of the day, the No. 1 thing that people are concerned about is whether they can put food on the table, whether they can keep a roof over their heads.”

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