September 2, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
No Democratic president in my lifetime ever talked about a Republican predecessor like that
It’s the end of an era.
Here’s the important thing about the president’s prime-time address Thursday evening on the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
That it happened.
Forget about the details for a second.
No Democratic president in my lifetime has ever talked about a former GOP president the way Joe Biden did. Every Democratic president in my lifetime has avoided even using his predecessor’s name for fear of appearing to blame him for problems he faces.
Moreover: No Democratic president since Richard Nixon’s resignation, the year I was born, has named a sizable faction of the opposing party – “the MAGA Republicans” – as the source of violence threatening the Constitution, the rule of law and democracy. Every Democratic president has, at least since 1974, presumed the Republican Party’s good faith and commitment to the republic.
The president is enlarging the voting coalition that put him in office. He’s gathering the strength he’ll need to be the people’s partisan.
And: No Democratic president has ever questioned publicly the elemental patriotism of a former Republican president and his followers. No Democratic president has questioned their very Americanness. No Democratic president has come this close to calling his GOP predecessor a traitor. “You can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American,” the president said. “They’re incompatible.”
No Democratic president has ever, in my lifetime, identified the public’s enemy in the course of being the people’s partisan.
In my view, last night’s speech was the BFD of BFDs.
It broke so strenuously and decisively, even aggressively, from past politics that the press and pundit corps can be forgiven, temporarily, for not seeing it for what it is, but instead what it is not, which is to say, a speech that Democratic presidents are supposed to give.
The press and pundit corps expected a serious speech, to be sure, but it appears they expected Biden to say something akin to what Biden’s former boss would say – that we’re all Americans, that we all believe in the same fundamental democratic principles and that if we work hard and long enough together, we will in time find points of agreement.
Biden said no. We can’t.
Not with these people.
Commentary this morning among neutral observers was insufferable. But remember this: If you have never seen something, you probably won’t see it as new but instead something you already know. In this case, the press and pundits corps have never seen a Democratic president go on the offensive the way Joe Biden did last night.
So it’s not surprising that some in the press and pundit corps (I do not mean bad-faith rightwingers) see last night’s address as “partisan.” Biden talked up his and his party’s legislative accomplishments. He talked them up in a prime-time speech in the run-up to election season. These things give substance to the charge of partisanship.
But “partisan” has three meanings, three senses.
We use one, typically.
Biden’s speech used all of them.
The first is obvious. Biden said my party blah-blah-blah. “Vote, vote, vote,” he said. The second sense and third sense aren’t obvious.
The second indicates an armed member of an insurgency, to wit: “Donald Trump led partisans in assaulting the US Capitol.”
The third sense describes one’s disposition, a prejudice for or against a cause of some kind. For example: “Joe Biden is partisan for freedom and democracy, and against lawlessness, disloyalty and insurrection.” (The third sense can obviously mean prejudice for or against a party.)
Consider when Biden said democracy can’t survive when political violence is normal. “Democracy endures only if … we the people see politics not as total war but the mediation of our differences.”
I’m pretty sure Biden would prefer that democracy’s needs did not overlap fully with his party’s needs, because he would rather that attention to his party did not overshadow attention to democracy.
But such preferences are out of his control. The stream of history has brought us to where democracy and the Democratic Party are synonymous. The people who see politics as “total war” – that’s Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. The people who see politics as “the mediation of our differences” – that’s the president, Democrats, independents and, in the president’s view, “mainstream Republicans.”
My liberal brethren take issue with the difference between “MAGA Republicans” and “mainstream Republicans.” There’s not much daylight between them. But Biden is aiming for something higher.
By making that distinction, Biden is giving Republican voters who had supported Trump, but who are now having second thoughts, a path toward redemption – a means of reentering respectable society and returning to politics as “the mediation of our differences,” not war.
He’s moreover enlarging the voting coalition that put him in office. He’s gathering the strength he will need to fight as the people’s partisan.
Remember that presidents (are supposed to) represent all Americans. That office of government is the only one about which all US citizens have a say. “I’m an American president,” Biden said last night, “not the president of red America or blue America, but of all America.”
When a Democratic president calls out the public’s enemy, that’s a truly world-changing BFD. That means that as the people’s partisan – as the tribune of Democrats, independents and, yes, “mainstream Republicans” – he represents a political reaction to that enemy.
That’s the end of an era.
And the beginning of a new one.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.