Democrats say they’re saving democracy. So why are they bending it?

Biden and his party are making some risky bets

Democrats like Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney, shown with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are playing a dangerous game, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats like Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney, shown with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are playing a dangerous game, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 7, 2022 at 6:00am

Last Thursday, the “unity president” gave one of the most divisive speeches ever delivered by a sitting president. Billed as a nonpolitical speech to the nation, it was instead an overtly partisan and angry screed, rationalized with self-serving rhetoric about saving the “soul of the nation” from the unpatriotic MAGA Republicans. 

Standing in front of an inexplicably ominous blood-red background, Joe Biden railed against former President Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans (his fluid terminology), who, he claimed, “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” He didn’t stop there, going on to call his political opponents not only “a threat to American democracy” but “a clear and present danger” to the country. 

The man who pledged to bring the country together had just outdone Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” comment by declaring almost half the country’s voters little more than enemies of the state in the “battle for the soul of the nation.” 

It was a speech that only hard-line base Democrats and their supporters in the media could love, a speech full of animus for millions of his fellow citizens that history will not treat well. 

So, if what Biden was saying about MAGA Republicans is true, then it’s fair to ask why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association and Democratic political action committees have spent more than $40 million in GOP primaries to support the very same MAGA candidates their leader is telling voters threaten our democracy? Their explanation, of course, is simple. When saving the soul of the nation, sometimes patriots have to be ethically flexible.

That is certainly how DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney justifies the idea of bankrolling certain candidates in GOP primaries whom he sees as weaker general election candidates. Maloney admitted as much on “Meet the Press” when moderator Chuck Todd questioned whether he had put party over country with his decision to spend $425,000 to promote a MAGA candidate over Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican who voted to impeach Trump. 

Defending his actions, Maloney said, “I understand that there are difficult moral questions, philosophical questions about tactics. … We believe that by keeping those dangerous people out of power, we address the larger moral imperative, and that’s our job.” 

Maloney’s explanation gives new meaning to the phrase “situational ethics.” What Biden and Maloney are really saying is that, in politics, when you’re the “good guys,” the end justifies the means — by any means necessary. 

But some of the most respected members of his own party, who hold themselves to a higher standard, disagree with this cynical approach to winning. In early August, 35 prominent Democratic leaders, all former elected officials and Cabinet members, took aim at Maloney’s strategy with a withering letter that read, “These destructive primary tactics aim to elevate Republican candidates who Democrats hope they can more easily beat in November. But it is risky and unethical to promote any candidate whose campaign is based on eroding trust in our elections. We must stop this practice, and stop today.”

Signers included Richard Gephardt, Jane Harman, Mary Landrieu, Carol Moseley Braun, James Blanchard, Dan Glickman, Tim Roemer, Mark Udall and Tim Wirth. But Maloney and his boss, Biden, apparently remain committed to a strategy rooted in winning at all costs. 

The hypocrisy of Biden’s remarks over the past week has been on full display, starting with his statement that “democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: either they win or they were cheated. And that’s where MAGA Republicans are today.” 

But that’s where Democrats have been over and over again since the 2000 presidential election.

I happen to believe that the 2020 election was a legitimate election and arguments otherwise at this point are self-defeating. But contrary to what the media would have you believe, Republicans who questioned this past election are hardly unique. 

Democratic leaders ranging from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Jimmy Carter, Jamie Raskin and Karine Jean-Pierre, along with a raft of congressional Democrats, have variously questioned the outcomes of some elections in 2000, 2004 or 2016 when they found themselves on the losing side, not unlike the MAGA Republicans Biden condemns for doing the very same. 

Hypocrisy aside, Biden’s unpresidential speech Thursday and his approval of Maloney’s and others’ questionable tactics is a risky bet. The Clinton campaign never really recovered from her “deplorables” comment, which turned off millions of independents. 

Today, the media and Democrats would have you believe Biden is back and Democrats are on the move. While his job approval overall has improved very slightly, that’s mainly the result of unhappy Democrats coming home after the passage of the ill-advised green energy deal and Biden’s student loan bailout. But a majority of the country continues to disapprove of the job he’s doing, and that level of disapproval hasn’t changed. 

His Democratic base was never really in question. The same can’t be said, however, for independents, which makes his decision to kick off the fall campaign with such a divisive message hard to understand. Trump lost in 2020 in part because he lost, by a sizable margin, his 2016 advantage with independents, who tired of the former president’s tone and tweets. 

According to most polls, there has been little to no change in Biden’s job approval with independents, but all polls agree he remains underwater with these voters by significant margins. How will his truly awful speech in Philadelphia “play in Peoria”? We’ll know soon enough whether the Democrats’ negative attack strategy for the fall is going to work with independents, the voters who will determine the outcome of the midterm elections.

But telling voters that their friends and family, neighbors and co-workers who voted Republican or disagreed with Democratic policies should now be considered detestable, unpatriotic and downright dangerous seems like bad politics. It is certainly not good for an already divided country.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.