If Biden's record won't attract attention, Democrats will focus on Trump | Opinion

It took some time, but the Democratic Party establishment finally recognized what had become apparent to most of the political universe many months ago:

If the congressional midterm elections became a referendum on the Biden Administration, defeat and the loss of both houses of Congress was inevitable.

Their solution? Go hard negative. Mount an attack on former president Donald Trump, change the narrative from a referendum to a choice, divert attention from Biden’s two-year record and focus on the potential for a government controlled by radical fringe elements led by an individual whose four-year administration was the most chaotic and tumultuous in modern history and portray it as an authoritarian regime posing an existential threat to democracy and personal freedoms.

Congressmen Tom Malinowski is shown between, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill and Congressman Josh Gottheimer, all of whom spoke in Secaucus in favor of a new Portal Bridge. Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Biden bought into the strategy, convinced that Trump was too inviting a target to pass up and Republican congressional candidates would be vulnerable if tied to him.

The new approach debuted when Biden characterized the Republican Party as “semi-fascists,” a term that, for most people, conjures up images of Hitler and the Nazi party.

The backlash from enraged Republicans was immediate and fierce but even some Democrats expressed dismay over his use of the politically loaded phrase while others remained silent rather than defend his remarks.

The four New Jersey Democratic House members in varying degrees of vulnerability — Tom Malinowski, Andy Kim, Mikie Sherril and Josh Gottheimer — were among their party colleagues who chose to either remain quiet or comment in generalities about political extremism.

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‘That is a threat to the country’

“Too much in our country is not normal,” President Joe Biden says on Sept. 1, 2022, in a 24-minute speech outside Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

Although neither Biden nor Trump will appear on the ballot, their presence will be felt and whether the president’s fiery language will prove influential in New Jersey’s competitive districts remains to be seen.

Biden followed his “semi fascist” characterization with a speech in Philadelphia, brimming with warnings a dark and dystopian future awaited the nation if Republicans aligned with Trump returned to power.

Within a matter of days, Biden realized he’d gone too far and pivoted to damage control mode, walking back his harsher rhetoric and treading a softer path.

Attempting to clarify his warning the country was teetering on the edge of losing its democracy should Republicans prevail, Biden offered a gentler take:

“I don’t consider any Trump supporter to be a threat to the country. Not every Republican, not even a majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.  But there’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to the country.”

His remarks, he insisted, were directed at those who cast doubts on election outcomes, fail to condemn violence, spread conspiracy theories and attack law enforcement.

It wasn’t exactly a some-of-my-best-friends-are-Trump-voters moment and he’s not about to appear in public donning a red baseball cap with a  MAGA logo; rather, it was a recognition that he’d crossed a line and it was necessary to dampen his incendiary rhetoric. The damage had been done, though, and the first impression —“semi fascists” — has been firmly implanted in the narrative.

For a week, for instance, press secretary Karina Jean-Pierre stumbled through her briefings under siege from the media to explain, clarify her boss’s remarks and identify those to whom he felt “semi fascism” should be applied appropriately.

Dodging, deflecting and changing the subject — her fallback position when pressed — failed to satisfy media demands until she delivered a rationale that was as startling as it was idiotic: “If you are not where the majority of Americans are, that is extreme,” suggesting that public opinion polling should be the deciding factor in differentiating between reasonable people and extremists.

Millions of Americans in the minority on a public policy issue — say, for instance, a 52% to 48% outcome — would be categorized as extremists or, using her definition, “semi fascists” because they are not where a majority of Americans are.

The abrupt change in strategic direction appears to represent as well a belief that concentrating on Biden’s recent string of legislative wins has been cast aside temporarily as a campaign narrative along with his posture as uniter in chief in favor of overheated partisan rhetoric.

Discussions of the intricacies of student loan debt forgiveness, domestic chip manufacturing, climate change, prescription drug costs sand corporate taxation are for the policy wonk crowd and, while these subjects and others will work their way into campaign debates, it is the fist-pounding on the podium speeches that brings rally crowds to their feet.

Despite the irresistible temptation to strike back forcefully, cooler and more politically insightful heads may have prevailed in the speechwriting process by pointing out that Trump received 74 million votes in 2020 and that Biden’s Electoral College victory of 306-232 was nearly identical to Trump’s 304-227 margin in defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It should have come as no surprise that offense was taken at the president intimating that 74 million Americans who voted for his opponent only two years before share a fascist philosophy.

Nor should it have been a shock that comparisons were drawn immediately with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” insult in 2016 in describing her opponent’s supporters.

Moreover, Biden’s seven million popular vote plurality was provided by two states — New York and California — and a shift of fewer than 43,000 votes in three states — Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia — would have awarded Trump 275 electoral votes, enough for re-election.

Put another way: Trump lost a re-election bid by 43,000 votes out of nearly 160 million cast.

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Trump’s wealth of material — for political attacks

Trump during the Pro Am. The LIV Pro Am Tournament featured the former President of the United States, Donald Trump and his son Eric playing with with Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau at Trump National in Bedminster, NJ on July 28, 2022.

For more than a year, Biden’s unpopularity has been a drag on Democrats election prospects. His continued double digit negative standing on inflation, crime, immigration, and cost of living increases portended a potential blowout, a loss of upwards of 30 seats in the House and a handful in the Senate — enough to give Republicans the majority.

While Biden has gained a few points in public approval, 70% of Americans still believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Trump has provided Biden and the Democrats with a wealth of material with which to warn of the perils of returning government to the hands of ideologues armed with out of the mainstream agendas.

The former president’s insistence, for example, that he be reinstated to the presidency immediately or, in the alternative, another election be conducted was sheer madness, the rantings of someone unmoored from reality and incapable of rational thought.

His passivity in the face of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U. S. Capitol, appearing to side with the out-of-control mob of protestors, inflicted serious damage along with the recent revelations that he’d carried cartons of sensitive and classified documents from the White House and stored them haphazardly at his Florida estate, possibly in violation of Federal law.

His endorsement has been bestowed on Republican candidates who, among other things, share his never proven allegations that massive electoral fraud cheated him of re-election and who believe in imposing severe restrictions on abortion rights and relaxed restrictions on firearms possession.

In some two months, Americans will decide which party will control Congress. In a larger sense, they will also decide whether the Democrats’ gamble on their warnings of losing democracy and its freedoms will pay off, overcoming persistent economic and social issues worries.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Democrats aim their guns at Trump as midterms loom