Biden, Meloni and the meaning of democracy

Speaking at a Democratic Party fundraiser on Wednesday night, Joe Biden delivered a familiar message about democracy. The fight between “democracy and autocracy” is domestic and international, he said. “Democracy is at stake,” he warned and, as evidence of the global threats to democracy he said, “you saw what’s happened in Italy in that election.”

As you have probably read by now, the result of that election was that Italy now has its most conservative prime minister since World War Two: Giorgia Meloni, the triumphant leader of the Brothers of Italy Party. And the US president’s response to that outcome demonstrates the problem with the “democracy versus autocracy” prism through which he views the world.

When Meloni came across the radar of the American press, the first unedifying debate was over whether or not she was a fascist. (Former prime minister and center-left senator Matteo Renzi cleared that one up in a CNN interview this week. “Fake news,” he said.) After that, a widely-shared clip of Meloni quoting Chesterton transformed the conservative Twitterati into hardcore Meloni fanboys. Cue a tedious round of “Is Meloni the Italian Trump?”

Then Biden had his say, seeming to crudely lump Meloni in with the autocrats. As others have pointed out, a conservative victory in a free and fair election requires an idiotically broad definition of democracy’s decline. But it also ignores important features of Meloni’s politics. Whereas many members of the European right have fallen for Putin’s strongman appeal in recent years — that really does undermine the global battle for democracy — Meloni is a strident NATO supporter, considers America a vital ally and has taken a tough stance on the Ukraine war. If there really is a global battle against autocracy (Vladimir Putin’s ominous speech announcing the annexation of Ukrainian territory is the latest evidence of that divide), Meloni is, unambiguously, on the side of democracy. (For more on the differences between Meloni and Europe’s other populists, I recommend Will Collins’s piece for the site.)

So why must Biden insist otherwise? The answer, of course, is domestic politics. Biden, a party man if nothing else, knows that the story that most suits the Democratic Party is one in which the goodies and baddies line up neatly against one another. Zelensky versus Putin, Biden versus Trump. It’s all one and the same. Biden might not put it quite like that; he presumably knows that to do so would reveal it to be an overblown argument, a point of view that is self-important, preening, unrealistic.

It’s also a point of view that leaves the West weaker. This is a fraught geopolitical moment. Whether in Eastern Europe or in Asia, America has a daunting set of commitments and priorities. And so now is the time for a unified West in which leaders can put their differences aside over, say, immigration policy or trickle-down economics, and focus on a grave external threat. But Biden won’t do that. Instead he must accentuate those differences. He presumably thinks that to do so is to present himself in a flattering light. In truth, it reveals his vanity and his cynicism.

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Ukraine applies to NATO

Meanwhile, the foreign policy in-tray isn’t getting any less nerve-wracking. As Putin was delivering his uncompromising speech today, Ukraine submitted a formal application for NATO membership. In a recorded video, Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was “taking a decisive step for the entire security of free nations.” Don’t expect the most powerful of those free nations to feel especially happy with the move. The White House has not commented on the fast-track application, but approval of that application would take America a big step closer to direct confrontation with Russia.

Campaign season is here

With the funding bill passed after Joe Manchin’s retreat on permitting reform, the Senate is set to take an extended break between now and the midterms. Over in the House, Nancy Pelosi has called the chamber out of session until after the elections. Campaign season is well and truly underway which means lots of politics — just not much of it on Capitol Hill.

What you should be reading today

Daniel McCarthy: Dobbs won’t save the Democrats
Roger Kimball: Joe Biden and the Sovietization of America
Phoebe Maltz Bovy: So much for #MeToo
Dalibor Rohac, Washington Examiner: Putin’s lessons for a confrontation with China
Alexei Navalny, Washington Post: This is what post-Putin Russia should look like
Wall Street Journal: What really went wrong in Britain

Poll watch

President Biden job approval
Approve: 42.5 percent
Disapprove: 53.0 percent
Net approval: -10.5 (RCP average)

Pennsylvania Senate race
Mehmet Oz (R): 43 percent
John Fetterman (D): 45 percent
(the Hill/Emerson)

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