Will Biden accept defeat?

I want you to imagine a very plausible scenario. It is January 2023. Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock has just been defeated by Herschel Walker in a Georgia run-off election. Democrats had lost control of the House two months earlier and this result means they will also lose control of the Senate.

What would Joe Biden say in such a scenario?

In the past he has described concessions of defeat as a key component of a functioning democracy. “In America, if you lose, you accept the results. You follow the Constitution.” That is what Biden said in a speech in Philadelphia last summer. Would he say the same thing in early 2023? Until this week, I would have said so. But after his speech in Georgia on Tuesday, it is a lot harder to say so.

If Biden meant what he said in that address, then the president of the United States does not think elections in Georgia will be free and fair unless his federal voting legislation is signed into law. (And in case anyone is in any doubt, that isn’t going to happen.)

To support changing the filibuster and passing his legislation was, he argued, to choose “democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice.” It was to “defend the right to vote” and “our democracy against all enemies — foreign and, yes, domestic.” To stand in his way, the president claimed, is to side with George Wallace, Bull Connor, Jefferson Davis; it is to support voter suppression.

More specifically, the president described the voting laws passed by Georgia Republicans last year as rules that were deliberately designed to undercut Democrats’ ability to vote and an existential challenge to democracy in the Peach State. It was, Biden said, “the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies.” Maybe Biden would stand up after Warnock’s hypothetical loss, revert to a more moderate 2020 version of himself, accept the Republican candidate as the legitimate winner of the race and call for calm.

Maybe. Or maybe a frustrated and failing president would double down on the cynicism he opted for a year earlier and tell his supporters that this result demonstrates everything he warned about in his Georgia speech in January 2022 and that, thanks to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s obstruction, American democracy is as good as dead. In other words, maybe he would contradict his own advice and refuse to accept defeat.

It’s generally advisable to take the president of the United States both seriously and literally. The assumption should be that when the country’s leader says something, he means it. If Biden meant what he said in his speech in Georgia, America finds itself led by a president who — according to his own standards — doesn’t appear to believe in American democracy.

For all the cynicism in contemporary politics, millions listen when the president speaks. And those listening this week heard an excuse not to accept the results of an election in America in 2022, 2024 and beyond.

Biden supporters would doubtless scoff at that suggestion. But if their man wants to be remembered as a responsible defender of a precious system, he should have thought twice before giving that speech. “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses,” said Biden in his 2020 after it became clear he had triumphed over Trump. “And what presidents say in this battle matters.”

He’s right. The words of the president do matter. But, as Biden is discovering, listening to one’s better angels is easier in victory than defeat.

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Keeping at it

Joe Biden will at least be well-practiced in defeat by next January. The latest in an epic streak of losses for the administration came courtesy of the Supreme Court, which yesterday ruled that Biden’s OSHA test-or-vaccine mandate — the centerpiece of his post-delta wave pandemic response — was unconstitutional. Other recent blows include: the highest rate of inflation in forty years, the failure to change any senator’s mind on the filibuster, the failure to secure any notable concessions from talks with Russia over Ukraine, the failure to resuscitate Build Back Better negotiations.

The plan? Keep plugging away. His voting rights legislation having thudded against a brick wall this week, Biden said yesterday: “Like every other major civil rights bill that came along…we can come back and try it a second time.” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki echoed the sentiment when she said “our effort is to do hard things, try hard and keep at it.” A positively Churchillian determination to keep plowing ahead. It’s just not clear that this bloodymindedness will get them anywhere.

An audience of one

From online micro-targeting to the small-donor revolution, the world of campaign fundraising and advertising has been upended in recent years. But none of these developments are as strange as the lengths some Republican candidates will go to in order to appeal to an audience of one. Michele Fiore is running to be the next governor of Nevada. But her campaign has spent $6,270 to run a television advertisement in 62 spots on Fox News in the West Palm Beach area. No prizes for guessing whom Fiore hoped was watching.

‘Be afraid’

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan this week warned that the US intelligence community had gathered information pointing to a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at “fabricating the pretext for an invasion” of Ukraine. This morning brought more ominous news out of Kiev. Hackers have brought down Ukrainian government websites. “Be afraid and expect the worst,” reads a message warning that users’ data had been compromised and posted by hackers on the site of the country’s foreign ministry. The attack came just hours after talks between Russia, the US and NATO had come to an end.

What you should be reading today

Matt Purple: The meritocrat and the aristocrat
Peter Wood: Time for the CDC to get a clue
Amber Athey: The truth about Jen Psaki’s whataboutism
Christine Rosen, Commentary: The Atlantic‘s nervous breakdown
Matthew Walther, The American Conservative: If only it were the apocalypse
Natalie Allison, Politico: Top Trump nemesis might join GOP Senate primary

Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 41.8 percent
Disapprove: 53.1 percent
Net approval: -11.3 (RCP Average)

Percentage of US adults who say they are thriving
April 2020: 48 percent
May 2021: 56.8 percent
December 2021: 55.1 percent (Gallup)

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