After a day of political tumult, President Biden had a phrase for the forces he believes are responsible for a conservative Supreme Court poised to undo the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The forces holding back the economy from a full recovery. The forces that on Tuesday turned J.D. Vance into the GOP U.S. Senate nominee from Ohio.
“The MAGA crowd.”
There was even the “ultra-MAGA” crowd, presumably a more extreme manifestation of former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” As far as Democrats are concerned, that is the official slogan of the Republican Party.
Biden used the phrase several times during Wednesday’s remarks on the economy. He had used it once before, at a fundraiser in Denver last month, but only in passing. This time, the use seemed more intentional, coming on a day when the nation’s political divides seemed as stark as ever.
It was by installing three Supreme Court justices that Trump brought the nation to the doorstep of a post-Roe world, in which women in conservative states will likely be prevented from getting abortions. Always threatened, the 1973 decision had survived until now. If the arguments in the high court’s leaked draft opinion hold, states will decide on their own whether to grant any abortion rights.
Dismay over Roe was accompanied by fears of what might come next. “Your right to birth control is next,” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “Your right to marry whomever you love is next. All of your rights to make your own decisions about how and when to raise your family are at stake.”
Brown’s fellow U.S. senator from Ohio could soon be Vance, who said during the campaign that Biden wanted to start a war with Russia over “transgender rights.” Joining Vance in Washington one day could be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely expected to seek the presidency in 2024. The young DeSantis, also ardently pro-Trump, has launched a series of culture wars, most recently against LGBTQ teachers who his supporters have taken to calling “groomers.”
Once a heartland conservative celebrated by many liberals for his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance won Trump’s endorsement and bested several other pro-Trump conservatives in the race that culminated in Tuesday’s victory.
Vance’s easy win, for Democrats, is a preview of a Washington in which Republicans control the Senate, allowing them to appoint more conservative judges, and the House, thus blocking any bills Biden may want to pass.
“MAGA Republicans,” Biden said Wednesday, repeating the phrase several times. “I don’t want to mispronounce it,” he joked.
The seat Vance will seek in November is currently held by Sen. Rob Portman, a moderate Republican who helped engineer last spring’s infrastructure deal. On Tuesday night, Portman endorsed Vance, who recently accused President Biden of allowing fentanyl to be trafficked into Republican communities — in other words, not a likely beacon of the bipartisanship Biden still craves.
The new crowd is edgier, unwilling to compromise. And not going anywhere, both sides agreed on Wednesday morning. Other endorsements Trump has made will probably turn out much more poorly than did that of Vance. But both conservatives and progressives see a benefit in arguing that the party belongs to Trump either way.
“MAGA is alive and well,” the former president’s son Donald Trump Jr. wrote on social media, summarizing a truth Democrats have also learned. If there was ever a moment when the Republican Party was going to move beyond Trump and work with Biden, that moment has passed.
Asked by Yahoo News earlier this year about working with Republicans, the president expressed exasperation. “I, honest to God, don’t know what they’re for,” he conceded. Four months later, the president’s conclusion is that the party remains Trump’s — and likely will for many years to come, if the Vance primary victory is any indication.
Having beaten Trump in 2020, Biden is calculating that he can beat him again in 2022, when the party he leads seeks to keep control of the Congress. The new argument seems to be a recognition that nothing else has worked to persuade voters that the president is doing what he promised. The economy continues to head toward a post-pandemic recovery, but voters seem despondent. It may be inflation, or the war in Ukraine, or a new coronavirus variant on the way.
Whatever the case, Democrats are poised to pay for that discontent come November’s midterm election, in which Republicans are expected to make gains in both the House and Senate.
The president sought to deflect blame, in a potential preview of the kinds of attacks he and other Democrats will make as the midterms approach. “Let me tell you about this ultra-MAGA agenda. It's extreme, as most MAGA things are,” he said. A deputy White House press secretary shared a cable news clip of the president’s sharp indictment.
The rhetorical choices had particular resonance on Wednesday morning. The revelation that abortion could soon become illegal in many parts of the United States had aroused Democratic sentiment earlier in the week.
“This is about a lot more than abortion,” Biden said on Wednesday morning, outlining a vision of society utterly different than the one he and others say the imminent Supreme Court ruling is describing.
“What are the next things that are going to be attacked?” Biden wondered on Wednesday. “Because this MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that's existed in recent American history.”
The night before, there had been protests in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, where barricades were quickly erected, and across the country. The party, however, does not yet know how to harness that energy in a way that will prove sustainable – or, at least, sustainable through November – but they know that any sharpening of the contrast with Republicans will help.
The strategy had been in the works for some time. “Voters can easily believe that the country isn't where they hoped, but also believe that they don't want to turn it over to Marjorie Taylor Greene in '22 and Trump in '24," a Biden adviser told CNN last month.
Wednesday saw Biden embrace that effort, by branding all Republicans with the MAGA label they do not uniformly embrace. The distinction was both political and ideological. It is a distinction the president believes remains favorable to his party.
“I don’t want to hear Republicans talk about deficits and their ultra MAGA agenda. I want to hear about fairness,” Biden said. “I want to hear about decency. I want to hear about helping ordinary people.”