In This Episode
Joe Biden released his first re-election campaign video and it was…actually good. Instead of touting minimum wage or Medicare protection, Biden characterized this election as a fight for freedom––the freedom to choose when to become a parent, to be an out and healthy trans person, and to safely inhabit schools and other places of learning. It’s a big move considering Republicans have had a near monopoly on emotionally resonant rhetoric for the last 40 years. So what will Biden’s “freedom” re-election campaign look like in practice? Does coopting this rhetoric from Republicans represent something greater than savvy politics? Will the Democratic Party share the courage of Biden’s convictions? Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent joins host Brian Beutler to talk about what freedom means in American politics today, and why this campaign message is not only shrewd, but also philosophically correct.
[clip of President Biden]: When I ran for president four years ago, I said, we’re in a battle for the soul of America and we still are. The question we’re facing is whether in the years ahead, we have more freedom or less freedom, more rights or fewer. I know what I want the U.S. to be, and I think you do, too. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. That audio we played for you at the top comes from the announcement video Joe Biden released when he launched his reelection campaign. If you haven’t seen the full video, Google it. Give it a watch. You can find it in last week’s Big Tent newsletter. I wrote about it because I found it striking and it struck me for a few reasons. One is just how true it is. Without knowing how Biden characterized his election stakes for freedom, you can probably guess because threats to freedom nearly all coming from the right wing, are advancing everywhere. The freedom to choose when to become a parent is already lost to millions of women in America. The freedom to be an out and healthy trans person is slipping or gone in many states. The freedom children ought to have to learn and learn safely is under attack, both by local Republicans who are banning books and by actual gunmen who aren’t all Republican per se, but they derive unfettered access to assault rifles from Republican power. The freedom for majorities to choose who governs the country was already shot full of holes before the 2020 election, and then it came under a literal violent assault on January six. So if Democrats lose the presidency in 2024, and if they lose the presidency, they almost certainly lose the House and Senate, too. Americans will be at risk of becoming much less free. The stakes aren’t negligible little bits of freedom, but huge swaths of it. On the other hand, if Democrats win the election, some freedoms might, and I have to stress, might, actually be restored. The right to abortion in particular, could be restored nationwide, and Democrats could conceivably create a truer democracy through election reforms. So those are real, lasting stakes of the election. And Biden boiled it down in a succinct and striking way. But it also struck me because it’s just kind of weird to see Democrats get geared up to contest an election on the grounds of abstract values. For as long as I’ve been alive, that’s what Republicans did. Democrats would campaign to make life simpler or more modern. They’d wage rearguard fights to protect Medicare and Social Security or to increase hourly pay. And generally speaking, that was their response to Republican messages, which concealed an agenda of top end tax cuts and industrial deregulation and right wing cultural politics with vague appeals to freedom, liberty, patriotism, family values. There’s a famous old bit from The Onion, satirizing the race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, asking which message will resonate with voters. Under Jimmy Carter’s headshot, it says, Let’s talk better mileage. Under Reagan’s, it says, Kill the bastards. And what that gets right is that for at least 40 years, Republicans had a near monopoly on emotionally resonant rhetoric. I don’t think that was strictly necessary, though it may have been prudent in the 1980s and 1990s when the country really was much whiter and more conservative. But under Trump, as Republicans have become a national minority, they have given in so thoroughly to the dictatorial temptation that it seems weird and even evasive when Democrats don’t fight them on these higher values. So if you couldn’t tell, I’m thrilled to see Joe Biden start to shake off the old Democratic boilerplate and try something a bit more in the us versus them realm. But it’s unsettling just as much as it’s exciting because the costs of failure are so high. I’m also a bit skeptical that the whole Democratic Party can row in this direction together. To a big extent, it’s still a top down organization driven by pollsters and marketers and lawyers, and their sensibilities remain firmly rooted in what from now on, I’m going to call better mileage politics. So I want to talk about what the Biden freedom reelection campaign might look like in practice. I also want to talk about what freedom means in the American political context and why co-opting it from Republicans isn’t just shrewd but also correct philosophically. And then I want to try to assess whether Democrats have the courage of Joe Biden’s convictions and how we even know. And I’m going to do that with Greg Sargent. As a quick reminder Greg writes the Plum Line blog for The Washington Post. He’s been our guest before and he’s about as well wired in the sprawling Democratic Party brain trust as anyone in the journalism game, which means he knows what the key players are thinking and why and how they see this all playing out in the real world. So, Greg Sargent, welcome back to Positively Dreadful.
Greg Sargent: Hey, Brian, Thanks for having me back.
Brian Beutler: So to what extent do you think or does your reporting bear out that the Biden and his campaign settled on this theme of freedom because they, like, ran it through their polling and focus group machinery and found that it performs well? And to what extent do you think they settled on it as a matter of just sort of real world urgency and conviction, irrespective of whether it performs optimally in a polling setting?
Greg Sargent: So I want to agree with you that it’s thrilling to see Biden take that on so frontally right at the outset of the campaign. It reminds me a little bit of what Biden did at the outset in 2020 when he threw down the gantlet and made his election announcement all about the need to fight white supremacy and the assault on democracy, which struck me as a fairly bold thing then, because if you’ll recall, many Democrats were kind of skittish about going down even that road at that point when white supremacist violence was breaking out all over the place. But I do think that it’s really a little early so far in terms of whether we can say how much this is rooted in conviction and how much it really represents a broad strategy. I was heartened that they hit the book banning stuff so hard right away, because as you may have noticed, there’s a certain type of, let’s call them popularists, to use a word that you coined [laughter] Democrat, who who still doesn’t feel comfortable engaging those fights. So I think the way to understand what Biden did, the best way to understand that is that he’s experimenting with creating a permission structure for other Democrats to start taking that stuff on. Now, my worry is that a poll here and a poll there that looks bad or, you know, maybe a big boomlet from some popular post columnist that everyone you know, decides is an important statement, ricochets around the political world, could could kind of mute this stuff a little bit. But I think what we have to do is sort of keep them honest on this point, make sure that when Biden says that he wants the campaign to be about book banning to some degree and culture warring to some degree, and when he says essentially Democrats go do this, which is what he’s doing. I think. We have to keep them honest on that.
Brian Beutler: I agree with that. I mean, I also I wonder to what extent I guess there’s like a third interpretation here, which is that, however, freedom polls as a as a campaign organizing theme or however. Earnestly. Joe Biden thinks that the stakes of the election are that Americans will just be less free if he loses the the the more boilerplate oriented campaign that’s centered around jobs, the economy, you know, all the all the cliched terms is is really kind of up in the air right now, right between what the Fed is doing, what Republicans are doing with the debt limit, what I mean, just the business cycle like we’ve been in in a period of strong economic growth for a couple of years now. It wouldn’t be crazy to see a recession between now and the 2024 election. And if you if you root your appeal entirely in the idea that you care about the economic well-being of regular people, and then you oversee a recession. You you obliterate your own central appeal. Right. Like the thing that you’re saying is the reason you should be reelected. Whereas if you’re saying the other guys want to take away your freedoms like that remains the truth no matter what happens in the economy. So it’s like it’s almost like a good way to hedge bets.
Greg Sargent: Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m a little skeptical that that there’s that type of thought process happening. My feeling is that it’s a little bit more like this. We’re really seeing lots and lots of evidence that when Democrats take on these fights, it really excites people in some really basic, fundamental way that is not always in evidence [laughs] with with Democrat, the relationship between Democratic elected officials and candidates and the Democratic base. As you may have noticed. And so you’re seeing a bunch of young Democrats around the country, including in some of the reddest places, really start to step up and resist this kind of dissent into into a into reactionary rule in all these red states and people are responding. Right? These things are becoming national stories. And there’s just sort of a kind of an energy that’s circulating around these topics that I think is so obvious that even some of the kind of more hidebound Democrats really can’t avoid noticing it. And so I think that’s good. I mean, my sense is that Democrats are pretty worried about the economy, right? They do think that that there really are plenty of scenarios in which that really drags Democrats down. But I don’t think this is a bet hedging kind of thing. It seems to me to be more of a somewhat grudging acknowledgment that this stuff actually is what Democratic voters and some independents, I think, and moderates want to hear.
Brian Beutler: Then. I guess that raises the question, like, why now? I mean, I guess you could say why now? Because what happened in Tennessee happened in Tennessee and what’s happening in Montana right now is is happening now. But I like this isn’t Republicans didn’t just now become vulnerable to the idea that the America they want to build is less free than the one we have and the one Democrats want to create. So this this avenue has been open for years. And like Joe Biden situating himself in it now. And I’m wondering what you think explains that.
Greg Sargent: So I think there are a couple of factors that are actually somewhat new. Right. And you’ll recall this one very vividly because you wrote a bunch of pieces about it during the 2022 elections. If you’ll recall, a fair amount of Democrats really didn’t think they kind of bought into the pundit red wave narrative that abortion rights had peaked too early as an issue and that it wouldn’t actually motivate voters to the extent that Democrats hoped and the savvy position became, it’s probably not going to work out for us the way we had hoped. And so there was that. And then also the savvy position became that talking about democracy was also going to be a drag for Democrats, like literally a drag as opposed to a plus. And then, of course, the results came in and they astounded everyone. And even the the sharpest and savviest journalist types, at least to some degree, had to admit that they had gotten this all wrong. So I think that jarred a lot of Democrats. Honestly, they really didn’t expect that right. I was talking to Democrats and I wrote a piece on this and the piece turned out to be wrong. I quoted a whole bunch of Democrats saying, we just can’t seem to reach voters with the democracy stuff. And they were convinced of this. They really thought it wasn’t working. And then, of course, all the most prominent election denying candidates went down right in some of the biggest races in the country. And so you had that sort of shock that really, I think, woke up a lot of Democrats about. What what the the potency of these issues. And then on top of that, you had the Republican kind of mad rush to pass all sorts of reactionary legislation in in the year, you know, beginning of 2023, which also focused the mind of the kind of hive mind of Democrats in the sense that you saw so much, so much energy and response to that stuff, that those two things together really, I think, changed the way Democrats think about this stuff.
Brian Beutler: You know what I like about your theory that 2022 explains the shift as it flatter flatters my preconceived notions about what works in politics. No, but, you know [laughs] in in in 2018, you know, something kind of similar happened. Donald Trump comes in, it’s like this this omni emergency, like everything is chaos and he’s creating crises everywhere. He’s on the attack against everything. And and it galvanizes Democrats all across the country. But the campaign apparatus of the Democratic Party says to the frontline candidates, like talk about health care, like what he’s doing on health care is particularly potent. So Democrats in those states and districts talk about health care and then they win everywhere. I mean, they win a huge landslide. And the party convinces itself that there was something magic about health care that helped them get this landslide when I think it was like pretty obviously just like the country arising to to like create a check on Donald Trump and all the emergencies he was creating, whereas in 2022. You don’t have the exact same story, right? You almost have like this like series of tests that you run. And it just turns out that in places where elections were really more concretely about democracy or abortion. Democrats just did much, much better than they did in places where those issues seemed settled. Right. Like Democrats did great in Arizona, where Republicans just ran a whole slate of statewide election denying candidates. But they did poorly in New York, where nobody is worried about Republicans coming in and banning abortion or or like overturning elections. And so you could really just point to regions of the country where Democrats did well and say, well, what was the magic ingredient there? And basically, everywhere they did well, it was one of those two factors.
Greg Sargent: There’s something we can add there, Brian, if I could. You know, I don’t think we can overestimate the psychological boost that comes from really kind of running the table in those three blue wall states.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: Because remember that the thing that was so shattering for many Democrats about Trump’s victory in 2016 was the flipping of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Right. And here you had all these election deniers going down. I mean, Ron Johnson is a bit of an exception. He’s kind of a cannier politician. And, you know, Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin is maybe cannier them we gave him credit for. He survived. Right. But Democrats won a bunch of these big races in those three Rust Belt states that Trump had flipped. And what that did was remember, Biden won them in 2020. So this kind of showed that it was not a one off. They were really kind of.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: Rebuilding that blue wall. Right. And they were doing it on abortion and democracy and that right winning in those places in the industrial Midwest and in western Pennsylvania on those issues, I think is psychologically a very powerful thing for a lot of Democrats. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: So you can see, I think in Biden’s both the announcement video and in the early ads that his campaign has released, that they want to sort of anchor the campaign around this idea of freedom, but they don’t want to completely give up on the on the power of economic policy issues like Social Security, Medicare, workers rights, whatever. And so both themes are present and with more or less success, depending on where you look. They’re trying to, I think, turn what are normally they’re like kitchen table appeals into freedom appeals. Like when I wrote about this last week, it reminded me of Barack Obama’s second inaugural address and he he’d just defeated Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. And they had run on their plan to just radically rollback the safety net.
[clip of President Obama]: We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us. [applause] They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Brian Beutler: I mean, obviously, Obama’s campaign worked while he won, and I think he did a really good job defining Romney as this kind of heartless plutocrat who condescended to the working class. And so I don’t mean this as a critique at all, but but the idea that a fair social compact makes people freer as opposed to just like improves their bottom line or their bank account statements that didn’t really figure into the campaign. It was only after he won and gave the inaugural address that he laid things out that way. He sort of connected the dots between protecting Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and so on, and the idea that those programs are sources of liberty. And I mean, that to me is just a very potent idea. But Democrats seem to have a strangely hard time making that connection in a in a sort of sustained way across the campaign.
Greg Sargent: Yeah. I mean, that’s one reason I keep harping on Michigan as being something really important, because Governor Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats in Michigan are really, I think, very consciously trying to draw the link you’re talking about. Note that they just repealed right to work in in in Michigan, which is a very big boost to labor. And they also passed new LGBTQ protections. And Gretchen Whitmer went out in her in her State of the State of the State speech and said explicitly and really quite in quite a challenging tone, you know, this this state is a state where people are free. And and because of that, we’re going to go out to Ohio and Indiana, places where they’re passing anti freedom legislation, and we’re going to take their business away from them. Right. So I think that really connects the two in a pretty tidy way. And you’ve probably followed Mallory McMorrow, the state senator from Michigan, pretty closely as well. She often draws that link explicitly, and there are some other young up and coming types there. Like I talked I interviewed a state senator in Michigan who’s the son and grandson of autoworkers who was saying, we’re going to take a but we’re going to talk about labor rights and civil rights unabashedly, and we’re going to link the two. And, you know, that’s, I think, a real test of this type of politics where kitchen table issues end quotes aren’t a defensive crouch. They’re part of a much more aggressive set of messages which stress freedom at their center.
Brian Beutler: We have talked about this offline a couple of times, about how Whitmer and the Midwest governor is basically state level. Democrats have a lot more confidence in their convictions and a and a sort of more intuitive sense of what like how how people respond when you appeal to them in some way. Right. So, like, I have this sense and I think you know this about me, that all the number crunchers and analysts in the Democratic Party, like all the work they do, yields a kind of caricature of the median voter. And this hypothetical voter is inevitably right, financially insecure and principally concerned with improving his own finances. Right. So Democrats build their politics around alleviating the duress of economic insecurity by giving them more money. Right. Or lowering their expenses in some way, with the idea being that he’ll piece together why voting for Democrats will be good for his finances and then reward them in in in the election or in future elections for having helped him. Right. And I’m not saying that that’s a bad objective or anything, but it leads to this kind of like bloodless household budget politics that better mileage politics, like let’s make things more fair by taxing the rich and giving some back to you when really I think what they’re proposing to do isn’t like help people in that predicament, get out of debt or whatever, like in a spreadsheet sense. But but to free them, right. Like so that even if they’re not rich, they can just stop worrying about going bankrupt or like, or, or, or having to skimp on food or medicine or whatever. Where Republicans, by contrast, think that those are those stresses are are good, like they want people to be laboring under that kind of anxiety because it keeps them fearful of slacking off at work [laughter] basically. Like that’s how you keep people productive as you make it so that if they don’t work, they lose their health care.
Greg Sargent: Right. It’s disempowering, I think maybe is the way to think about it.
Brian Beutler: Right. But like you make that small adjustment in the underlying conceit about what why addressing people’s kitchen table needs is valuable to them. And suddenly you’re speaking the language of liberty and solidarity. These, like very emotionally resonant themes rather than like health insurance and prescription drug prices. Does that make sense?
Greg Sargent: Yeah, I think it’s absolutely right. I mean, it’s a fundament. Democrats probably would be loath to say it this way, but it’s a fundamentally liberal message across the board, isn’t it? It’s about liberal freedoms, freedom from wan—
Brian Beutler: Yes. Yes the Roosevelt fears.
Greg Sargent: —to use a loaded phrase, freedom from economic anxiety [laughter] but also right freedom from discrimination at work. These things are all tied together. I think I’m as you wrote this piece a while ago, this is a this is a tough place for Democrats to get to because they constantly think about this economic message in almost a defensive way, as evidenced by a recent polling study that was done, which. Tried to contrast the Republican cultural message against the Democratic economic message. And, of course, the of the Democratic economic message won in a straight match up with the Republican cultural message. Right. But what they didn’t test, as you wrote, was what does the Democratic cultural message sound like? And how does it match up against the Republican cultural message? And, you know, I think I have my I have discovered myself that there is this blind spot with Democrats a lot. Right. You go around to to strategists and say, okay, what’s the Democratic answer to Ron DeSantis cultural message? And you don’t ever really get much of a clear answer on that.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Greg Sargent: You know, it’s always something like, well, Ron DeSantis says, you know, he’s using cultural messages to distract people from his—
Brian Beutler: Yes. [both speaking]
Greg Sargent: —economic agenda. And look, that’s fine. I think that’s an important thing to say. Right. But it’s not enough. What Democrats need to be saying and I think Biden’s going down this road is we are right on these cultural issues and they’re wrong.
Brian Beutler: Book, banning is un-American. I mean.
Greg Sargent: Book banning is bad. Right.
Brian Beutler: There’s your message book ban— And not only is that like true, I think in some foundational sense, but like it’s borne out by polling. Like 70% of Americans think banning books is un-American.
Greg Sargent: Right. Book banning is, as you’ve said before, is sort of a very easy symbol of this stuff. Right. People really instinct—
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: It’s something that people instantly understand. Right.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: But it gets more complicated. And when you get into some of the transgender stuff. But but fundamentally, there’s a huge opening here for Democrats to turn the big government argument against Republicans in a way that is equally easily intelligible. The way book ban, the way the concept of book bans is right. You know, Republicans want to micromanage what’s happening in your classrooms in all kinds of creepy ways. They want to micromanage what books your your children can can access in the library. They’re taking that choice away from you. This is stuff that will resonate already is resonating with a whole lot of people across the country. And it’s just so strange that anyone would argue that Democrats shouldn’t try to address those latent and not so latent feelings among so many voters everywhere.
Brian Beutler: Yes. Yes. Like Charlie Crist. I mean, there’s a lot to say about him and that campaign and Florida Democrats in general. But he, like always was trying to get, you know, questions about DeSantis’s record on cultural politics, like parry them back into a discussion about how Ron DeSantis has, like, failed to do anything about insurance prices in Florida, which are like in Florida, a big deal, no doubt like and like and like any competent governor, a candidate for governor should be conversant in that. But like this, you know, Ron DeSantis is trying to distract people from his record on insurance, like as if that’s the thing that’s going to win. It reminds me of that book still unbanned as far as I know. What’s, What’s The Matter With Kansas, from 20 years ago or whatever. And when it came out, I think I think it was based on at what was at time, at the time a false conceit that like rural Republicans were voting against their economic interests. And I think that over time, that conceit has become more true, right? That that white, rural, working class Republican voters are are now almost invariably Republican. But to me, even though the conceit is true, it remains kind of condescending, right? Like, I mean, yes, in in a in a moral politics, in a moral sense, I think should be about improving the economic circumstances of working class people. But the idea that improving the economic circumstances of working class people should is like a cheat. A cheat code to politics assumes that at bottom people don’t really care about anything other than how much money they have and that they couldn’t possibly value freedom or community more than a healthy bank statement. And that’s what I hear when when like Ron DeSantis goes to war with trans people and books and and woke history or whatever he calls it, and Democrats don’t have response to any of it. But to say, well, have you checked out how high home insurance prices are in Florida?
Greg Sargent: I think I think it actually sends almost a message of of a lack of conviction in a way. You’ll you’ll agree. I know you’ll agree with me on this, because you’ve said it before a bunch of time. But the details sometimes are really less important than the emotional and moral content of the message, right? I mean, if Democrats go out there and say, you know, book banning is wrong, torturing trans youth is wrong and so forth and so on, what people hear is Democrats speaking with some conviction, right? When Democrats say you’re distracting, you know, you’re distracting from the plutocratic secret, plutocratic agenda. Sounds like political gobbledygook. It’s like it sounds like a politician, right? Not someone who’s actually talking because they care about something.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Yeah. Like with, you know, the trans rights issue in particular. Right. Like the. I think what Republicans. Thought they were doing when they went down this road. And you can start the clock last decade or maybe like a year and a half ago more aggressively, is that they were they found like this like tiny minority and decided that they were going to attack their rights by branding them basically as perverts. Right. And that anyone who was standing up for their rights was supporting that kind of perversion. And you know what? I think they were in the grips of some sort of delusion about how how people would react to that. Like it’s just I mean, it’s like super cruel and I don’t think it’s working, but. Democrats almost validate the idea if they don’t push back, right. If they say this is this you know, like this is a distraction from the plutocratic agenda. Sounds to me like what you’re saying is, okay, maybe this like 1% of the population really is a bunch of perverts.
Greg Sargent: And I think you could you could sort of expand on that, right? You could say that what voters might hear as well. Why aren’t Democrats saying that what the Republicans are saying is wrong. And.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: Right. So in on some level, it also validates the idea that Republicans are speaking for a kind of silent majority that agrees with them on this stuff.
Brian Beutler: Yes.
Greg Sargent: The very fact of engaging right on it, on an argument like this that sends the message that you think that voters will agree with you on it, if that makes sense. Right.
Brian Beutler: Yes. Well and Republicans just realized a long time ago that no matter what issue they’re fighting on, they should adopt a pose of aggression, of being on the on on the warpath. And like for the basic psychological reason that people like to side with winners and if they see a politician confident in what they’re saying and like angry about the opposition, they’re going to think, you know, like that speaks to me. Like that kind of conviction is appealing in some way. Obviously, like when that veers into just abuse, it can it can backfire. But I don’t think Democrats have fully realized that the opposite is also kind of true that if you like, shrink from certain issues because you feel more comfortable talking about other ones, you appear to people who don’t have firm opinions on this stuff to be conceding that the the people on the on the offense are right and and I mean that’s like that’s like how you can imagine like a an equal rights status quo being rolled back.
Greg Sargent: Yeah. And I think there’s actually even another nuance to this. You’re kind of putting your finger on one of the major fallacies of the whole popular argument here. Right. The populist argument is essentially, you know, you can engage on this topic because it’s an unwinnable argument. The Republicans have the winning position, so forth and so on. So for the reasons you’ve just talked about, that’s a fallacy. But also one, even if it’s a tough issue for Democrats engaging, it has, you know, has some positive effects. Right, Even if it’s a hard case to make. I think voters in the middle will give a politician credit for taking on a hard argument. Right.
Brian Beutler: Yes.
Greg Sargent: So defending an unpopular position is actually seen as courageous.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, Bernie Sanders was was like onto this.
Greg Sargent: And that’s like the second to me that that that’s another fallacy of the popular argument. Right. Even if the argument is maybe kind of borderline popularity for the Democratic position is kind of borderline in popular. There are ways to take it on that I think voters will respect and respond to. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Okay. There’s a flip side of this that I want to talk about. I have this theory that change, even even when you’re talking about a kind of change that enhances individual freedom across the society, that could be trans rights or or whatever else, like is scary to a lot of people. And they’re there. Like fear of change can feel like the erosion of freedom, right? Like, people get used to things being a certain way and then you come in and disruptive, disrupt it, and it feels disorienting. Right. And thus kind of oppressive. Like Obamacare is a good example of this. And this was like not just a matter of the law changing, but then Republicans demagoguing it to make people think that their freedoms were under attack. But obviously, Obamacare made people more free. Like, gun control is another example. Like, I think gun control definitely makes people freer by reducing their risk of becoming victims of violence, but it arguably makes some gun enthusiasts less free if they can’t have assault rifles. And it makes. Like other gun owners who might be susceptible to demagoguery, feel like their freedom is under attack. So how do you see Democrats wrestling with that conundrum where they’re they’re taking on the mantle of freedom by proposing. You know, like basically a fairer, less violent [laughter] society. But but to the people who are satisfied with the status quo or think that we’re changing too quickly, they think, holy crap, everything is like this is a world I don’t recognize and that makes them feel oppressed. Do you know what I mean?
Greg Sargent: Yeah. I mean, I think there are a couple of ways to think back to Biden during 2020 when he stood up for the Black Lives Matter protesters, which another thing we were told would be disastrous if he did. Right. He actually ran ads at one point where he kind of connected the Black Lives Matter cause to the broader history of protests in the United States. Right. So, once, by embedding it in kind of a broader national story, it makes it maybe seem like a little bit less of a kind of outlying threat in some sense. Right. So there’s that. Right. Embedding these things in the broader story of of expanding rights and freedoms and so forth, and the realization of American promise. Right. But then there’s also another way where they kind of calibrate like, let’s face it, like for some Democrats, maybe some of the transgender issues are complicated and challenging. Right? So I think you see some of the politicians who are in swing year areas kind of going some of the way there, but maybe not all the way there are. So a lot of them kind of will end up in a space where they support, you know, LGBTQ protections codified in law, anti-discrimination protections. They support expanding those to cover transgender Americans as well. Right. And then they will oppose kind of onerous Republican efforts to really roll back trans rights. But they maybe might have a little trouble on Democrats, might have a little trouble on say, how what to do about transgender athletes.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Greg Sargent: You know what I mean? Like, that’s I think—
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: I’ve noticed that some Democrats will go pretty far out there on codifying protections for transgender Americans. But maybe when it comes to transgender athletes, they might they might kind of fudge their position a bit.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So assuming Biden really sees the election in these stark terms and I agree with you, it’s not totally clear to me that this theme will endure and that he’ll stick to his guns for the next year and a half. Is he practicing what he preaches today in the realm of governing?
Greg Sargent: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s complicated. You know, there’s not a whole lot that they can do. There’s not a whole lot they can do on the federal level when it comes to rolling back, you know, when it comes to battling some of the reactionary stuff that’s happening in red states. I think DOJ just filed a brief and one in a very big case. I forget which state it was in. Did you see that? That I thought that was a significant step. They they really they they challenged they came down pretty firmly and on the side of people challenging an anti-transgender law in one of the southern states. I just can’t remember what it was. But I think what you’ve seen is a bit of tentativeness from Biden. Honestly, think back to what was happening during the COVID fights when Republican governors were really doing some crazy things right? Like prohibiting private businesses from instituting vaccine mandates and mask mandates and so forth. There was a time when Biden seemed like he was actually going to take that on, and he kind of went out there and he went after the governors a little, but they really backed off of that. And I thought that was a pretty bad, bad showing on his part. There’s I think that it’s easier for them to do it rhetorically in their minds than to use actual federal power to to fight back.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: Against the stuff. I think they I do think they’re way more tentative about that.
Brian Beutler: I agree with you. And that’s why I kind of asked the question. And I mean, to take another example, the one that’s sort of burning on my mind right now and will become important, like we’re recording this, what, Wednesday, May 3rd. And so I think six days from now, Biden is going to meet with Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Hakeem Jeffries, Chuck Schumer, about the debt limit. Right. And for now, I think Biden is having a grand old time. You know, he pressured Republicans into producing their budget and now he’s attacking them because their budget proposes slashing everything across the board, which he’s using to say, well, that includes veterans benefits. And, you know, it’s it’s like a it’s like a very. You know, 1990s or aughts budget like politics, fight between Democrats and Republicans over what their budgets say. But like GOP debt, the the GOP debt limit strategy is a form of it’s a form of sabotage. It’s like it’s autocratic, dictatorial crap where they say if they don’t get their way, they’re going to hurt people. And that’s a freedom issue. More. It’s much more to me like a freedom issue than a matter of how much we spend on veterans, per se. Right. Like, is Biden going to talk about it that way? Is he going to hold the line on his we’re, we’re not going to negotiate over the debt limit position? Is he like would he say if Kevin McCarthy says, fine, we’re going to default on the debt, then? Would he do something extraordinary to say, no, we’re going to actually keep issuing debt? Or is he going to break and say, shoot, I’m like over a barrel now. I’m going to have to negotiate with a gun to my head and really, like, we’re going to have a fight over dueling budgets and I’m going to beat them on the on the question of whose policies are more popular.
Greg Sargent: I mean, I tend to think that that and I could be entirely wrong about this, and I hope I am, but I tend to think that he’s going to be reluctant to do something. I don’t know if we should even call it extraordinary. Is continuing to pay the bills extraordinary? [laughs] Right. Not really. Right. It’s sort of a no brainer in a way, isn’t it? But I—
Brian Beutler: I think so, yeah.
Greg Sargent: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, I think I think Biden should be signaling now, right now that he that and so should other Democrats. I actually talked to a bunch of Democrats about this yesterday asking them whether they thought it was time to start saying pretty clearly and openly that, you know, if Republicans really continue down this road, Biden is going to have to protect the country from their craziness.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Greg Sargent: I mean, that’s just such a clear one, right? You know, don’t get drawn into an argument over belt tightening or what, you know.
Brian Beutler: Yes.
Greg Sargent: Some hokey metaphor, household metaphor for debt or whatever. Just say they’re threatening the country and I will protect it. I will do what it takes to protect the country.
Brian Beutler: Like you’re speaking you’re speaking my language up and down. And like, I think maybe Biden feels constrained by lawyers and he probably feels constrained by the fact that the Obama administration’s lawyers said, we can’t do anything about this. But like on the on the legal aspect, he’s going to be, you know, if Kevin McCarthy doesn’t put a clean debt limit bill on the floor or a debt limit bill with some, like mutually agreeable terms added to it, Biden’s going to be confronted with, he’s going to have to break one law or another, or actually he’s got to break several laws or one law. He’s going to have to either like stop paying Social Security benefits and veterans benefits and all that, or he’s going to have to violate the statutory debt limit and continue issuing debt. And he could say, I think administrations have done this before when the law complaint contains conflicting terms, is pick the one that’s least harmful, least disruptive to the country. And he could even back that up and say, look, like the 14th Amendment says the debt of the United States is an inviolable it shan’t be questioned. So I’m going to pick not only the one that’s less disruptive, but the one that is the only constitutional option available. And then, you know, if Republicans want to go to the Supreme Court and ask the Supreme Court to force the country to default, I guess they could do that. But, you know, he would need to he would need to like just decide he wants to have this fight and and like have it be on the on the terms that we’re talking about where, like, he is protecting America and its freedoms from Republicans who are trying to subvert them. And I don’t like that doesn’t seem like Biden’s—
Greg Sargent: It doesn’t seem like he’s there on that one.
Brian Beutler: How did that’s not how he talks. [laughs]
Greg Sargent: Just to add to your point, I mean, there’s a way for him to say I’m obligated to pay the country’s bills. Right. That’s something that people will understand very clearly.
Brian Beutler: Yep.
Greg Sargent: It’s not a hard one. If it gets if the debate gets dragged on to the terrain of are we going to allow spending cuts or not? It’s a little tougher, right? Because unfortunately and this is obviously a problem that we’ve all known exists for a very long time, but American voters tend to be, you know, pro spending cut when it’s described as, you know, prudence or fiscal conservatism or what have you. And it’s hard to get them to connect spending cuts to actual cuts to things they care about. And so I feel like Biden’s just on safer ground. If he just says they’re threatening the country, they’re threatening to destroy the economy, I’m going to protect the country. I’m obliged to do this. I’m obliged to pay the country’s bills.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, and I guess I guess the reason why I worry about the durability of this idea that he’s going to run a campaign about whether we’ll have more freedom or less freedom. It’s stuff like this. It’s like, you know, you mentioned Merrick Garland a few minutes ago. Like, if freedom is at stake, why hasn’t DOJ been more aggressive about voting rights and reproductive rights? Even Ron Klain, who was White House chief of staff until like 5 minutes ago, says DOJ has been lethargic in those in those areas. But those are like the the beating heart of the whole freedom fight. Right. And they’re also enforcement priority issues where Biden could properly just tell DOJ. Use your resources wherever you can to protect voting rights and reproductive rights. I think Ron Klain is telling us that Merrick Garland is not doing that, whether whether Biden has instructed him to or not. And but that’s Biden’s administration. He’s responsible for it. And it doesn’t feel like the administration is geared up and running as like as like a tribune for freedom so much as like we’re going to try to keep things on an even keel and normal compared to those crazy MAGA extremists who want to cut Social Security. And I don’t think that that’s a recipe for for like, for like waging an us versus them kind of fight.
Greg Sargent: Yeah, it really does seem like this stuff is up in the air as to how far they’re going to go. I mean, what one thing that’s discouraging to me, on Biden and the debt limit is they’re still trapped in this place where they they treat this as conventional politics in some sense. And that to me is what’s really frustrating. So, you know, The Times just broke the story. I think maybe it’s a little exaggerated, unfortunately. [laughs] But The Times just reported that Biden advisers are seriously debating the 14th Amendment solution, which is to continue to pay the bills. Right. And they’re seriously debating whether that would be the appropriate legal way forward. And, of course, immediately the White House press secretary essentially shot down the story and said the only scenario that we see as acceptable is Congress lifting the debt limit, period. Right. And so I understand why they’re saying that. But the political thinking there seems to me to be off. Right. It seems like what that actually betrays is they still think that they’re doing some kind of clever rhetorical jujitsu to keep the pressure on Republicans. Right. But Republicans know that their best shot at ousting Biden is to destroy the economy, or at least to force such deep spending cuts that it really, really cripples the the economy in some sense. So so why would anyone assume that conventional politics, conventional political pressure on them would actually work? It makes no sense. But they’re still in this place where this is a conventional standoff in some way. Right. If we just find exactly the right magical pressure point, they’ll they’ll buckle. It makes no sense to me. On some level. I think they should be telegraphing, look, if Republicans are going to keep going down this crazy route route, we’re going to protect the country. That’s all. Just say it that way.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Just like I am not going to let Republicans withhold Social Security checks, but that’s what they’re trying to do. And if I think that the the most stable course of action be for them to lift the debt limit or just eliminate it. But if they say that they’re going to use it to harm people, well, I’m going to stand in the way of that. I mean, I do think it’s sometimes feels like the administration and the press corps are like creating a false kind of background for all this, where, like mainstream reporters almost invariably won’t allow themselves to say what’s really happening with the debt limit, where it’s like it’s an extortion scheme. The Republicans are perpetrating, and that’s all it’s ever been. That’s what it was in 2011 and in 2013. And now. And because. That’s like where the conventional wisdom is, where reporters pretend that this is just like the normal kind of legislative brinkmanship you see across a whole host of issues that that’s how the White House feels it needs to talk about it. But like I would, I would be more heartened if the White House like if if the White House press secretary came out and like in a professional and respectful way, kind of scolded the press corps for for not articulating what’s happening in a honest way and then explain like what’s happening is they are threatening to hurt America unless we accept their agenda unilaterally. Right. And then separately, like I’m watching this meeting that’s going to happen next week for the I want to see what Biden says on the other side of it. And I think that that’s going to be a big tell for me as to whether whether there’s any like have to this idea that he’s going to win the 2024 election by protecting American freedoms from Republicans who are trying to take him away.
Greg Sargent: Yeah, and just to add to to the point that you made a little earlier about the press corps, there’s actually a bit of a feedback loop effect here, right?
Brian Beutler: Yeah, that’s sort of what I’m trying to say [laughs] badly.
Greg Sargent: All right. So the more the Democrats and Biden treat this as a conventional political standoff, the easier it is for reporters to treat it as one. Right. And I know this is a topic you’ve talked about a lot that that public officials and campaigns have the power to point this, the media spotlight up things in one way or another. Right. And if Biden and Democrats in the White House were to say this is an emergency extortion attempt and we’re not going to let it happen.
Brian Beutler: You know, maybe Biden’s listening, the sooner he gets around to saying, I’m going to protect the country from this kind of sabotage, the longer Republicans would be forced. You know what, Janet Yellen Yellen said that June 1st ish is when they expect to to not be able to pay all of the country’s bills anymore. If he comes out of the May 9th meeting and says, look, Kevin McCarthy is a MAGA extremist, and he’s made clear to me that he will plunge the country into default. So I’m going to forestall that and order the Treasury to keep issuing debt to protect the country, whatever you know, however he would say it. That gives Kevin McCarthy, what, like three weeks and he could he gets to spend three weeks saying, no, we need to default on the debt. We need to ruin it. You know, like we need to cut and like that’s like to me, much more valuable than Biden waving around their legislation or their budget, saying, ha, like they want to cut veterans benefits, like let them say no, no, no, no, no, no. You protecting the country is actually illegal and we and like our right to hurt the country is absolute. And we’re going to go to court to—
Greg Sargent: Right. Exactly. When when it’s framed as a budgetary fight that plays into the hands of Republicans, that’s exactly what they want it to be.
Brian Beutler: Well, okay. So so we we started, like very optimistically on this this idea that the Democrats were co-opting higher principles from Republicans and they were going to win elections on them and have talked ourselves into the idea that maybe it’s all a bunch of cheap talk. So give me like one closing thought that’s like brings us back full circle, like me. Maybe we’re underestimating Biden and the administration and they’re actually serious about this and they’ve got a good plan to see their conceit about freedom through to November 2024.
Greg Sargent: I wish I could. I guess what I would say is that I really do think that it’s going to going to be a kind of frustrating exercise all the way down. There are going to be times when it looks good and other times when it looks not so good and we got to stay on them to really make sure that they’re not slipping into their old ways on this stuff. I think we talked about this in the last discussion, but the real question is whether they learn Democrats are learning the lessons of 2022 or the lessons of 20, 2018, which is what you said earlier, too. Right. They really are prone to see to see their wins through the prism of the 2018 wins as opposed to through the prism of the 2022 ones. I think they’re they’ve been somewhat shocked out of that by the kind of surprising nature of 2022. But I just don’t know, you know, how deeply, how deeply felt it is. And I just fear it’s going to be kind of really a constant kind of battle of attrition to keep them on this, on the sort of on the right kind of messaging and on a kind of big set of ideas and values when they’re really kind of prone to getting drawn back into small ball.
Brian Beutler: Okay. Well, I guess I got to hand it to you for like not just blowing smoke up our ass because I tried to get you to [laughs] and, you know, if that’s if that’s where we’re headed, I guess it’s. Better that our listeners are prepared for it. Greg Sargent, thanks for spending so much of your time with us today. I really appreciate it.
Greg Sargent: Thanks so much. [music plays]
Brian Beutler: Bit of a bummer to begin a conversation enthusiastic about Democrats staging some kind of confrontation with Republicans over their attempts to subjugate most of the public and then end on a bunch of reasons to suspect they may not actually be up for it. But that’s what a no bullshit conversation about politics is. It’d be analytically defective to assume Democrats will foreground the most contentious issues in politics just because Biden put out a couple of videos explaining why those issues are so important. That’s especially true because recent history isn’t all that encouraging. As I record this outro, we’re in the midst of the fifth or sixth cascade of damning revelations about Clarence Thomas. But Senate Democrats have been intent on not investigating those disclosures. They seem equally content to let California languish with one senator and squander the breathing room they won when they expanded their majority in the midterms, which they did on the backs of millions of volunteer man hours. And they’ve declined repeatedly over many years now to defuse the debt limit, knowing Republicans use it as a tool to abuse and extort them and harm the country when Democrats are in power. It no bullshit doesn’t inspire tons of confidence. But President Biden can prove us wrong. Perhaps as soon as Tuesday. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez, our associate producer, is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.