How Biden’s MAGA Attacks Compare to Romney’s 47%, Clinton’s ‘Deplorables’


Recent political history teaches that attacking your opponents’ base of support while wielding too broad a brush can be counterproductive.

In 2012, Democrats got a big boost from a leaked video of Mitt Romney mocking “47% of the people who will vote for president.” [Obama] no matter what” because they were “dependent on the government” – which he later acknowledged caused “real damage” to his campaign.

Republicans then turned the tide in 2016 with Hillary Clinton and her “deplorable” comments about Trump supporters, and made money a sort of badge of honor during Trump’s presidency.

It’s no surprise, then, that Republicans say President Biden’s growing attacks on “MAGA Republicans” involve an equally broad brush: They seek to rally Republicans behind the idea that Biden is attacking many, if not all.

The reality is not so clear cut.

A closer look at Biden’s comments shows he hasn’t affixed as large a number to those he targets as Romney or Clinton did. And while Republicans have tried to expand the universe of people involved with the label, Biden and the White House have been careful to point out that they have narrowed it.

When Biden linked ‘MAGA philosophy’ to ‘semi-fascism’ last week, Fox News and Republicans pretended to be appalled and assured he was talking about ‘you’, even as Donald Trump launched a similar attack against parts of the left without inspiring such apoplexy. When White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre detailed the case against “MAGA Republicans” this week, viral tweets and other comments framed the remarks as about those who “voted for trump” and “Trump voters.” After Biden’s speech Thursday night warning of the MAGA Republicans’ threat to democracy, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, “An angry man defiles half the population of the country he is supposed to lead. Ahead of the speech, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Biden “vilified tens of millions of Americans as fascists.”

But in the speech, Biden emphasized that it wasn’t all or even most Republicans.

“I want to be very clear up front,” Biden said. “Not all Republicans — not even the majority of Republicans — are MAGA Republicans. Not all Republicans embrace their extreme ideology.

He added, “There are many more Americans – many more Americans – of all backgrounds and creeds, who reject extreme MAGA ideology than those who accept it.”

Jean-Pierre previewed the speech on Wednesday saying “the way he sees it is that the MAGA Republicans are the most energetic part of the Republican Party.” She focused on “MAGA Republicans in Congress” and “MAGA Republicans in the lead.” “They are the ones with the platform,” she added.

Despite claims that she was referring to Trump voters wholesale, she did not use the word “voter.” And in fact, she said explicitly that she “can’t talk about the voters here, as you know.” (“Here” meaning the White House podium.)

The White House clearly wanted to emphasize that this was not about all Republicans. And sometimes such comments are returned. But Biden’s earlier comments also don’t indicate that he was talking about all or even necessarily most Republicans.

In his comments on “semi-fascism” on August 25, he called on “mainstream Republicans” to join in rejecting this philosophy. He added, “The data shows that a significant portion of the Republican Party agrees with us. They agree that the MAGA crowd has gone way too far – way too far in their view of the role of government.

Thus, from the start, Biden distanced “MAGA” from “a significant part of the Republican Party”. And he now clarifies that he’s not even talking about half the Republicans.

Romney’s 47% line, by contrast, was literally defined by the number he attached to it – a very large number – which is arguably what made him so powerful. And Clinton, in his “deplorable” comment, immediately attached a faction to it as well.

“You know, to be a gross generalist, you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right?” said Clinton. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”

Clinton quickly admitted his mistake, to express regret for using such a “grossly generalist” percentage.

Biden was less specific about how many people he considers “MAGA Republicans” who pose a threat to democracy, for obvious reasons. And his opponents have sought to expand the universe of people he’s supposed to talk about, for obvious reasons. (Biden added, “There is no doubt that the Republican Party is being dominated, pushed and intimidated by Trump and the MAGA Republicans – and that is a threat to this country.” But he assured that a minority of the party led that.)

This is the risk of embarking on this path. As Philip Bump writes, Trump has successfully weaponized the idea that his supporters are persecuted and marginalized by the elites who run this country. Biden believes this move is so dangerous that it needs to be exposed and heeded — and, perhaps, there are political benefits to driving a wedge between more moderate voters and the extreme wing of the GOP. But many Republicans clearly support Trump, and the vast majority mistakenly believe the 2020 election was stolen.

It’s certainly a calculated risk, especially since the fortunes of midterm Democrats already seemed to be improving. On the one hand, keeping the focus on Trump seems to have paid off. On the other hand, even moderate voters who voted for Trump might feel attacked for choosing a side in the voting booth, twice — even though Biden has repeatedly and explicitly sought to exclude them from the group whose he speaks.


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