“This is like something out of a fairy tale, a bad fairy tale.”
That line, from the speech of President Joe Biden at Valley Forge this week, may have been the most accurate observation in the entire address kicking off Biden’s 2024 campaign.
The speech was a masterpiece of contradiction. Biden started by denouncing how Donald Trump’s campaign is only “about him” and “obsessed with the past.” He then spent virtually all of the speech obsessing about Trump and Jan. 6, 2021.
It was an early indication of the Orwellian character of the speech. Facing the lowest polling numbers of any modern president, Biden attempted a constructive substitution. “Democracy is on the ballot,” he said. So voters do not have to vote for him. When they see Biden, they should just read “democracy.”
That will require more than an act of substitution in the voting booth. It would require an act of willful blindness.
Biden spoke of how Democrats are fighting to protect the “right to vote.” Democratic activists and officials across the country are seeking to remove Trump from the ballot even though he is the most popular choice for the presidency right now.
In fact, dozens of Democratic officials have sought to remove 126 Republicans from Congress on the same basis. Even as Biden was telling citizens to vote Democrat to preserve democracy, a Democratic activist was seeking to remove a GOP congressman from the ballot in a nearby Pennsylvania district.
Biden’s speech would be more credible if he had joined principled Democratic politicians who have denounced this nationwide effort. As usual, he has remained silent as he did on court packing in the last election.
It would also have been a tad more convincing if his party were not preventing citizens from voting for anyone other than Biden in the primary. Florida called its Democratic primary for Biden and blocked opposing candidates, despite two-thirds of Democrats wanting an alternative to Biden. Faced with such polling numbers, the party establishment is so committed to democracy that it has decided voters cannot be trusted with a choice. North Carolina’s Democrats became the latest to bar anyone but Biden from the ballot.
Democratic officials are approaching democracy the way Henry Ford responded to calls for different color choices for the Model T. He pledged to provide “any color the customer wants, as long as it’s black.” In this election, voters can choose anyone they want, as long as it is Biden.
For millions of voters, democracy may be on the ballot but it is aspirational. If you vote for Biden, you might just get democracy back, but only after the election.
Even more galling was Biden’s claim to be the defender of free speech. As I have previously written, Biden has been the most anti-free speech president since John Adams. His administration has been unrelenting in pushing for censorship and blacklisting of those with opposing views.
The Biden censorship efforts have been described by one federal court as unprecedented in our history and a virtual “Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth.’” The Biden Administration has called for the censorship of even true statements that it deems misleading.
For Biden to run on free speech is about as convincing as Bill Clinton running on abstinence.
Biden hopes that voters will buy the “don’t vote for me, vote for democracy” line. However, it does not appear to be working thus far. Indeed, the Valley Forge speech was another example of “the sound of one hand clapping” with the same 40 percent or so that is clinging to Biden in the polls.
This time, however, he dropped the hellish red back drop from Philadelphia in 2022, when he denounced Trump supporters as enemies of the people. Instead, he did everything he could to channel the spirit of George Washington, short of appearing in a Continental uniform.
Of course, Washington was a unifying figure in his time. He did not declare all Tories to be traitors. Many Tories and former loyalists would ultimately join his cause. Biden portrayed the 74 million voters for Trump as virtual redcoats seeking the return of the monarchy.
The key to Washington’s success is that he was at Valley Forge. He lived through the deprivations imposed upon his men and defended democracy by refusing invitations to become a monarch. If Biden wants to assume the mantle of a Washington, he could start by supporting democracy, practicing it in both the primary and in general election by calling for voters to be given their choice of candidates.
Given his record, Biden’s effort to disguise himself as George Washington left him looking foolish in a uniform two sizes too big for his stature.
Biden has a consistent record of only supporting principles and positions that bring political benefits. While James Freeman Clarke once said that statesmen think of the next generation, Biden seems rarely to have thought beyond the next election.
Moreover, Biden’s effort to champion the Constitution was contradicted by a long line of decisions finding that he has violated the Constitution with impunity. This includes rulings that his administration has exceeded his authority and engaged in racial discrimination in federal programs. Indeed, Biden has often displayed a cavalier attitude toward such violations.
For example, the Biden administration was found to have violated the Constitution in its imposition of a nationwide eviction moratorium through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Biden admitted that his White House counsel and most legal experts told him the move was unconstitutional. But he ignored their advice and went with that of Harvard University Professor Laurence Tribe, the one person who would tell him what he wanted to hear. It was, of course, then quickly found to be unconstitutional.
Biden showed the same disregard over the unconstitutionality of his effort to unilaterally forgive roughly half a trillion dollars in student debt.
Biden rarely allows principle to stand before politics.
That is why Biden is no Washington. It is not even clear that Biden makes a convincing Biden. His checkered history of violating the Constitution has left little real notion of what he values beyond the politically expedient.
The tragedy of Biden is not that he has not reached the heights of Washington. Few ever have. The tragedy is that we may never know if Biden could rise to meet his own Valley Forge challenge.
Jonathan Turley is the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School.
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