Were Biden’s Election Legitimacy Remarks Dangerous or Just Stupid?

Nearly in the middle of nearly two hours, 18,000-wordAt a press conference Wednesday evening, Joe Biden seemed to be unsure whether the midterm elections in November would be “illegitimate”, if Congress failed to pass several voting reform bills that he had proposed.

Biden responded, “I’m certainly not going to claim it’s going be legit,” after being asked to explain an earlier inarticulate comment about the trust in electoral systems. “The increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these…reforms passed.”

That soundbite by itself is obviously very bad. Biden is suggesting that American elections cannot be trusted until Congress adopts some reforms. This position could then be used to undermine the trust of any subsequent election under the existing rules. For that matter, he’s also undermining his own victory in the last election—a victory and an election that many Americans already believe were illegitimate—by suggesting that our default setting should be to doubt the system.

Within the context of the rest of Biden’s response to that same question, it sounds—well, OK, it still sounds Very bad. But the president’s response was confused from the start—the reporter who asked the question actually had to interrupt Biden, after he initially launched into a response focused on former President Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the outcome of the 2020 election, to remind him the question was about 2022. Biden then returns to his original point, pointing out the possibility of an “illegitimate election” while making the case for Democrats’ voting rights legislation. However, he seems to not be able to clarify what he means.

You can view the entire press conference on C-SPAN by clicking here. The discussion on voting starts at 1:19:55.

This is why Biden’s words are unclear. It seems like the White House has no other choice but to defend it. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly the defense that the White House is going with—Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted on Thursday morning that Biden meant the opposite of what he seemed to say.

This is not enough. Biden’s comments about legitimacy of elections are not only stupid but also dangerous. And the moment was significant enough that the president himself ought to clarify—immediately—what he meant to say.

Biden’s real problems are not going away, even if we give him the benefit-of-the doubt.

According to Rick Hasen (a Professor of Political Science at the University of California Irvine), “As I read these remarks and especially how Biden answered the second set of questions it seems that he is referring to a concern regarding election subversion and not voter suppression and how failure to pass Democrats’ combined voting bill could make it easier for election subversion to take place.”

Hasen says that casting doubts on the legitimacy and fairness of the election are highly charged statements. Such language should not be used for systems that have been so oppressive that they would be considered fundamentally unfair elections. I doubt that this is what we’ll see at the midterms in 2022, regardless of whether Democrats pass new voting laws.

Biden’s remarks, whether intentional or not fit within a disturbing trend where Democrats declare elections illegal simply because they are held under state laws passed by legitimately. This is what happened to Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018, when she refused to recognize the legitimacy of her narrow loss to Gov. Brian Kemp is a Republican.

You can always try to amend the election laws you don’t like. That’s exactly what Democrats are trying to do with their various reform proposals in Congress—and what Republicans are trying to do in various state capitals. Although there will always be disagreements on how elections should be conducted, declaring that marginal changes in any direction are so extreme as to render entire elections illegal is only going to undermine the democracy system’s legitimacy.

There is no comparison between what Biden, Abrams and any other Democrat said or did in 2020 to Trump’s actions. Biden’s inarticulate ruminations are far from the truth. Trump attempted to subvert and alter election results by requesting state legislatures to submit other slates. You cannot draw any equivalence there.

Biden’s remarks about the election system and the process are important for this reason. There is no benefit in suggesting that your opponent wants to destroy trust and distrust the democratic system.

Clearing the bar of being “less bad than Trump” might have been good enough to get Biden elected—indeed, polls suggest that’s the main reason why he won in 2020—but it’s not good enough in these circumstances. Biden’s comments on Wednesday seem worse when you look at what he could offer instead.

Biden could have replied by stating that he would never question fraud or illegitimacy unless backed up with hard evidence. “He could have reminded everybody that he attended the induction of several Republican presidents including two winners who were very close and accepted all the results.” writes the author. Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein. He could have stated that he hopes that all elections are free and fair and that he will do his best to ensure that that happens.”

Exactly. Offering up accusations of illegal elections, months before any evidence could be found of wrongdoing, is just as likely as trying to make holdout senators seem to defend Jim Crow laws.

This is more than a poor political decision or poorly selected words. Biden was able to undermine the trust of voters by both destroying and enhancing their electoral system. And He’s less likely to be able pass reforms that are necessary to restore that trust.