In the middle of a nearly two-hour, nearly 18,000-word press conference on Wednesday evening, President Joe Biden seemingly cast doubt over whether the upcoming midterm elections would be "illegitimate" if Congress did not pass a series of voting reform bills he has proposed.
"I'm not going to say it's going to be legit," Biden said at one point, after being asked to clarify an inarticulate remark he'd made earlier about trust in the electoral system. "The increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these…reforms passed."
On its own, that soundbite is clearly quite bad. If Biden's view is that American elections should not be trusted until Congress makes some changes, then he's staking out a position that could be used to undermine trust in any future election that occurs under the current 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 pretty 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. After getting back on track, Biden makes the point about the "prospect" of an "illegitimate" election while trying to make the case for the Democrats' voting rights bill, but he never seems to be quite sure what point he's trying to make.
(You can watch the full press conference via C-SPAN here. The exchange about voting begins at the 1:19:55 mark.)
The lack of clarity about what exactly Biden was saying is the best defense, or excuse, for this worrying moment. 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.
Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election. He was making the opposite point: In 2020, a record number of voters turned out in the face of a pandemic, and election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted.
— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) January 20, 2022
But that's not good enough. Biden's remarks about the legitimacy of elections were certainly stupid, but they're also dangerous. And the moment was significant enough that the president himself ought to clarify—immediately—what he meant to say.
Because even if you're going to give Biden the benefit of the doubt, there's a real problem.
"As I read the remarks, and particularly how Biden responded to the second set of questions, it appears that he has in mind a concern about election subversion, not voter suppression, and how the failure to pass the Democrats' combined voting bill would make it easier to engage in election subversion," Rick Hasen, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, notes at the Election Law Blog.
Even so, Hasen adds, "casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election is a highly charged statement to make, and such language should be reserved for a system that is so repressive that it would be considered a fundamentally unfair election. I don't think that's what we will see in the 2022 midterms, whether or not Democrats pass any new voting bills."
Whether intentional or not, Biden's comments also fit into a worrying trend of Democrats declaring elections to be illegitimate simply because they were held under a set of (legitimately passed) state laws that Democrats disagree with. That's what happened in 2018 when Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her close loss to Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican.
If you dislike the laws governing elections, of course, you're free to try to change them. 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. There will always be debates over the proper way to conduct elections, but declaring marginal changes in either direction to be so far out of bounds that they render entire elections illegitimate is accomplishing nothing except eroding the actual legitimacy of the democratic system.
Of course, nothing that Biden or Abrams or any other Democrat has said or done comes close to what Trump and his allies attempted to do in the wake of the 2020 election. There is a wide gulf between Biden's inarticulate ruminations and Trump's actual attempts to pressure election officials to alter results, have state lawmakers submit alternative slates of electors, and ultimately subvert the Electoral College. There is no equivalence to be drawn there.
But that's all the more reason why Biden's public comments about the election system matter. If your opponent is trying to tear down trust in the democratic system, there is nothing to be gained by suggesting that he might be right.
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. And what Biden said on Wednesday seems even worse when you consider what he could have offered instead.
"Biden should have responded by proclaiming that he will never raise questions of fraud or illegitimacy without hard evidence. He could have reminded everyone that he had attended the inauguration of quite a few Republican presidents, including two who won very close elections, and accepted the results every time," writes Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein. "He could have said that he hoped that every election is free and fair, and that he'll do everything possible to see that they are."
Exactly. And firing off accusations of illegitimate elections months before there could be any actual evidence of wrongdoing is about as likely to convince lawmakers to back Biden's election reforms as last week's ill-conceived attempt to paint holdout senators as tantamount to being defenders of Jim Crow laws.
This isn't just faulty political judgment or a few poorly chosen words. Biden managed to both undermine trust in the electoral system and undermine the chances that he'll be able to pass the reforms he says are essential to restoring that trust.