Peggy Noonan: Biden’s Georgia Speech Is a Break Point

President Biden gives a speech on voting rights in Atlanta, Jan. 11. Sen. Mitch McConnell rebuts Mr. Biden’s speech in Washington, Jan. 12. PHOTO: BRIAN CAHN/ZUMA PRESS; C-SPAN

He thought he was merely appealing to his base. He might have united the rest of the country against him.

It is startling when two speeches within 24 hours, neither much heralded in advance—the second wouldn’t even have been given without the first—leave you knowing you have witnessed a seminal moment in the history of an administration, but it happened this week. The president’s Tuesday speech in Atlanta, on voting rights, was a disaster for him. By the end of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s answering speech on Wednesday you knew some new break point had occurred, that President Biden might have thought he was just crooning to part of his base but the repercussions were greater than that; he was breaking in some new way with others—and didn’t know it. It is poor political practice when you fail to guess the effects of your actions. He meant to mollify an important constituency but instead he filled his opponents with honest indignation and, I suspect, encouraged in that fractured group some new unity.

The speech itself was aggressive, intemperate, not only offensive but meant to offend. It seemed prepared by people who think there is only the Democratic Party in America, that’s it, everyone else is an outsider who can be disparaged. It was a mistake on so many levels. Presidents more than others in politics have to maintain an even strain, as astronauts used to say. If a president is rhetorically manipulative and divisive on a voting-rights bill it undercuts what he’s trying to establish the next day on Covid and the economy. The over-the-top language of the speech made him seem more emotional, less competent. The portentousness—“In our lives and . . . the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before them from everything that followed. They stop time”—made him appear incapable of understanding how the majority of Americans understand our own nation’s history and the vast array of its challenges.

By the end he looked like a man operating apart from the American conversation, not at its center. This can be fatal to a presidency.

He was hardly done speaking when a new Quinnipiac poll showed the usual low Biden numbers, but, most pertinently, that 49% of respondents say he is doing more to divide the country, and only 42% see him as unifying it.

In the speech Mr. Biden claimed he stands against “the forces in America that value power over principle.” Last year Georgia elected two Democratic senators. “And what’s been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia? Choose the wrong way, the undemocratic way. To them, too many people voting in a democracy is a problem.” They want to “suppress the right to vote.” They want to “subvert the election.”

This is “Jim Crow 2.0,” it’s “insidious,” it’s “the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies.”

The problem is greater than Georgia. “The United States Senate . . . has been rendered a shell of its former self.” Its rules must be changed. “The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart. The filibuster has been weaponized and abused.” Senators will now “declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages.”

Most wince-inducing: “Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? . . . Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace ? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor ? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

If a speech can be full of itself this speech was.

From the floor of the Senate the next day came Mr. McConnell’s rebuke. It was stinging, indignant to the point of seething. He didn’t attempt to scale any rhetorical heights. The plainness of his language was ferocious.

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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal – Peggy Noonan