Matthew Frankel worked in the Clinton White House, the Office of House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, and is a veteran of a variety of Democratic political campaigns and Democratic Capitol Hill offices. He runs the New Jersey-based communication and engagement firm MDF Strategies.
By almost universal accounts, President Biden’s speech to the country of Poland provided inspiration, authenticity, and ardent support for democracy. It was President Biden at his best — plain-spoken, direct, and speaking far beyond blue and red state ideology.
It was a rare live rock star performance, not from the comforts of the Oval Office or a Zoom meeting, something that has been lost for Democrats in this age of COVID. Yet, before President Biden could even leave the stage at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, his own administration canceled him.
As most of us are now well aware, President Biden uttered nine words that for some reason shocked the world, or at least shocked his own administration, when he proclaimed the obvious, “For God’s sake, this man (Putin) cannot remain in power.”
The moment was ripe for the Biden administration to take a needed “victory lap,” as President Biden likes to call it. The post-speech narrative should have been relatively simple – that while standing before tens of thousands during a historic speech in a country once occupied by the former USSR, President Biden was overwhelmed with emotion, called an audible, and said what is on the minds of hundreds of millions around the world — there is no room for a dictator who kills innocent women and children. Putin must go!
Of course, that is not what happened. Based on news reports, Biden’s advisors seemed to go into panic mode. Instead of embracing the words Biden spoke from his heart and said what all of us feel, his staff went down the same defensive path the Democratic Party aligns itself with time and time again.
Instead of embracing their own president’s speech, the word immediately leaked out from administration officials that his remarks were “off-the-cuff,” with even his own secretary of state “walking back” his remarks on the Sunday news channels the following day.
Keep in mind this is not the President who brought Russian leaders to the Oval Office, publicly embraced Russian intel over the CIA, or praised Putin as “genius.” Yet, just like that, the Democratic Party put themselves on the defensive once again — and rather than embrace authenticity, they back-peddled.
While a bit of a departure from global foreign policy, this weekend’s incident reminded me of what we have seen from Democrats here at home.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton called select Trump supporters “deplorable.” As we all know, instead of owning the remarks and pointing out the truly deplorable, racist, misogynistic, violent, and extreme conspiracists that defined not only many Trump supporters but eventually reflected four years of turmoil and chaos, Hillary’s campaign chose to walk back those comments and play defense.
As a child of the 1980s, I remember the Dukakis campaign’s inability to defend itself against Republican “liberal” attacks. Like many Democrats, I wanted his campaign to own who he was, and remind those attackers that it was liberal policies that pushed our country out of the Great Depression, ensured more Americans the right to vote, and argued that health care was a right and not a privilege.
Locally, we have seen the same thing from our own elected Democratic leaders. In the last presidential cycle, we saw Sen. Cory Booker, who was clearly the best, most inspirational candidate, self-destruct when his campaign clearly chose to shy away from his strong, effective record as Newark’s reform-minded mayor.
To this day, I believe Cory Booker would be president if his campaign showcased his more authentic self and made his substantial Newark record the centerpiece of his campaign. If anyone doubts how effective it could have been, all they need to do is look at the incredibly moving discourse Senator Booker had with Judge Brown Jackson in her confirmation hearings last week, which was anchored by his perspective, experience, and love of Newark.
We also have seen the same lack of authenticity with Phil Murphy, who was once known as an education reform leader before becoming governor. Most recently, he stated publicly his support for all “high-quality top-performing school[s],” only to quickly walk back this commitment a short time later, for fear of upsetting the state’s special interests. He then denied school expansion to several high-performing public schools in Paterson, Newark and Trenton — all of which effectively educate our most at-risk, low-income students.
Many years ago, I heard Cory Booker speak to a school in Newark. It was the first time I heard him in person and he began his inspiring speech by telling students that if a politician is “not upsetting someone, they are probably not doing their job.” I have clung to those words ever since.
Whether it be foreign policy or education reform, Democrats need to stop being afraid of owning who they are and what they say. Those running the party right now seem more interested in finding a diluted common ground, walking potentially strong comments back, and listening to their advisors and special interests, instead of themselves, which is why it is so hard to be a Democrat right now.
For all his evil, Donald Trump seems to understand that most Americans want a president who can go off-script, communicate their beliefs, and be authentic.
Democrats need to stop being fearful of their best instincts. Last weekend could have been a shining moment for the Biden Administration. Unfortunately, it just followed the same path we have seen before – bold words and action, followed by walk backs, worry, and defensiveness.
(This was first published in nj.com.)
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