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Give 'em Hell

What Joe Biden Could Learn From Harry Truman

He could take some lessons from the last Democratic president who relished picking fights with Republicans.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Incumbent Democratic presidents have long struggled with red-meat partisan rhetoric. Defending a Democratic Congress in 2010, Barack Obama favored a long-winded, heavy-handed trope about how the Republicans wanted the car keys back after driving the economy into a ditch.

Bill Clinton, too, had problems going after the Republican Party. Speaking at a major Democratic fundraiser in late September 1994, Clinton looked back at the Ronald Reagan–George H.W. Bush years and said of the Republican era, “I thought this country was not led very well, because we were divided instead of united and because we weren’t going forward, we were going backward economically.” Not exactly the kind of invective that would bring Newt Gingrich to his knees.

In fact, the last Democratic president who truly reveled in demonizing the GOP was probably Harry Truman. In his underdog 1948 presidential campaign, Truman ran against the Republican Party while mostly ignoring Tom Dewey, the bland GOP nominee. The fiery speeches that Truman delivered on his whistle-stop tour of America could provide a model for Joe Biden in the final weeks of his battle to save this current Democratic Congress.

Picture the scene in Dexter, Iowa, in mid-September 1948. Truman, trailing by double digits in the polls, had arranged to appear during the National Plowing Match, which was then a major farm belt event. Speaking to a skeptical crowd of 80,000, Truman declared in give-them-hell style, “The Wall Street reactionaries are not satisfied with being rich. They want to increase their power and their privileges, regardless of what happens to the other fellow. They are gluttons of privilege. These gluttons of privilege are now putting up fabulous sums of money to elect a Republican administration.”

I don’t expect Biden to ever feel comfortable with lines about “the gluttons of privilege,” no matter how accurate a description it is of the American economy in 2022.

Like many Democrats these days, Biden feels beholden to the wealthy. At a Manhattan fundraiser Tuesday night, Biden made a brief jab at Republican economics as he said, “I’m not a big trickle-down guy.” But then looking out at the wealthy crowd in a midtown apartment during an event that raised about $2 million for the Democrats, Biden quickly added, “A lot of you do very, very well. And you should do well. You deserve to do well. But I want to build this economy from the middle out and the bottom up.... When that happens, everybody does well. The wealthy do very, very well, and everybody does well.”

In contrast to Biden, Truman’s economic attacks on the Republicans had an internal coherence because they were based on the theory that the GOP leaders would do anything to help corporate America feed its profits. That was his answer to high inflation (8 percent) in 1948. Speaking from the rear of his campaign train, the Ferdinand Magellan, in Terre Haute, Indiana, on the Saturday before the election, Truman explained GOP inaction: “The Republican leaders are too interested in helping big business make bigger profits. They know, just as well as I do, that unchecked inflation can lead to a depression. They know that, but they are shortsighted and selfish.”

Class warfare does not come naturally to modern Democratic presidents, especially when speaking to the party’s donor class. As a result, Biden’s style is far less confrontational. “We understand something Republicans don’t,” he said at a September 9 DNC fundraiser. “Wall Street did not build this country. Working people, the middle class built this nation. And I got news for you: Unions built the middle class.”

Truman, who built his 1948 campaign around denouncing the “do-nothing Republican Congress,” felt little need to hum along with the siren song of bipartisanship. As Truman put it with refreshing honesty in a campaign speech in Charleston, West Virginia, “Some people have accused me of failing to cooperate with the Republican leadership.... Now, I must confess to you that I am going to plead guilty to that charge. Of course, I did not cooperate in carrying out policies that I knew would bring disaster on the American people.”

Biden, for his part, goes out of his way to admit that he could not have passed the infrastructure bill without GOP votes. “We got a little help from Republicans, but not a lot, but enough to get it passed,” the president said at a party fundraiser earlier this month. “But the truth is there are a lot more Republicans taking credit for that bill than actually voted for it. I see them out there: ‘And now we’re going to build this new bridge here. We’re all for it.’”

That kind of mockery, which Biden only fleetingly attempts, is straight out of the 1948 Truman playbook. The two presidents also faced a similar rhetorical challenge: how to distinguish reasonable Republicans from the extremists who dominated the GOP.

This was one arena where Truman never mustered a clever argument. Whistle-stopping across Texas in late September, Truman said from the rear platform on his train in Georgetown, “There are a few forward-looking Republicans, but they’re not in control of the Republican Party, so don’t you trust them because the same old gang ... will have control of the Congress.”

In his September 1 formal address in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Biden struggled with the cleavage in the Republican Party. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” the president declared. “Now, I want to be very clear—very clear up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.”

But unlike Truman, then Biden pointedly added, “But there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country.”

There is power embedded in Biden’s language and the passion behind it. But the word “intimidated” carried heavy weight in his argument about MAGA Republicans. That single word represented the rationale Biden offered in Philadelphia to explain Trump’s power over a once rational party.

Biden appears to understand that he needs to amplify that point. In his Tuesday night speech, Biden said, “When I talk about the MAGA crowd, I’m not just talking about Trump ... I’ve never saw [sic] a party so intimidated before.” Then Biden referred to six unnamed Republican senators who said to him, “I know you’re right, Joe, but I just can’t vote with you because I’ll get defeated in the primary.” The precise quotes may be exaggerated, but Biden’s conclusion was on the mark: “Not a lot of political courage, but it’s a reality.”

The truth of that interpretation was buttressed by a Wednesday Washington Post excerpt from the forthcoming book Unchecked by Rachel Bade and Karoun Demirjian. The book describes the timorous GOP mood on Capitol Hill after the January 6 insurrection: “Many Senate Republicans who experienced a flash of conscience and self-reflection in the wake of the riot had it quickly beaten out of them by Trump’s base.”

Explanations matter in politics. Truman artfully depicted a Republican Party that sold its soul to the “gluttons of privilege.” Biden needs to continually stress that Trump controls the Republicans because many party leaders (see McConnell, Mitch) knew what was right and deliberately did nothing. It is not only democracy that’s on the ballot in November. There is also the question of whether the voters want to reward the party of cowards (see McCarthy, Kevin).

Democratic presidents, especially Clinton and Obama, fell into the trap of believing that success in off-year elections depended on reminding the voters what has been done for them. But demonizing the Republicans (who richly deserve it) can be a far more powerful argument with the voters than Democratic self-congratulation. Just ask Harry Truman.