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Biden visits Phoenix for speech against 'MAGA movement', announces McCain Library at ASU

By Katherine Davis-Young
Associated Press
Published: Thursday, September 28, 2023 - 12:33pm
Updated: Monday, October 30, 2023 - 5:55pm

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Joe Biden Tempe
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
President Joe Biden speaks in Tempe, Ariz. on Sept. 28, 2023.

President Joe Biden was in Tempe on Thursday to announce plans for a new John McCain National Library. But Biden, who narrowly won in Arizona in 2020, also used the visit to talk about what he perceives as threats to democracy ahead of next year’s election. 

Biden, who is seeking re-election next year, referenced the Jan. 6 insurrection and the current gridlock on Capitol Hill. He condemned some far-right Republicans for violence and partisanship.

But he called the late Arizona senator, Republican John McCain, a dear friend. And Biden said even though they differed politically, he respected the Navy veteran and one-time prisoner of war because McCain put country first.

“Very few of us will ever be asked to endure what John McCain endured, but all of us are being asked right now, what will we do to maintain our democracy?” 

The new 80,000 square foot McCain Library on Arizona State University's Tempe campus will house McCain’s archives as well as Arizona offices of the McCain Institute think tank.

Speech targets Trump, supporters

Biden argued that “there is something dangerous happening in America” as he revives his warnings that Donald Trump and his allies represent an existential threat to the country's democratic institutions.

“There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy. The MAGA movement,” Biden says in excerpts of the speech released in advance by the White House, referring to Trump's Make America Great Again slogan.

Although voting in the 2024 Republican primary doesn't begin for months, Biden's focus reflects Trump's status as the undisputed frontrunner for his party's nomination despite facing four indictments, two of them related to his attempts to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Biden's speech is his fourth in a series of presidential addresses on the topic, a cause that is a touchstone for him as he tries to remain in office even in the face of low approval ratings and widespread concern from voters about his age, 80.

He's also facing fresh pressure on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans are holding the first hearing in their impeachment inquiry.

On the first anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, Biden visited the Capitol and accused Trump of continuing to hold a “dagger” at democracy’s throat. Biden closed out the summer that year in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, decrying Trumpism as a menace to democratic institutions.

And in November, as voters were casting ballots in the midterm elections, Biden again sounded a clarion call to protect democratic institutions.

'I have come to honor the McCain Institute and Library'

President Joe Biden speaks at a podium
Charlie Leight/ASU News
President Joe Biden speaks in Tempe on Sept. 28, 2023.

The location for Thursday's speech, as was the case for the others, was chosen for effect. 

“I have come to honor the McCain Institute and Library because they are home to a proud Republican who put country first," Biden says in the excerpts. “Our commitment should be no less because democracy should unite all Americans – regardless of political affiliation.”

The late senator’s wife, Cindy McCain, said the library, still to be built, is the result of bipartisan support from Biden, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and her predecessor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

“President Biden has been a longtime friend, tough political opponent and strong leader,” McCain said in a statement. "All traits that my husband, John, also possessed.”

As Biden has tried to do in the past, Thursday's speech is designed to avoid alienating moderate Republicans while confronting the spread of anti-democratic rhetoric.

“Not every Republican — not even the majority of Republicans — adhere to the extremist MAGA ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with Republicans my whole career," Biden says. “But there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA extremists.”

Republicans competing with Trump for their party's 2024 presidential nomination have largely avoided challenging his election falsehoods. In addition, Trump's allies on Capitol Hill are only becoming more emboldened as he eggs them on, including toward a looming government shutdown that appears all but inevitable.

In closed-door fundraisers, Biden has spoken at length about reelection, imploring supporters to join his effort to “literally save American democracy,” as he described it to wealthy donors this month in New York.

“I’m running because we made progress — that’s good — but because our democracy, I think, is still at risk,” Biden said.

Advisers see Biden’s continued focus on democracy as both good policy and good politics. Campaign officials have pored over the election results from last November, when candidates who denied the 2020 election results did not fare well in competitive races, and point to polling that showed democracy was a highly motivating issue for voters in 2022.

Candidates who backed Trump’s election lies and were running for statewide offices with some influence over elections — governor, secretary of state, attorney general — lost their races in every presidential battleground state.

In few states does Biden’s message of democracy resonate more than in Arizona, which became politically competitive during Trump’s presidency after seven decades of Republican dominance. After Biden's victory, the state was a hotbed of efforts to overturn or cast doubt on the results.

Republican state lawmakers used their subpoena power to obtain all the 2020 ballots and vote-counting machines from Maricopa County, then hired Trump supporters to conduct an unprecedented partisan review of the election. The widely mocked spectacle confirmed Biden’s victory but fueled unfounded conspiracy theories about the election and spurred an exodus of election workers.

In the 2022 midterms, voters up and down the ballot rejected Republican candidates who repeatedly denied the results of the 2020 election. But Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, has never conceded her loss to Hobbs and plans to launch her a bid for the U.S. Senate. Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and Mark Finchem, who ran for secretary of state, also repeated fraudulent election claims in their respective campaigns.

Joe Biden speech
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
President Joe Biden speaks in Tempe, Ariz. on Sept. 28, 2023.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who defeated Masters, said the importance of defending democracy resonates not only with members of his own party but independents and moderate GOP voters.

“I met so many Republicans that were sick and tired of the lies about an election that was two years old,” Kelly said.

Indeed, Republicans privately concede that the election denialism rhetoric that dominated their candidates’ message — as well as the looming specter of Trump — damaged their efforts to retain the governor’s mansion and flip a hotly contested Senate seat, according to three Republican officials who worked in statewide races last cycle.

The issue of democracy resonated more in Arizona than in other competitive states, and to have candidates deny basic facts on elections helped reinforce other claims from Democrats about GOP extremism on other, completely separate issues, said the Republican officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly describe the party’s shortcomings last year. Though Trump-animated forces in the party dominate public attention, many Republican voters were concerned about other issues such as the economy and the border and did not want to focus on an election result that was two years old.

Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in next year’s Senate race, said a democracy-focused message is particularly important to two critical blocs of voters in the state: Latinos and veterans, both of whom Gallego said are uniquely affected by election denialism and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

"You know, we come from countries and experiences where democracy is very corrupt, and many of us are only one generation removed from that, but we’re close enough to see how bad it can be," Gallego said. "And so Jan. 6 actually was particularly jarring, I think, to Latinos.”

As he pays tribute to McCain on Thursday, Biden will also announce new federal funds being directed to build the McCain Library, which the White House says will offer various programs for underserved communities. The money comes from a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed in the early months of Biden’s presidency, and the project is in partnership with the with the McCain Institute and Arizona State University.

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