WASHINGTON — Three years ago, candidate Joe Biden boldly predicted that once he defeated Donald Trump, Republicans would have an “epiphany,” free themselves from the shackles of the far-right and work cooperatively with Democrats toward consensus.
“The thing that will fundamentally change with Donald Trump out of the White House — not a joke — is you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” Biden said May 14, 2019, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, adding that Republicans were too "intimidated" by Trump to compromise.
This week, President Biden rolled out a new message labeling the GOP a “MAGA Party” — tying Republicans to the ex-president’s controversial brand of politics with an election-year attack designed to activate disillusioned Democrats and persuade independents that the GOP is too radical to hold power.
“MAGA Republicans — ‘make America great again’ Republicans,” he said Wednesday at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, carrying the same message in speeches throughout the week. “They’re the most extreme party. And that’s what the Republican Party is now... They run the show, the MAGA Republicans.”
Biden's rhetoric is an attempt to sharpen his indictment of Republicans ahead of a midterm election in which his party could lose control of the House and Senate. It comes as Trump maintains a firm grip on the GOP, wielding his influence with conservative voters to purge his critics and using his endorsements in the 2022 primaries to exact revenge on those he considers disloyal.
Some Republicans say Biden is grasping for a political strategy.
“The president’s desperate,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “His poll numbers, particularly among independents, are on a journey to the center of the earth. And I think they’re trying to change the narrative.”
But Biden’s allies say that the pessimism of the president, a 45-year veteran of Washington who built his political identity on cross-party cooperation and finding common ground, is more a searing indictment of the opposition.
Biden’s agenda to tackle major economic problems — from rising costs of child care and college tuition and prescription drugs, to climate change and health care access — faces unanimous Republican opposition and has been stymied in the 50-50 Senate. His voting rights push ran headlong into a unified GOP filibuster.
“Over his 36 years as a senator, few senators were more committed to bipartisanship, to building real personal relationships, to working across the aisle than former Sen. Biden,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., Biden's friend and Senate successor. “For him to say ‘This is a new Republican Party that I am struggling to find common ground with’ is really quite a statement.”
'MAGA Republicans ... Take the fight to them'
A Biden adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking, emphasized to NBC News he wasn't giving up on working with Republicans where possible, citing the bipartisan infrastructure law and U.S.-China competition package as examples.
The adviser said Biden’s new message is based on his view that most of the party has taken a sharp turn to the hard right, evoking the agenda of Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., as well as that of party elites who are waging culture wars against Disney, seeking to ban books and attempting to outlaw abortion. The adviser added that Democrats would argue the GOP is the party of Scott, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
As another example of "MAGA" influence, the Biden adviser cited a GOP primary this week in West Virginia, where Rep. Alex Mooney defeated Rep. David McKinley, who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure law and was criticized for it.
Yet it's unclear the emphasis on Trump will be enough to save Democrats from heavy losses in the midterms. The ex-president is out of power and off the ballot; he's banned from Twitter and Facebook. A recent governor's race in Virginia, where Democrats unsuccessfully sought to tie Republican Glenn Youngkin to Trump, reveals the limitations of such a strategy.
Biden took pointed aim at Scott, the chair of the GOP Senate campaign arm, for proposing an “ultra-MAGA” agenda that calls for raising federal income taxes on about half of Americans and sunsetting all federal laws in five years, which Biden said was tantamount to eliminating Medicare and Social Security.
“It really is beyond the pale,” Biden said, adding that while “MAGA Republicans” are about one-third of the U.S. electorate, their politicians control the party. “We got to take the fight to them. We got to make our case, and make it very strongly.”
‘Ultra-MAGA’ and proud Republicans
Coons said the president is “simply observing reality.”
“Sadly, the political reality is that more and more Republicans at the state level and federal level are under the thrall of the former president and his views and positions. And I think that that may make compromise and consensus more and more difficult,” he said.
And some top Republicans are embracing Biden’s label.
“I am ultra-MAGA. I’m proud of it,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., whose loyalty to Trump boosted her to the leadership position of number three House Republican, replacing Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
Asked about Biden’s message, Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said: “It's an election year.”
“The rhetoric is going to get hot,” he said. “I think he’s trying to take a bad hand and play it the best he can and start counter-punching or attacking. But I don’t think that works collectively. Because we just got a lot of people who I don’t think fit that description. But that’s certainly an election year strategy.”
And it marks a sharp break from a longstanding approach that drew its own share of criticism from within his own party.
In 2019 and 2020, some Democrats criticized Biden’s predictions of a GOP epiphany, accusing him of naivete about the nature of his opposition. One of those critics, progressive strategist Max Berger, said he was pleased to see Biden move on from that vision — though it wouldn't be an easy transition.
“I think it’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s a difficult pivot from all of his talk of trying to achieve bipartisanship,” Berger said.