When Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered his State of the State address last year, the Republican declared Florida as the nation’s freest state. In fact, the governor used the word “freedom” more than a half dozen times in his prepared remarks, concluding that the Sunshine State “has stood as freedom’s vanguard.”
Given the degree to which DeSantis has curtailed Floridians’ freedoms, there was some irony to the rhetoric. But soon after, a growing number of prominent Democratic voices started taking steps to turn the rhetorical tables.
The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein explained last summer, “[T]he systematic drive by GOP state officials and the Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices to roll back seemingly long-settled civil rights and liberties, including the right to abortion, has provided Democrats with a unique opening to reverse the terms of this debate, particularly in races for state offices, where the rights battles are now centered. An array of Democratic governors and gubernatorial candidates are presenting Republicans as a threat to Americans’ freedoms.”
This came to mind this morning, when President Joe Biden and his team launched their re-election campaign and released a video titled, “Freedom.” In case the name was too subtle, consider some of the transcript:
“Freedom. Personal freedom is fundamental to who we are as Americans. There’s nothing more important. Nothing more sacred. ... Around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take those bedrock freedoms away. Cutting Social Security that you’ve paid for your entire life while cutting taxes for the very wealthy. Dictating what health care decisions women can make, banning books, and telling people who they can love. All while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote. When I ran for president four years ago, I said we are in a battle for the soul of America. And we still are. The question we are facing is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom.”
For good measure, the Democratic incumbent went on to say that “this is our moment” to “stand up for our personal freedoms.”
Biden is hardly alone on this. Last summer, in an ad that generated quite a bit of conversation, California Gov. Gavin Newsom aired an ad on Fox News, taking aim at GOP officials such as DeSantis. “It’s Independence Day, so let’s talk about what’s going on in America,” the Democratic governor said in the commercial. “Freedom, it’s under attack.”
Newsom proceeded to point to DeSantis’ restrictions on free speech, voting rights, and abortion before urging Floridians not to let the Republican “take your freedom.”
A few days later, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell published a memorable tweet that read, “What’s the Democrats’ message? I hear this all the time. Simple. We are the party of freedom. Freedom to make your own health care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. Our message is our values. Freedom for all.”
Over the last few years, Republicans have tried to define “freedom” in a narrow way that runs counter to public health: To be free, they’ve said, is to reject mask requirements, vaccine requirements, and anything that might vaguely fall under some amorphous definition of “woke.”
All of which has led Democrats to try to change the nature of the conversation.
Ahead of his successful Democratic gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania last year, Josh Shapiro told The Atlantic, “It has frustrated me that Republicans love to cloak themselves in this blanket of freedom and feel as though they own it somehow, when in fact what they are selling to the people of Pennsylvania, or the American people, really isn’t freedom at all. It’s far bigger government and more control over people’s everyday lives.”
In other words, Democrats are ready for a fight over which party can claim the mantle of “freedom.” As Biden’s new message helps show, it’s a fight Democrats think they can win.
Update: To help drive home the point, consider the first television ad of Biden's re-election campaign: It uses the word "freedom" seven times.
This post revises our related earlier coverage.