Biden’s remarks focused on how he worked across the political aisle with McCain during their years in the U.S. Senate, contrasting their story with current-day partisanship and increasing threats to democracy.
“We’d argue like hell, I mean really go at each other,” Biden said about McCain, who died in 2018. “Then we’d go get lunch together.”
The president used the opportunity to highlight the fact that McCain’s mantra of “service over self” is becoming harder to find in Congress. He denounced what he called an “extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs of our democracy.”
Biden noted that former President Donald Trump has publicly supported measures to concentrate more power in the presidency, including imposing a rule that would allow the president to replace career civil servants with supporters.
“What is it they intend to do once they erode the constitutional order of checks and balances and separation of powers?” Biden asked.
Biden’s speech also emphasized his concern over mounting political violence, reflected in the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.
An attack on voting rights
Jenny Guzman, Arizona program director of government watchdog Common Cause, told Phoenix New Times that Arizona is at the forefront of a coordinated attack on voting rights.
She pointed to efforts in the Arizona State Legislature to make it harder to vote and said the e disproportionately impact people of color who have historically faced voter suppression.
“People attacking voting rights are ensuring that they’re hitting us from all angles,” Guzman said.
Many of the bills focused on elections and voting, but were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. One that became law ended the state's Permanent Early Voting List. Now, voters who haven’t exercised their rights in two years are removed from the voter registration list. Guzman said that is “designed to purge voters from the early voting list.”
“The bills that we’re seeing are not being done to support elections, they’re being done to weaken elections,” she said. “A lot of the bills are actually making it harder for election administrators to do their jobs. We’re seeing an exodus of election administrators and workers leaving the profession after doing it their whole lives because they no longer feel safe or supported.”
‘Democracy is never easy’
Even with its focus on a growing extremist threat to dismantle democracy, Biden’s speech had its light moments. When Biden was shouted down by a protester asking why he hadn’t declared a state of emergency over American use of fossil fuels, the president asked the person to wait until after his speech and they would talk it over.
Then, he moved on to the next line in his prepared remarks: “Democracy is never easy … as we just demonstrated.”
Biden was introduced by McCain’s widow, former U.S. Ambassador Cindy McCain, who ended her speech by saying Biden and his wife, Jill, introduced her to McCain in 1979.
Biden added some meat to the story and said that McCain kept looking at Cindy and commenting on how beautiful she was but wouldn’t approach her.
Biden took credit not only for introducing the future husband and wife but also for getting McCain to run for a Senate seat in Arizona.
“By the way, I’m the guy who convinced him to run in Arizona as a Republican. Bless me, Father,” said Biden, beginning to cross himself.