Biden Greene split
Biden flips Marjorie Taylor Greene's attack into a campaign ad using her own words
00:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Earlier this week, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia handed President Joe Biden an early Christmas present.

During a speech at the Turning Point Action Conference, the congresswoman tried to attack Biden by likening him to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Seeking to depict Biden as a big-government liberal, she said, “Joe Biden had the largest public investment in social infrastructure and environmental programs, that is actually finishing what FDR started, that LBJ expanded on, and Joe Biden is attempting to complete.”

Biden’s team pounced on the speech, releasing a campaign ad that used her words to his advantage. The ad features images of Biden at work, with a voiceover of Greene’s comments as well as a snippet from another speech in which she explained the administration’s investments by saying, “Programs to address education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty, transportation, Medicare, Medicaid labor unions, and he still is working on it,” Greene said.

Biden was happy to own those accomplishments, sharing the ad on Twitter in a post where he quipped, “I approve this message.”

By comparing Biden to two popular presidents with monumental legacies, highlighting how much he is doing to help the country and pointing to specific programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that command enormous public support, Greene’s speech helped Biden frame his actions within a longer tradition – something even he himself has struggled to do at times.

And despite those who think Biden is too old to run for reelection, the ad shows that he and his campaign can defy expectations with effective and biting messages while showing some social media savvy.

The ad also allows Biden to contrast the Democratic and Republican agendas in a simple way, using Greene’s own words to paint the GOP as a party that is out of touch with what the public needs and unwilling to wield the power of government to help working Americans.

Featuring Greene is also a way to connect all of the 2024 Republican candidates with an extreme faction within the party that is focused on dismantling core programs Americans have become familiar with and dependent on. In doing so, Biden saddles every Republican presidential contender – from former President Donald Trump to Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – with the politics of the most conservative elected leaders, a tactic that former-President Bill Clinton deployed against Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in the 1996 presidential election, when he kept reminding voters that House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had become politically toxic after orchestrating a government shutdown the year prior, was the real face of the party.

As we’ve seen over the years, campaign ads can have devasting effects. Often, candidates have been reluctant to include any audio of their opponents in them, fearful of amplifying their message any more than is necessary.

But there have been moments when the words of opponents provide more effective material than anything the candidate has said. This was certainly the case in the 1964 presidential faceoff between Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the right-wing Republican nominee from Arizona who had shaken the GOP establishment by rallying the party around the virtues of extremism and the dangers of moderation.

The Johnson team, working with New York City advertising executives, put out what is widely considered to be one of the most blistering television ad campaigns in American history. Much of what they did was use Goldwater’s own words — as well as those of his running mate, Rep. William Miller of New York — against them.

In one ad, the narrator explains that “On at least seven different occasions, Barry Goldwater has said he would drastically change the Social Security system,” citing examples that were published in the New York Times Magazine, the Chattanooga Tennessee Times, on “Face the Nation” – and more. Lest anyone miss the point, the ad also notes that even Miller admits: “Barry Goldwater’s voluntary plan would wreck your Social Security.”

In another ad, a voice highlights statements that fellow Republicans made about Goldwater, including then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who said Goldwater’s positions can “spell disaster for the party and for the country” and Michigan Gov. George Romney, who said a Goldwater nomination would lead to the “suicidal destruction of the Republican Party.”

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This tactic has been deployed on other occasions. In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W Bush, guided by consultant Lee Atwater, weaponized a video of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis driving an M1A1Abrams Main Battle Tank in Michigan while wearing an unflattering helmet during an event that was meant to show his commitment to strong national security. The Bush campaign turned the image on its head and used it as a way to mock the Democrat as diminutive and weak instead.

In 2012, then-President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign featured a video clip of Republican nominee Mitt Romney making tough statements against China and declaring the need to protect American jobs, with a voiceover later contrasting his words with his business record of investing in China’s economy.

Biden’s recent spot offers an interesting variation, using what was meant to be an attack by his opponent – and touting it as praise. That is what makes this so effective. A right-wing Republican can be heard making the best case — for Democrats and possibly swing voters — as to why Biden has done a good job as president.

The ad demonstrates that Biden’s campaign can be nimbler than some skeptics believe. It also is a powerful reminder to all candidates to be careful what they say because when it comes to campaigns, their words can easily be used against them.