Biden vs. Trump in 2024? Don’t Be So Sure…
Mr. Biden is unopposed because his party couldn’t rouse itself to do what Democrats have almost existed to do, have a big, mean, knockdown, drag-out brawl. Sometimes party discipline is a failure and a mistake. Republicans at least are having a fight but, yes, primary state polls show Mr. Trump dominating.
Feels like another disaster, doesn’t it?
I agree with those who say the problem isn’t only Joe Biden’s age but the implication his age carries: that if he is re-elected there’s a significant chance Kamala Harris will become president. She has been a mystery, a politician who has been unable to say anything pertinent or even coherent on policy. Instead, the loud and sudden laughter unconnected to any clear stimuli, and the sheer looping nonsense of her words. This will give voters pause.
On the Republican side the great not-Trump option, the consistent number two in the polls, has been deflating. It is too early to say Ron DeSantis’s candidacy won’t work. But it feels like it won’t work. But life is surprising. I’m not going to pick on him on the Disney fight. I thought Disney wrong to come forward, as a major corporation, and use its beloved name to take sides on a delicate state educational issue that was being handled democratically—as in, the governor, who would soon be up for re-election, made a policy decision, got a bill passed, and if the voters don’t like it they could throw him out. Disney shouldn’t have pushed its way in to advance its cultural preferences. That said, Mr. DeSantis’s pushback was as dramatic as it was incompetent.
A big challenge for politicians is the management of powerful and competing interests and institutions, especially those that want to galumph into local political arguments. You have to manage this with firmness but as little friction as possible, because there are always a million arguments and friction keeps things too hot. Not explaining your stand, and Mr. DeSantis isn’t good at explaining his thinking, doesn’t help. Giving the sense you’re getting a partisan kick out of the fracas makes it worse.
Yes, a big challenge for corporations is to remember their mission. For more than a century Budweiser’s mission was to make beer and sell it at a profit. Disney has been entertaining America for nearly a century. They should do that. Except in the most extraordinary and essential cases they shouldn’t give in to the temptation to put themselves forward as deep-thinking cultural leaders. Mind your business, keep your side of the street clean, treat your people well, set a standard, pay them well. Don’t add to the friction. It doesn’t help; it only makes things more bitter.
Mr. DeSantis is reported to be announcing his presidential run later this spring. I got an interesting note about him the other day from the veteran political operative Alex Castellanos. He said the problem for Mr. DeSantis is not that he’s unlikable: “The problem for Ron is worse. It’s that he does not like us.” When voters see a political figure likes them, they start to trust him, because they know “he will do a lot to preserve their affection.”
Politicians find ways to be popular when they’re not so likable. Richard Nixon was one.
But here is the real point of this column. If it starts to seem clear that America is once again locked into a Trump-Biden race, I think the electorate is going to get frisky. I don’t see people just accepting it. I see pushback and little rebellions. Two examples:
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
, who announced last week, this week hit 19% support among Democratic voters. That’s a lot! Especially for a guy who’s been labeled a bit of a nut. (He has been a leader of the idea that childhood vaccines are connected to autism.) But his larger general message would appeal to the edges of left and right, and blends into the general populist mood: Corporations and the government are lying to you, playing you for a fool.
And in an odd way his past nuttiness bolsters his believability: He has worn the scorn of establishments as a medal. His own family isn’t for him. It doesn’t seem to mess with his swing.
He has what Mr. Trump has: star power. And there is the name. I recently was with a physical therapist—early middle age, suburban, not especially interested in politics—who, while working my back, asked if I knew Mr. Kennedy. No, I said. Is he drawing your interest?
She spoke admiringly of his family—of JFK, of RFK the father. She liked them and thought their politics were similar to hers. I asked if she had any living memory of JFK or RFK. No, she said, she was born after they were killed. And yet she spoke of them as if she remembered them.
I say watch him. He is going to be a force this year.
Second, watch a third-party bid. The centrist group No Labels says it’s provisionally attempting to get on the ballot in all 50 states. We’ll see how that works. But a third party, if it comes, could have real and surprising power in this cycle. I am the only person I know who thinks this but, again, look at peoples’ faces when you say it will be Trump or Biden.
Independents now outnumber members of each party. No hunger for a third-party effort is discernible in the polls. So the effort would have to blow people out of their comfortable trenches and make them want to go over the top to seize new ground. It would have to be something centrists, by their nature, aren’t: dramatic. The people who would lead such an effort worry about whether or not they’d wind up as spoilers for the Democrats. You could argue as well it might spoil things for the Republicans.
They should be thinking: We are past the moment for such questions. If you think the country is in trouble and needs another slate of candidates, do it. No ambivalence, no guilt about spoiling it for the lesser of evils. If you’re serious, go for it. Look at the other two guys as spoilers.
A third party would have to have compelling candidates for president and vice president. That would be hard. I am not certain a third party is desirable. But I don’t think it’s impossible.
Third-party enthusiasts tend to be moderate, sober-minded. Such people are almost by definition not swept by the romance of history. But we are living in a prolonged crazy time in American politics. Anything can happen now.
Really, anything. I wonder if they know it.