As I said before, Kyrsten Sinema’s switch from Democrat to Independent was a cynical move to protect herself, but that doesn’t mean there was no genius to learn from it. She can’t be primaries without a party and a Democratic candidate may hopelessly divide the electorate and insure even a weak Republican victory. It was a skilled power play that probably wins. If a half decent Republican enters, Democrats will have no choice but to acquiesce to the gun at their head. She’s a rotten SOB, but a damn smart one.
On a larger level, Sinema took advantage of a political reality that neither party can fully admit- nobody likes either of them. This is true nationally, but very much so in Arizona. The largest “party” in Arizona is independent, and that is growing through registration. Voters nationally tend to see both parties negatively, and that is true in Arizona too. Democrats tend to see recent wins for statewide offices there as a sign the state is moving there way, but it’s probably better to see it as the less partisan/ideological voters being less repulsed by semi-normal people than loving Democrats.
The two parties can’t speak truth to the folks giving consistent small dollar donations and volunteer hours, as the parties would cease to function, but “activists” in both parties (more so the GOP, to be clear, but both) are further and further detached from where most voters are politically (hence, Joe Biden is President), but activists make everything work inside the parties. Rather than confront their soldiers and pull them closer to the population, both parties would rather gamble on “the algorithm”- the bet that no matter how unhappy “normy” voters are with politics and government, they will typically come out and vote for the side that more closely fits to them, because functioning adults understand it’s important. As a result, you have a new Republican Congress that should be logically moving towards the middle, but instead is promising nonsense investigations into Hunter Biden, the border, and liberal parents pushing their kids to “go trans” (don’t even get me started on this bullshit) and a Democratic administration that basically messages everything towards the base groups that most loyally support them.
As I said, Sinema is sly like a fox. She is gambling that in one of the few states left that has swing voters, she can pick up a few political points by essentially shitting on how unsatisfying our political system is. I don’t think it’s certain, because people have had years to watch her evolution and absurd behavior, but this is her best chance to be right. When she wrote that most voters struggle to identify with our political parties, I think she’s right. I think that less politically active, “offline” voters who read her op-ed or watch her spend the next year campaigning on these messages, will probably be far less offended by this move than the rest of us. Will they get over her diva behavior and crappy inaction on things they voted for her to do? In a just world, no. I don’t think we live in that world though. Sinema may have just outfoxed all of Washington by coming outside “the house” and telling the town people that everything they think is going on inside is true. If so, you can curse her all you would like, but don’t ever doubt her political calculus again.
On Friday the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee formally adopted a new primary calendar for the 2024 Presidential race. The big highlights are replacing Iowa as first in the nation, instead having the South Carolina Primary go first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada, then Georgia and Michigan. Already there are problems, including Iowa and New Hampshire saying they won’t go along, and Georgia officials saying their primary won’t move. The order will be finalized next year.
The rationalization behind the President and the DNC’s decision is actually pretty strong and realistic. No group has been more loyal to Democratic candidates than Black voters over the last 40 years. Since South Carolina began moving up the calendar, it has been growing in importance, catapulting Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden toward the nomination, and three of them towards the White House. Joe Biden said having more diverse voices pick the nominee is the principle he values. That is a very good principle to have.
I have two main problems with the new primary calendar. The first is that making changes presumes there is something broken that needs to be fixed. There isn’t. Democratic nominees have been extremely competitive in recent years, which every nominee since 1996 getting at least 48% of the popular vote. Since 1992, Democrats have won five of eight Presidential elections, and won the popular vote 7 of 8 times. None of the nominees were crackpots that took embarrassing positions either. Democrats nominated fairly solid candidates under the existing calendar.
My second problem is that there is a perceived second problem being answered with the new calendar, that the current calendar doesn’t give voice to non-white voters. It’s true that Iowa and New Hampshire are super white. It’s also true that going first and second hasn’t increased their influence. South Carolina is the undisputed kingmaker in Democratic politics. Voting fourth has allowed them to effectively end many candidates’ pathways who could not connect to the large Black voting population there. Since 1992, every Democratic nominee for President except for John Kerry, who lost to North Carolina’s Senator, won the South Carolina primary. Most of them won decisively and walked out with significant delegate leads. In Nevada, Hillary won in 2016 to get back on her feet after New Hampshire, and in 2020 Joe Biden’s 2nd place in Nevada saved his campaign. The more diverse states are already the decision makers in the Democratic Party. There’s no disputing that.
Sure, one can argue the new calendar is a bow to “new realities,” and that’s true. Iowa doesn’t look like a swing state anymore. The party is simply more diverse. The new calendar accelerates the reality we live in. Again though, why? This current early state structure nominated Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. It elevated voices from people of color. Sure, the new calendar does that more. Are we fixing a problem by doing that though, or creating one. Leftist Bernieland voices will perceive this as an attempt to insure they can’t win, and while they should look inward and realize why that is, is that a conversation we need. The media will point out that Democrats want their nominee picked almost entirely with no input from the central and mountain time zones, or by coastal states, basically. Swing state New Hampshire and quasi-swing state Iowa will almost certainly rebel and lose a chunk of their delegates. And frankly, if Michigan and Georgia are in for being swing states, why aren’t Pennsylvania and Arizona? We’re opening a lot of cans of worms here, for marginal improvement in the process.
I love the principles being displayed by these moves. I can’t find the problems they’re trying to fix. I can clearly see the problems they will create.
A couple of Thursday’s ago, after a nice dinner out, I was sitting in my friend’s living room and we had stumbled onto the topic of job hunting and how running for President of the United States, and for that matter any public office, was so different than seeking any job you could possibly think of in the private sector. Her and I both have a similar vantage point to this discussion in that while she’s not in the political field now, she has been in the past, we can both view political issues in a bit of a wonkish way, but we’ll say we both have known how to live wild in times past (she went to Arizona State, I’m definitely not worthy).
Naturally we stumbled onto perhaps the best illumination of this discussion possible- Bush 41 and Bush 43. On paper, Bush 41 is obviously a far, far superior candidate for the job than his son. If this was a CEO position being chosen by a corporate board of directors, there’s literally zero chance Bush 43 would be chosen over his father. That would be his father who served in Congress, ran for the U.S. Senate, ran the CIA, served as Ambassador to the United Nations, ran for President, served eight years as the Vice-President of the United State, all before winning the Presidency in 1988. Of course Bush 41 beat possibly the worst political candidate of the last 40 years, Michael Dukakis, in a 1988 blowout that was caused by Dukakis being even worse at connecting to normal people than Bush 41. Four years later when two far more charismatic and capable politicians ran against Bush 41, including maybe the most charismatic man since JFK (Bill Clinton), Bush 41’s Presidency was over. Have no fear though, just eight years later his son, a wild college frat boy that did some cocaine, wrecked an energy company, got some DUI’s, ran a baseball team into the ground, and then found Jesus and a cowboy hat, he won the White House by beating the wonkish nerd Vice-President, a man with qualifications a lot like Bush 41. Bush 43 not only won, he won a second time and is the only Republican President since his father’s 1988 victory to win a majority of the popular vote in a Presidential race. One could argue the far less qualified and prepared Bush is the best Republican politician of the internet era in America.
So what about that man who served between the two Bush Presidencies? Yes, Bill Clinton, the politician that probably could have served four or five terms had our constitution let him. That would be the man who was so popular he survived scandals that would have destroyed even other great politicians. His 1996 margin of victory over Bob Dole might not be matched in a Presidential election any time in the rest of my adult lifetime. Yes, he oversaw a booming economy and relative period of peace, but Joe Biden can argue historically low unemployment and ending our longest running war right now, and it’s not saving his approval rates. There is just something incredibly different about a politician like Bill Clinton. He told you he felt your pain and you actually believed him. He played the saxophone. He liked music like you, he ate really unhealthy McDonald’s food like you, you’d see him at a ball game sitting court side. Even his affairs gave him a certain “normalcy” at a time when divorce was becoming far more common place in America. Bill Clinton could relate to you, or you could to him, depending on how you saw it. He succeeded where Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and even Carter had failed in the post-1960’s world, standing as a Democratic politician who didn’t scare the living hell out of a country that had long since turned it’s back on New Deal and Great Society liberalism. He was bigger than life, playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, and yet he was really very normal.
If you want to be an executive at Goldman Sachs, or SpaceX, or Meta, or Apple, or Verizon, there’s a pretty good chance you will face an interview with people who are experts in what you want to do. If you want to be a college professor, the track from getting your doctorate to being hired, let alone to being hired, requires a lot of peer review. Doctors not only go through med school, but not-so-high-paying post grad work to prove your skills. Lawyers pass the bar to even be allowed to work, let alone get a high paying job in the field. Professional athletes are picked by scouts who draft them and develop their talent to the major leagues, or can cut them if at any point they don’t see the development they want from the player. Almost any other job in the world that is “elite” requires you to be peer tested, and to show your qualifications to get the position. Even being Vice-President requires you convincing the Presidential nominee of your political party (and the vetting team on their campaign) that you are the best pick for the job, then winning a national election of the public. Even rock stars and actors convince someone along the way that specializes in that field to believe their talents can bring millions of fans to buy their product and make everyone involved money. Society simply does not hand out any job worth having to any old shmuck that comes along. Let’s be honest, there’s an interview process for everything, and it’s almost without fail supervised by someone who knows exactly the qualifications and skills they want for the job. Except for President of the United States. We literally let almost any shmuck out in society have an opinion or even a say in whether you’re the right pick.
Let me put this in a little bit more crude terms- super unqualified people get just as much of a say in who the next President is as members of Congress do. Often times, candidates with better resumes lose. Al Gore, Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole, and John McCain are among the recent people to lose a Presidential election, and absolutely zero of them qualify as stupid people, unqualified to do the job, or somehow lacking in the faculties to serve in office. Donald Trump never served a day in government office of any kind before he won the White House. Barack Obama had been in the United States Senate less than two years when he jumped into the 2008 Presidential race. George W. Bush had barely recovered from the sting of being denied the Commissioner of Baseball job when he was being sworn in as President. Today he looks super qualified for the job, but Bill Clinton faced questions about “only” being Governor of Arkansas when he won the White House in 1992. Joe Biden looks like a post-Cold War outlier today sitting in the White House, a man with a long political career at the time of his election. We really don’t care that much about who has more lines on their resume when we hand the nuclear codes to someone who will serve in the Oval Office for four years. That’s just a bit startling.
American politics really is less about qualifications and more about relatability. Spending all of your political capital arguing “deep weeds” policy points and trying to be perfectly right in every argument does not have a great track record of winning elections, it has a great record of getting you the top job at Boeing. American voters really want to know you have something, anything, in common with them. That you relate to them. They’d like to know something more about you the person, at your core. John Kerry won all but two issues in most of the network exit polls against George W. Bush in 2004. He lost the question of keeping the country safe and leadership qualities. It turns out that trumped all the other issues. Republicans were astonished that their attacks on Barack Obama as unqualified and weak fell flat, as the country wanted someone they genuinely liked, and felt like he actually related to the pain they were feeling at that time. Democrats laughed at Trump’s appeals against “the elites” and asking “what the hell do you have to lose?” It turns out a lot of people felt really alienated by Washington, D.C. at the time. Bill Clinton didn’t leave office with better than 60% approval ratings because of the brilliance of his first Budget Bill, or entirely because of his record job creation, but in large part because of how he made people feel. It turns out emotion is stronger than being right, quite often in politics.
The friend I was sitting with that night, she’s quite literally one of the smartest people I know, I really enjoy my conversations with her. I don’t enjoy them just because she’s smart though- there’s something fun and relatable about her. It turns out that these things matter a lot in human interactions. In an era where society is incredibly analytical and precise with so many of our actions, it turns out that we often seek out “real” people in our lives, and when we actually get a choice about who is going to be on our television for the next four years of our lives, we’re not picking them based on some checklist of issues. There is a want for some sort of common touch, something relatable, something that makes us forget that our government is largely run by an Ivy League/Beltway class that has little in common with how we live out in the real world. Being “right” is less attractive than being somehow authentic in politics, and that makes us make decisions that sometimes make no sense in rational terms. No Fortune 50 company would pick someone who bankrupt a casino, or ruined a baseball team, to run their operations. Some random high school, or even college educated person living 50 miles from a major American city just might vote for that guy though. And occasionally they may surprise us with how they do. While I basically oppose every policy decision George W. Bush made in the months and years after 9/11, there’s something to watching him throw a strike for the first pitch at Game Three of the 2001 World Series. It made a lot of other people feel a helluva lot better about the terror in the world at that time. There’s more than a little to be said for making people feel. Even just a little bit of “emotional intelligence” can sometimes beat being the smartest person in the room- even when you are the smartest person in the room. Does this make electing an ignoramus right or okay? No, hell no in fact. Perhaps it should serve as a lesson to the “right” people though about how to sell the “right” ideas and stop being such a damn stiff.
Governing and elections aren’t perfectly symbiotic. How much legislation you pass through Congress and sign as President has very little to do with your re-election, while history tells us your unemployment rate, ability to not raise taxes on most people, and global events beyond your control have a lot to do with it. Jimmy Carter did a lot of innovative things as President, but was undone by lines at the gasoline pump, hostages in Iran, and inflation. High gas prices and inflation may very well do the same to Joe Biden.
With that said, it’s hard to argue Joe Biden isn’t achieving things or that his White House has nothing to sell to a restless public. In his Administration, the following acts have reached his desk, or are about to:
American Rescue Plan of 2021– The major Covid recovery bill signed in 2021, valued at $1.9 trillion that mostly went to money for small businesses, vaccines, and other areas impacted by the disease.
CHIPS and Science Act of 2022– This bipartisan bill will make cars, household appliances, and computers cheaper, and was approved on a bipartisan basis. This will also help our national security agencies meet their technological needs, domestically.
PACT Act of 2022– This is the “burn pit” bill that was held up by Ted Cruz and other Republican Senators. This will help veterans receive the care they were promised.
And finally, The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022– The 2022 Reconciliation Bill would make record investments in fighting climate change, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and lowering the deficit over the next decade.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were pretty effective Presidents from the Democratic side, and both oversaw very good economic outcomes in their tenure, but neither accomplished this much in their first two years. Action on infrastructure unmatched since Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, the most important gun bill since 1994, tens of millions of vaccines administered, a major climate bill, a historic Supreme Court judge, major action for veterans and technological industries, and money to save millions of small businesses in the first two years. No, it isn’t a perfect first two years, and certainly Democratic frustration with the pace on Capitol Hill, not to mention with the Supreme Court, is warranted. It’s worth noting though that Biden’s peers on getting things done in his first two years are both known by their three initials, LBJ and FDR. Part of the promise of Biden in the 2020 campaign was that he would actually get things done. Things have certainly been done.
I’ll close how I opened though, being good at passing legislation is not a sign that an incumbent President will be good at winning re-election, and I certainly think the Biden White House has had messaging issues the first two years. Like Obama and Clinton before him, his communications team set the expectation that the mere arrival of this President would mark the beginning of better days ahead, and that was never realistic. Everything from the inflation and gas prices to the empowerment of the least progressive forces in the Senate Democratic Caucus was absolutely predictable and should have been baked into the expectations the team set. There is also the bigger problem- continual messaging that doesn’t nearly celebrate the achievements of this White House enough, and allows the media to spin victories into defeats reigned supreme in the first two years. The achievements of this President are historic. The inflation and growing pains of his administration are all cyclical and to be expected coming out of a predecessor who thrived on creating chaos. The team around the President needs to do a better job of framing his results within the paradigm that is reality, and stop trying to create the utopia that some of these folks (many who weren’t Biden people to begin with) want to give to the country. If they can do that, Joe Biden will get the second inaugural, with a big crowd this time, that he deserves.
Senator Joe Manchin signed off on the biggest prescription drug price control bill in at least a couple of decades AND two more years of increased Obamacare subsidies. That’s it. That’s the headline. That’s the bill. That’s what Democrats can pass through reconciliation. And you know what? That’s an enormously big deal for literally tens of millions of people that live in our country and need help badly right now. This should sit next to the infrastructure bill, the gun safety bill, and the Covid rescue bill Joe Biden has literally signed into law, with bare minimum majorities in both houses of Congress in his first two years, in a trophy case of legislative efficiency that Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and yes, even Majority Leader Schumer deserve enormous praise for getting done with no margin of error. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both had seriously stronger majorities than Biden, and neither had nearly as much legislative success. The first 18 months of Biden’s Presidency, as a legislative matter, take a back seat to literally no one since LBJ, and very few even who came before.
That’s not the story though, like Obama and Clinton’s relatively successful first two years weren’t for them either. Joe Biden is literally getting politically curb-stomped for fist-bumping a foreign leader he visited and not passing a climate agenda that had zero chance of passing from day one. In fact the lead story of the political week is a tight race between his “losses” on fictional climate actions he never had, a federal district judge nominee in Kentucky (where neither senator was ever letting him nominate anybody) for a seat that wasn’t even open, and polling that shows a lot of Democrats don’t want to re-nominate him, even as both he and his running mate beat both Trump AND DeSantis in many public polls this week. At a minimum, the current White House has two viable candidates, despite high gas prices and inflation. You wouldn’t know that from the news. You’d think this guy is a buffoon who did nothing the last 18 months, not a Democratic President who just signed a gun safety bill AND seated the first Black woman ever on the high court, since Memorial Day.
Look, I get that the press sucks and refuses to cover any real substance. I also 1,000% agree with Kate Bedingfield that the President should not appease out-of-touch activists, even as they are pulling him down from his left in polls. Entrenched pro-Trump voters, too-far left activists, and “gotcha” reporters might be damaging Biden unfairly, but are we really doing this again? Every Democratic President from FDR forward has taken a massive ass whipping in at least one midterm as President, even as they achieve historic things. President Biden may cap a super successful two years, as I stated above, by passing the biggest pharmaceutical price control bill in my 39 year lifetime with an approval rating of less than one third of the public. How are our communications pros so bad that a bill that lowers insulin prices is being greeted as a loss? I had to explain to my own father (who votes every single year) that the reconciliation bill hadn’t failed yet, but in fact was close to being agreed on to do things that are really good. Biden’s approval really might drop from a piece of legislation that massively improves the lives of upwards of 100 million people. Consider that for a moment, and you’ll understand why Democrats have only controlled the White House and both houses of Congress together for ten of the last 50 years, while running against a party supporting clearly minority political positions.
Drink an extra coffee this morning, I’m sure you think this is as sad as I do.
America has a two party system. I don’t think there is much disagreement there. Most Americans are pretty entrenched in one of the parties. Every Democratic nominee for President from Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign through Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign (seven elections) has received a minimum of 48% of the popular vote. Every Republican nominee for President from George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign through Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign (six elections) has received a minimum of 46% of the popular vote. Not every nominee from each party is a perfect match with every other, but one can probably venture 85-90% of the voting population has stuck with their party every time they’ve voted for President in this century. A very small sliver, single digits apparently, are up for grabs in any given election.
It would take a relative idiot to assume though that either party is a monolithic block. The last two Presidents have both polled below those 48-46% starting points in their terms, despite not underperforming in general elections. There is a clear separation in 2022 public polling between Joe Biden’s approval in swing states and the polling numbers of Democratic Senate and Governor nominees in those states. Donald Trump consistently polled below his ultimate outcome in both of his Presidential runs. There are clearly partisans in both camps unhappy with what their parties are giving them to vote for, but unwilling to vote for the alternative party.
The easiest way to understand the current Democratic Party’s divides is through the 2016 and 2020 primary battles between Hillary or Biden and Bernie Sanders. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Sanders 55.2-43.1%, or by 12.1%. Joe Biden beat Sanders 51.8-26.3%, or by 25.5%. If you awarded the “Sanders wing” the additional votes received by Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard they get about 34.7% of the vote. If the “Biden wing” also gets the votes of Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, they get 62.5%. For easy argument’s sake, the split averages out to 58.9-38.9%. The party is split 60-40 towards the more “establishment” wing of the party’s voters, which is why Joe Biden was able to be nominated with a more moderate, long voting record, while rejecting the “Green New Deal” and “Defund the Police.” The “bold progressive” wing of the Democratic Party that wants to change America is substantial, has the “activist energy,” and has a loud voice in the party, but they do not represent a majority within the party at this time, so they don’t win.
The best way to understand the Republican Party in 2022 is through the depths of the polling on Donald Trump. If you go through polling on the 45th President, his causes, and the issues associated with him, you find a floor of around 30-35% of the country. If you look back to his 2016 primary win, when his movement was in it’s infancy, Trump received only 44.9% of the vote. However if you combine his vote with that of fellow conservative firebrand Ted Cruz (25.1%), you get 70% of the vote. Trump/Cruz beat Rubio/Kasich by just over 2:1 in that process. Even when Trump and his issues and causes are at their weakest in polls, he keeps about two-thirds of the Republican 46% base in every Presidential race this century. The Trump base of the Republican Party is about 2/3 of the Republican Party. This is why their portion of the GOP tends to win Republican primaries against more “moderate,” “electable” Republicans that tend to be less “offensive.”
It’s very important to understand first and foremost that “Sanders wing Democrats” and “moderate Republicans” both overwhelmingly came home to vote for their party’s nominee in 2016 and 2020, hence why neither party underperformed in the results. Secondly, it’s important to remember that whatever small slice of left-wing Democrats Biden lost in 2020, or “respectability” Republicans bailed on Trump in either race, they both made up on the other end of their party by pulling in party skeptic voters. Third, it’s important to understand the Republican divide as mostly about style and stage craft (Was there huge differences on policy between Trump and Bush besides war?), and the Democratic divide as mostly being about how far the two wings want to go in implementing their ideals- Bernie and Biden both want to give more access to health care to the uninsured, they have different ways of “how.”
For a while, Joe Biden seemed to be able to float above the political divides. Before he ran for President in 2020 he seemed to have some good will from the “respectability” Republican wing. Despite running a primary campaign largely in opposition to stereotypes of the post-Obama Democratic Party, Biden never suffered the levels of scorn from “the left” that Hillary did. As President, that is all done. He was absolutely the only candidate who could have beaten Trump in 2020, and possibly in 2016 too. Today he is nearly universally hated by the Republican Party. The largest reason his approval is over 20% below his 2020 vote share is erosion in Democratic support. It’s more complicated than purely a run of Bernie voters rejecting Biden’s more “procedural” brand of politics, some of it is more “normy” Dems mad about gas prices and inflation too, but the mix is probably more the former.
In the Republican Party you simply cannot win most national and statewide primaries without at least sizable support from the more conservative activist base types. In the Democratic Party, you certainly can, but an antagonistic relationship with the progressive left base can sink you in a general election, just ask Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately for Joe Biden, he doesn’t get the only say on the matter. Whether he can actually do the things that Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren call on him to do or not is clearly less important than the fact that they call on him for it. While Sanders has actually been a pretty decent team player in the Biden era, the fact remains that a third to two-fifths of the Democratic Party didn’t want Joe Biden, and they are blaming him and his style for everything they perceive as going wrong. In short, gravity remains a thing.
The year was 1946 and things weren’t going so well for President Harry Truman. His party got beaten so badly in the midterm that his fellow Democrats were even floating that he should resign, not just not run in 1948. Truman resisted those calls and was elected President in 1948. In 1979, President Carter faced criticism from within his own party and also managed to at least beat back a primary challenge in 1980 from Ted Kennedy. Presidents Clinton and Obama faced critiques from within their own party after midterm beatings. Basically, Presidents don’t lose re-nomination in the Democratic Party.
If Joe Biden wants to run again in 2024, he’ll be the Democratic nominee for President. There is no one in the Democratic Party with the standing, fundraising prowess, broad support within most wings of the party, and pathway to the nomination. Yes, President Biden has definitely seen some slippage in the polls, even within his party. No, he’s not beatable in any sane campaign. The scorched earth campaign anyone who beat him for the nomination would have to run would be utterly divisive and disqualifying in a general election. A serious primary challenge, from literally anyone you would like to mention here, would leave the party unelectable and in ruins. The Republicans would use the attacks and wreckage to damage that person out of the gate.
None of this means President Biden should or should not run in 2024. He’ll be 82 years old. His polling numbers are objectively awful right now. He could recover, as Presidents Clinton and Obama did (or not, as Carter). There’s a decent chance that in early 2024 Covid is well in the rear view, interest rate hikes halted inflation, and job creation is booming- in which case Biden will be putting the GOP to bed with a beating in November. He also could get lucky and get to run against someone weak like Ron DeSantis. There’s at least a decent argument that he’s politically damaged though, or that his age is such that he should consider retiring. But we just don’t know about any of that in the Summer of 2022.
For the sake of the nonsensical though, let’s entertain the idea that he doesn’t run. If there is a vacancy to be filled on the ticket, I’d there a realistic world where Kamala Harris isn’t the Democratic nominee? My answer is that it is unlikely. What damage would the Democratic Party do to it’s most faithful voting block, Black women, to deny the first Black woman to serve as Vice-President the nomination to succeed her boss? I won’t totally deny the possibility of another candidate that may be popular with Black voters (aka- Senators Booker and Warnock, maybe Mayor Adams, or even *gasp* Hillary again) being able to win the nomination and credibly unite the party against Trump or a similar GOP nominee, particularly with the VP’s polling numbers looking rough. Again though, which of the names I just mentioned is likely to try it or do it credibly? Every Democratic Vice-President from Truman forward has ascended to the Democratic Presidential nomination. Now we’re going to entertain denying it to her in favor of what would likely be a white candidate such as Warren (lol), Sanders (for real?), or Buttigieg (who to his credit is doing everything right to be nominee, someday) that is far less popular with Black voters right now? Even if everyone made up afterwards and said the right stuff, a very small drop in raw Black voter turnout or in the percentage of said voters voting Democratic would be enough to destroy Joe’s entire margin of victory from 2020. Vice-President Harris is almost as likely as President Biden to win a 2024 primary fight to begin with, and the train wreck necessary to stop her might even be more damaging than a primary challenge to the President.
The only two times a sitting Democratic President faced a credible primary challenge in the last century were 1968 and 1980. Both times, Democrats lost the general election. Both of those elections contributed to the fall of the party as the dominant political party in this country post-1994. Running a primary against Joe Biden would be a stupid and likely fruitless fool’s errand. Running a primary against Kamala Harris could do generational damage to the party. I’d certainly never say absolutely never, but I personally have almost no appetite for this talk.
I’m not saying things were easy for Bill Clinton, being President is hard. It was easier than it was for Barack Obama though. Being President was hard for Barack Obama, I’m sure of it, but it was probably easier than it is for Joe Biden though. You probably are scratching your head and asking how I came to this conclusion, and where I’m going with this. The fact is, foreign relations are considerably harder today than they were right after the Soviet Union fell. The federal courts were much easier to navigate pre-Trump. The steady decline of Congress is 30 years further along than they were when Clinton came to town. The Republican Party’s decay is accelerating in the post-Bush world. And yes, Joe Biden faces more opposition within the Democratic Party than any Democratic President in my lifetime.
It’s amazing the guy wants the job.
In the moment after the Berlin Wall fell, America was the lone super power to shape the direction of the world. In the time since a lot has happened. Globalization has accelerated. Terrorist groups replaced foreign nation-states as the chief threat to our borders. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drained our treasury, lost us lives, and diminished our global standing. Maybe most important though, China emerged as a super power and Russia took a newly aggressive posture towards us under Vladimir Putin. A new anti-democratic consensus emerged among our rivals, challenging our world view. Attempts at more normal relations with Cuba and Iran didn’t go very well. Amidst all this, we had our first post-World War II Presidency where the United States questioned our own commitment to our European alliance. In other words, the world just ain’t what it used to be, and I’m not even diving into global issues like climate change.
Presidents Clinton and Obama faced Supreme Courts that were at times adversarial, but they had 5-4 conservative majorities. During their Presidencies, the Solicitor General could defend government actions at the court by focusing on one or two potential swing justices. Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy could be persuaded to allow the government to act on legitimate issues and even to protect the rights of the marginalized on some matters. President Biden faces a Supreme Court, and federal court system radicalized by Donald Trump. There are now six Republican appointees on the bench, and the Biden Administration needs to win over two of Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The court is showing an open willingness to ignore precedent and act from the bench that we haven’t seen in generations. Worse yet, four of the six Republican appointees are likely to be there for decades to come, so change is very unlikely to come to that branch. Civil rights and government power are likely to be seriously narrowed, and the only option President Biden and future successors have to push back is to eventually either try to get Congress to expand the court (dead end right now) or provoke a Constitutional crisis. This is not workable.
Congress no longer works. There simply aren’t dealmakers on the Hill to get much done with anymore. Like his recent Democratic predecessors, President Biden got a stimulus bill through to deal with the economy, and one major generational bill (infrastructure), and then everything ground to a halt. Even consensus issues like insulin prices, gun safety measures, and raising the minimum wage to at least $12 go to Congress to die. Narrow Democratic majorities are undone by both the filibuster and more aggressive House progressives forcing demands on bills that can’t be squared up. The reality is that Democrats are unlikely to see massive majorities into the future either. With the Rockefeller Republicans long dead, and the Blue Dog Democrats close behind, there’s simply no one to make deals with on Capitol Hill, no way to build legislative consensus. Democrats can only pass legislation where they either have near unanimous support in their own caucus of both houses, or where the bill is so non-controversial that everyone is ready to go along. This is a problem for a nation facing crises with climate change, guns, public education, immigration, and health care. The main goal of many new members of Congress is to get a seat on an oversight committee where they can yell at witnesses and use props to get internet attention, not to get a seat on Appropriations where they can find actual solutions. In short, Congress doesn’t work.
Once upon a time, the Republican Party was an actual governing party. No Child Left Behind was their education policy. Welfare Reform was an actual bill. There was a bipartisan “Gang of 8” immigration bill that John McCain and George W. Bush tried to pass. President Nixon (!) created the EPA. When deficits soared after the 1981 tax cuts, Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 accepted the reality that some tax increases were necessary. President Bush 43 sent record funding to Africa to fight the AIDS epidemic. Some of this was good policy, much of it in my opinion was bunk- but these were policy positions. A political party must have some ideas if they want to be a political party. Basically since President Bush’s failed 2005 attempt at reforming Social Security, the Republican Party has completely abandoned any sort of coherent policies in favor of slogans and “own the libs.” The GOP of today is a grievance party, nothing more and nothing less. They want to cut off immigration with a wall on the border, shame transgender athletes, and make voting harder if they don’t win elections. During the Trump White House their only major achievements on Capitol Hill were a massive amount of federal judges, a major tax cut bill, and “phase 1” of criminal justice reform, which was basically all the really easy stuff nobody objected to. While they talked about major changes to NAFTA and trade agreements, the changes we got were virtually nonexistent. They promised a border wall, but never delivered it. Basically, you got infrastructure week, on repeat, with no infrastructure bill. It should come as no shock that they are proposing no solution to get more workers into the supply chain right now, or that their plan for gas prices is “drill baby, drill,” when we drilled more in 2021 than we did in 2017. They are not a serious party. Their most “successful” policy in implementation was banning Muslims from entering the country for no reason. This is our “partner” party to negotiate with, a party that idolizes Jim Jordan and nominates Herschel Walker and Dr. Oz for Senate. The GOP is completely broken.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Joe Biden contends with a Democratic Party that more accepted him than wanted him. Had it not been for the wisdom of Black voters coalescing behind President Biden in South Carolina, would white moderate Dems have got their act together and coalesced behind the only electable candidate in the field? While the party rallied behind the Biden-Harris ticket during the election, the White House has faced more attacks from inside the party than any in recent memory. Congressional Democrats and Vice-President Gore had a rally for President Clinton when he was impeached, while Joe Lieberman’s career ended after he opposed Barack Obama in 2008. Today, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer take to Twitter regularly to criticize President Biden for not using an executive order to forgive student loan debt at levels he never promised to during the campaign. AOC and “The Squad” mostly voted against Biden’s biggest achievement as President, the infrastructure bill. Vice-President Harris routinely faces tough articles from “inside sources” at the White House, criticizing her work and staff members exiting the building. There is open talk of who should run for President in 2024, from Democratic sources, if President Biden does not. When the President speaks on matters of policy, as he recently did about Taiwan, anonymous White House sources race to the media to “correct” what he said to meet their policy objectives. In short, the President and Vice-President do not enjoy unanimous support from their party, far from. Some of this is kind of obvious- in an era where identity and “self expression” drive our politics, an old, straight, white man is leading the Democratic Party, and a chunk of the party wishes they had a different voice. The bigger problem that President Biden faces that President Clinton never really faced, and President Obama only kind of faced, is a shifting geography of Democratic elected officials and activists. The large bulk of Democratic members of Congress, state legislators, and municipal leaders represent super blue urban areas and very diverse suburbs. Most Democratic votes and donations come from those districts. Unfortunately there are not enough of those districts to build a working majority, and people who want White Houses and Congressional majorities need broader electoral appeal than these folks want. When you combine those geographic tensions with a louder, more independent critics class inside the party, you get a President facing larger scale defections in his party than we’ve seen since the 1980 primary season. There is simply now a chunk of voters left of the political center now who demand either a more leftist ideology from the party, or an identity for the party that matches their view of where the votes are from. Joe Biden doesn’t really meet either of those demands, and so he lacks the rock solid support of Democrats in the recent past. While the reality is that these demands make the party unelectable, trying to convince some people of that is seemingly impossible.
Joe Biden inherited a pandemic, a government rocked by scandal, an economy that was shut down, a Capitol that had just been the victim of an attempted coup, and a job that was already extremely difficult because of trends facing our nation that I outlined above. Some of the problems he’s had were predictable, others were not. I have to wonder out loud if there was ever going to be a way to appease the nation in his position. Governing is hard enough, doing it while at the center of a hurricane is nearly impossible. I think he’s doing a good job, I’m just increasingly wondering if anybody cares.