Illusion #1: Biden is not too old.
People who have been around American politics for a long time know Joe Biden well. The eldest among them have known Joe Biden for nearly five decades. What they will tell you is that he didn’t seem to age during his two terms as vice president. If you look at video of Biden 2016 and Biden 2008, you’re taken by how little he appears to have aged. Biden at 74 seems every bit as alert and physically vigorous as Biden at 66.
That’s no longer the case. Somewhere along the way of the last few years, Biden transitioned from “young old” to “old.” Veteran reporters describe the transition in code. “He’s lost a step or two.” Or: “he’s lost something off his fastball.”
You’re not supposed to talk about it. If you do, and you’re a Democrat, you’re scolded for aiding and abetting the enemy. If you do, and you’re a Republican or (God forbid) a MAGA voter, you’re a horrible hate-mongerer, trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election (and you probably watch Fox News to boot).
The problem is that it’s there for all to see. Pretending not to see it is untenable. It’s a bit like being the first car in a line of cars at a stop light and pretending that the light hasn’t turned green. Eventually, the cars behind you honk.
Illusion #2: Harris “has what it takes.”
The widely shared assessment of Kamala Harris’s performance (so far) as vice president also comes in code: she’s “not ready for primetime,” she needs to “step up her game,” and “she’s off to a rocky start.” Few if any of the political cognoscenti think she is (a) “presidential timber” and/or (b) capable of winning the 2024 presidential election, should it come to that.
These two truths — Biden is old, Harris isn’t ready — haunt Democrats and their media allies. When they imagine the 2024 presidential election without Biden or Harris, they notice another truth: there’s no bench. Gavin Newsom? Not. Andrew Cuomo? Not. Tim Kaine? Not. There’s a long list of superb military officers that would be formidable (and admirable) candidates, but the chances of a Democratic Convention nominating, say, Admiral William McRaven, are similar to my chances of buying the winning $1 billion Powerball ticket.
Illusion #3: Trump is done.
Where in the world did this come from? Wishful thinking explains part of it. Maybe all of it. But it’s clearly not true. The amazing thing is that he’s not done, given his disgraceful post-election conduct and evident disdain for long-established, essential norms of American democracy; “consent of the losers” chief among them. It’s August (almost) and he still maintains that he won an election that he lost. That’s the dictionary definition of “delusional.”
And yet it hasn’t hurt him. He remains the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. Republican elected officials at the federal, state and local level genuflect at the mention of his name. Would-be rivals for the 2024 nomination pledge their allegiance, and not just to Trump’s “populism” but to Trump personally. And then there’s Fox News.
The 2024 Republican presidential nomination campaign will “happen” on Fox News. It will also “happen” on right-wing talk radio and on right-wing websites and in right-wing chat rooms, but Fox will frame the choice; controlling who gets exposure (and in what time slots) and who sets the agenda. Those decisions are driven by one consideration and one consideration only: Does it rate?
Trump rates. The others don’t. End of story. And lest anyone think that Fox will ignore the ratings, turn on Trump and do what it can to bring to the fore the next generation of GOP leaders, please call me and I will sell you my winning Powerball ticket. For $1 million.
Illusion #4: Trump can’t win.
Can’t win what? The GOP nomination? Really? Want to bet? Who’s going to beat him? Josh Hawley? Marco Rubio? Ron DeSantis? Nikki Haley? Take your pick.
My guess is that none of them will run if Trump announces his candidacy in, say March of 2023. Would you? You’d be signing a political death warrant if you did; forever alienating vast swaths of the Trump coalition by challenging their champion. You’d be asking your major donors to invite Trump’s wrath. You’d be asking Republican elected officials at every level to risk ruin by endorsing your candidacy. It’s a non-starter from the start.
Well, you say, Trump can’t possibly win the general election, can he? On paper, probably not. Fifty-two percent of the country would eat nails to vote against him.
But as we learn again and again, the national popular vote isn’t evenly distributed across the Electoral College. State-by-state, the Electoral College is almost perfectly distributed to make GOP victories possible, even when the party loses the national popular vote by a substantial margin. (Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes in the 2020 general election.)
It’s also the case that Trump enjoys an advantage over, say, Biden (or Harris or any Democrat, for that matter) on “cultural issues.” In the key Electoral College states (like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, to name three) general election voters align more comfortably with Trump’s views on cultural issues; on immigration especially, but also on crime, “defund the police,” the undoing of welfare reform, and the rise of Woke.
That’s enough to make him competitive, but probably not enough to put him over the top. He’s so toxic, he hits a ceiling. And the Democrats (and their media allies) will do everything in their power to make Toxic Trump the issue, above all others. They’ll borrow a line from the Reagan re-election campaign: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?”
But what happens if Trump is not the issue? What happens if inflation is the issue? That would bring to mind the Carter re-election campaign, the one that ended in a GOP landslide at the state and local level and a 10-point win for Ronald Reagan (who received 50% of the national vote). Inflation destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency. It literally kicked him out of office.
What if Larry Summers is right and inflation is ready for launch and will likely take off next year? If Biden Administration policies are seen as the proximate cause of inflation, will “swing voters” view the administration as the best option for bringing inflation back under control? Probably not. Is inflation the kind of issue that can render Trump’s toxicity less salient? Yes it is.
The light is green. Let the honking begin.