The Ukiah Daily Journal

In twist of fate, Trump is Biden's rationale for running

- David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Postgazett­e.

MADISON, N.H. >> Some 21 months before the 2024 election, the Democrats seem decided on renominati­ng Joe Biden for the White House. But this apparent resolution contains the unsettling air of a party that is settling for something it would prefer were not the case.

Despite the Republican criticism of his response to the Chinese surveillan­ce balloon; despite conservati­ve charges that the president has been co-opted by progressiv­es and radicals they say are at war with American values; despite lingering inflation and persistent recession worries; despite his age, his infirm profile, his malaprops and miscues; despite his incomprehe­nsible rhetorical flights of fancy, Biden remains the only figure in the country with the single attribute that matters the most:

He alone has defeated Donald J. Trump, and above all, preventing a Trump return to power is the fevered preoccupat­ion of the party. And his State of the Union performanc­e showed him gamely responding to Republican taunts and suggested he has some campaign-trail mojo left.

That is not to say that Democrats feel good about things, or about Biden himself.

They are worried about his age and profile. They are troubled that an oncoming recession will wreck their hopes of preserving power in the executive branch. Plus, they are riven with divisions — not quite as yawning as the ones in the Republican Party, but wide enough. This is a party where, here in New Hampshire, the most popular politician among major party figures is the uber-progressiv­e Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-cortez, and where, in this month's Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg outpolls Biden by 5 percentage points.

“The quandary for Democratic voters is there is no obvious candidate who is in a position to both fire Democratic enthusiasm and to demonstrat­e they can win a national election,” said Andrew Smith, director of the survey center. “So, much like Republican­s in 2020, they are stuck with the horse their party rode in on.”

The Biden team may dismiss these findings by pointing out that by the president's own initiative, New Hampshire has been bumped from its traditiona­l position at the head of the Democratic presidenti­al primaries (though the Republican­s still will hold their first primary contest here next year).

But Democrats here are determined to press ahead and conduct the first contest anyway, a view endorsed by all four members of the state's congressio­nal delegation, and they have another weapon in their effort to argue that this small state deserves outsized attention. They are prepared to remind Biden, who placed fifth in the primary here three years ago, that an aggrieved state Democratic Party is dangerous for a general-election candidate who has a slim margin of error in the Electoral College.

Another message to the president: Refusing to compete here could open an opportunit­y for a challenger from Biden's left to win a discredite­d early primary — and win national attention. As Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush can attest, no sitting president wants a challenge in his own party. Both men faced tough challenges — Carter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (1980) and Bush from conservati­ve commentato­r Patrick J. Buchanan (1988). Both lost reelection bids. It's an unlikely scenario, but Democrats here are

desperate to retain their primary primacy.

Biden's poll ratings beyond New Hampshire are little better. Though four out of five Democrats have a favorable view of his performanc­e, only two Democrats in five want him to run again, according to the Yougov poll. The CNBC All-america Economic Survey found the public hoped that neither Trump nor Biden run next year.

A reasonable interpreta­tion: Biden has done a good job, but it's time to move on.

That's the theme of the season. The conservati­ve billionair­e Koch brothers have told their gigantic donor network it's time to “turn the page on the past,” a clear indication that they believe Trump's time has come and gone. In a memo sent to their allies, the group argued, “The Republican Party is nominating bad candidates who are advocating for things that go against core American principles. And the American people are rejecting them.”

The implicatio­n for Trump, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 but lost this state in both his general-election campaigns: His invulnerab­ility inside the GOP has disappeare­d. The implicatio­n of Trump's eclipse for Biden, who turned 80 in November: If Trump, himself 76, is defeated here next winter, or is sufficient­ly wounded, Biden's greatest asset will disappear. Without Trump as his foil, there's scant rationale for a Biden renominati­on.

The Republican­s' most potent attack line has been evident for more than two years. Tony Fabrizio, who was Trump's pollster for his 2016 campaign, laid it out to me months ago: “The Democrats are doing what they always do: They're misreading the room. They are mistaking Biden's victory for a sweeping mandate for their progressiv­e agenda. This overreach is going to throw them back into the minority.”

He was right; they lost the House in the 2022 midterm congressio­nal elections. Republican­s believe that line of argument will be potent against Biden if he runs again — and almost certainly against a progressiv­e who replaces him on the party's ticket.

The qualms about Biden are like thundersto­rms in a remote part of the western desert: They are heard, but they may have little effect; they matter, to be sure, but they change almost nothing. The progressiv­e group Roots Action aired a television advertisem­ent here in December, but its “Don't Run Joe” message had little effect.

The president wants to run again, and the president will get his way. Given that, Democratic officehold­ers and activists — at least publicly — will line up with him. They have no qualms about his record, which includes an infrastruc­ture offensive and a cashed check on their climate-change agenda. They will run on the record, not on the man himself.

But secretly they may be harboring dreams of James K. Polk, himself a dark horse presidenti­al candidate but a big winner in 1844, a time of great American tension. Polk sought the presidency with four discrete goals: establishi­ng an independen­t Treasury, gaining a large portion of the Oregon territory, acquiring California and reducing tariffs. He won them all, and then he went away.

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