The Ukiah Daily Journal
In twist of fate, Trump is Biden's rationale for running
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.