Dems rally behind Biden — and the political press weeps
Also: All the things McCarthy wouldn't applaud at SOTU.
By Noah Berlatsky
The political press is bitter. After the Democratic National Convention met in Philadelphia for its winter meeting last week, it’s clear there’s not going to be an exciting scramble for the Democratic nomination. Boring Joe Biden is going to be the boring nominee.
“Democrats, Seeing a Weaker Trump, Are Falling In Line Behind Biden,” the New York Times admitted, even though there’s little evidence in the article that the support for Biden has anything to do with Trump. “Biden or bust: Democratic insiders are all in for Biden 2024,” NBC declared, trying to suggest that nominating Biden is risky rather than the predictable thing that parties do with incumbent presidents.
You can sense how thirsty some pundits are for a “Democrats in disarray” narrative from the tweets they posted about the Times article.
No, the real story of Biden’s easy nomination is that the Democrats are mostly unified and mostly behaving normally. But at least the mainstream press has the GOP, whose 2024 nomination process is shaping up to by a conflagration of heat and stench.
Of course, the press has always defaulted to covering presidential election like horse races. But if these early days are any indication, we’re in for a cycle of coverage that will be even more devoid than usual of substance and policy. Who benefits when we pretend that the biggest issue in the 2024 election is Biden’s age? Not readers, and definitely not democracy.
Biden’s been solid and incumbents are hard to beat
Biden’s age is the main excuse given for the press’s years-long pretense that he might not run in 2024. He will be 82 on November 20, 2024, which means if he wins reelection he’ll be 86 by the end of his term. That is old for a president, or for a human being in general. Most people that age are retired.
The thing about getting old is that, while it can creep up on you, it’s not exactly a surprise. Biden’s age was discussed extensively in the 2020 campaign. Everyone knew in 2020 that he’d be 86 by 2028. And despite some muttering that he’d serve just one term, the man himself never said as much. A better political press would have made clear that he almost certainly would run again if able.
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Biden ran for president for the first time in 1988. That means he’s had his eye on the office at least 35 years. Like all presidents, Biden is ambitious. It strains credulity to believe that after decades of trying to get into White House, he’d leave it a second earlier than he has to — especially following two years in which he signed many pieces of important legislation, ranging from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to historic investments in climate to marriage equality and more. A shaky economy took a toll on Biden’s approval numbers, but the jobs market remains remarkably strong, and there’s no reason to doubt his chances in head-to-head matchups against Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Moreover, parties don’t abandon incumbent presidents except under the most dire of circumstances. That’s because incumbents are more likely to win. Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said in 2012 that incumbents have the advantage of “name recognition; national attention, fundraising and campaign bases; control over the instruments of government; successful campaign experience; a presumption of success; and voters' inertia and risk-aversion."
You can see the power of incumbency in the results. Since the founding of the US, 20 presidents have won their reelection bid, while only 11 failed to gain a second term. In contrast, when parties in power have run a non-incumbent candidate, they have won only half the time.
When incumbent candidates are unpopular, parties do sometimes look desperately for alternatives. The results are generally dire. Unseating the incumbent rarely succeeds, and whether or not the challenger wins, the divided party does if anything worse than if they’d left well enough alone.
After his disastrous Vietnam War record led President Lyndon Johnson to step out of the 1968 race, Democrats went down in a crushing defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon. In 1980, Senator Teddy Kennedy unsuccessfully tried to unseat Jimmy Carter in the primary; Republican Ronald Reagan went on to the crush Carter. And in 1992, George H.W. Bush’s weakness led conservative independent Ross Perot to run as a third party candidate. Again, the result was that the incumbent lost (most researchers think Bush would have lost in any case).
Given that track record, incumbents receive a huge benefit of the doubt from their own party. Donald Trump had historically dismal approval ratings and lost the 2018 midterms in brutal fashion. He also had a vocal, committed opposition within his own party. But the GOP never seriously considered switching to another candidate in 2020. The party even cancelled presidential primaries and caucuses to avoid any possibility of dissent.
Biden had ugly approval numbers going into the 2022 midterms as well, as pundits often gleefully pointed out. But Democrats bucked historical precedent by holding on to the Senate and losing the House by a very narrow margin. Even if you’re not much of a fan of Biden, it would be political malpractice to abandon an incumbent president who’s in position to win another term and opt instead for a bruising primary.
Democrats are not engaged in political malpractice. The press obviously wishes they were. But if reporters are hungry for some, they should take a gander at the other side of the aisle.
Republicans in disarray
The GOP primary is, to put it mildly, a mess. Former President Donald Trump — who lost the popular vote in 2016, got crushed in the midterms in 2018, lost in 2020, and led his party to another underwhelming midterm showing last November — is running again. He’s the current frontrunner despite the fervent wishes of much of his party establishment.
Trump’s early campaign has only underscored why he makes the GOP so nervous. He’s facing a list of criminal investigations as well as a civil suit accusing him of rape. Meanwhile, he’s been attacking his main rival, DeSantis, for being “disloyal.” That’s playing to the GOP’s worst fears. Trump isn’t going to run as one candidate among many; he’s going to claim to be the one true conservative chosen one, and anyone who demurs is a traitor to the cause. Yesterday Trump went even further and amplified a post that suggested (with scant evidence) that DeSantis groomed underage students while he was a high school teacher.
Trump is far from the GOP’s only problem. After their midterm disappointment, Republicans have not moderated. Instead, they’re indulging in an orgy of extremism. DeSantis is pursuing his presidential bid by launching a fascistic takeover of education in Florida, including banning AP African American history and forcing teachers to hide or get rid of books in their classroom or face jail time. Nationally, some members of the GOP House launched an attack on the incredibly popular Social Security program. They’ve also threatened to cause a debt default, which would plunge the country, and probably the world, into a brutal economic catastrophe.
Banning books, gutting the safety net, cratering the economy — these are not popular positions for a 2024 run.
There’s also the question of whether Trump will concede if he is edged out for the nomination. When he lost the 2020 election to Biden, he claimed the voting was rigged and instigated a violent insurrection. If DeSantis gets more votes, is Trump likely to just shrug and say, “Well, I guess I must respect democratic norms and acknowledge the victory of my honorable opponent”? It seems much more likely that he will turn on the GOP and run as a third party candidate in an effort to sabotage his opponents.
The political press is comfy with “both sides” narratives
The bubbling GOP primary mess does get a certain amount of press attention. But the mainstream media doesn’t want to just focus on Republican woes. They want to seem balanced. That was the impetus that led media outlets to provide 24/7 coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email server barely-a-scandal. They had to balance Trump’s history of sexual abuse allegations, racism, and corruption with something.
There are many real reasons to criticize Joe Biden. To name just one, despite the impressive rollout of vaccines early in his term, his handling of Covid since then hast left a lot to be desired. But he’s also done a lot of good stuff after inheriting a disaster of a situation from Trump. Any objective assessment of the state of politics going into the 2024 primary season has to acknowledge that the Democrats are a mostly united, functional small-d democratic party, while Republicans are a howling abyss of dissension and fascism. The disappointment at Biden’s smooth path to renomination suggests that this is still not a story the press wants to tell.