“No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.” That Lily Tomlin gem is a useful guide for analyzing politics in an era marked by heated polarization and growing violence.
Most days it seems the whole country is on fire with demands for dramatic changes in government and society.
Yet Democrats are led by octogenarians or those who, like Joe Biden, soon will be.
Top Republicans are aged, too, and the party is split into factions for and against Donald Trump, who is not exactly a spring chicken.
This combination of public impatience and the advanced age of leaders of both parties would seem to set the stage for sweeping generational change. But what if cynicism is a safer bet and that, despite the clamor for fresh faces, the 2024 presidential race will be a rematch between Biden and Trump?
Some political insiders are predicting just that outcome, with former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway saying a “cage match rematch” is the most likely scenario.
Ed Rollins, the veteran GOP handler, is another. I was surprised when he made the same prediction during a phone call, but the more he talked, the more sense it made.
To be sure, it’s not as if the 2020 face-off left the public wanting a do-over. Polls show most Americans want new options, with Biden and Trump growing older while their popular support is getting smaller.
But Rollins, the political director in Ronald Reagan’s White House, is clear-eyed about what it takes to win a nomination. And he doesn’t see anyone in either party capable of defeating the 2020 winners in the marathon string of contests.
“That’s the only way to get new blood,” he says, “and it’s not an easy thing to do.”
A dilemma for Dems …
Take Biden. Although increasing numbers of Dems oppose his running again, the president says he intends to seek re-election. It sounds ridiculous, given his terrible performance and his obvious mental decline, but the old line that “you can’t beat somebody with nobody” is relevant.
Heading toward the 1980 election, incumbent Jimmy Carter was considered a disastrous president — Gallup had his approval at 28%.
Meanwhile Sen. Ted Kennedy carried the hope of those Dems who believed his name would be magic on the campaign trail, notwithstanding his infamous role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in an auto crash on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969.
In November of ’79, polls had Kennedy leading the primary race by 58-25. But a series of missteps, including a disastrous interview with Roger Mudd where he could not articulate why he wanted to be president, cut into the lead and gave Carter confidence.
By the end, Carter had rallied to win 36 of the 48 state primaries or caucuses, carrying the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and a margin of 51% to 37.6%.
Even the Iran hostage crisis and the bungled attempt to rescue the trapped Americans didn’t save Kennedy.
He was ungracious in defeat and only conceded on the next-to-last day of the party convention. He gave a rousing speech — perhaps the best of his career — while giving Carter the cold shoulder.
Reagan, of course, went on to win 44 states in the general election, a warning to Dems now that primary challenges can further weaken an already-weak incumbent. So while a Biden rerun won’t inspire many Dems, a party divided by a serious challenger would spell almost certain defeat in the general election.
… and for the GOP
As for Republicans, Rollins sees a similar pattern. Despite signs that Trump’s grip is slipping, no alternative has emerged with the firepower to take away the nomination.
A recent New York Times poll, for example, had Trump at 49%, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 25% and others, including Sen. Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, all in single digits.
DeSantis is a fundraising machine, but must first win reelection this year. Defeat is unlikely but even a close race could damage his presidential chances.
“As it stands now, if Trump wants the nomination, it’s his,” Rollins says.
Although Trump has not publicly committed to running, he has told associates he is and his rallies and fundraising pitches feel like the campaign already has started. When I asked him about his plans last month, the former president said only that, “In my mind, I’ve made a decision.”
He repeated that wording in an interview last week and left the impression he might announce soon, even before the fall midterms. He has indicated he savors a chance to get even with Biden.
Although most polls show a rematch would be close, there are endless potential pitfalls for both men between here and the 2024 nominating process. Nancy Pelosi’s House is using the Jan. 6 panel to dirty up Trump and maybe indict him while Biden’s performance in the Oval Office has left many in his party and independents in a sour mood.
But polls can cut both ways, as when a White House reporter asked Biden about a survey finding that 64% of Dems want someone younger in ’24. Instead of answering the question, the president pounced on another finding in the same survey where 92% of Dems said they would still vote for him in a rematch with Trump. By comparison, about 85% of Republicans said they would vote for Trump in a general.
Last week, in an interview in Israel, Biden said of a second showdown with his predecessor, “I’m not predicting, but I would not be disappointed.”
He and Trump at least have that in common.
Starbucks meets grim reality
Crime causes poverty, the latest proof being the decision by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to close 16 stores because of employee concern about “personal safety.”
Schultz made the announcement on a video to employees, and added that “what is happening in our restrooms” revealed “issues of mental illness, homelessness and crime.”
“Our stores are not built for this,” he said before promising that “many more” would be closed for the same reasons.
The stores, all profitable, to be shuttered this month include six each in Seattle and Los Angeles, two in Portland, Ore., and one each in Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
All five cities are run by Democrats, and Schultz, who ran for president as a Dem in 2020, blamed “mayors and governors and city councils,” saying they “abdicated their responsibility in fighting crime and addressing mental illness.”
On that, there can be no disagreement.
Sign of the Times
Another sign The New York Times has quit Joe Biden comes in a front-page question: “President Biden said he confronted the Saudi crown prince over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Some wonder: How true is that?”