Democrats wrestle with the Biden conundrum

Amid all of the news and issues on the top of political minds, there is one non-versation that continues to dominate: Can Joe Biden do this again?

I call it a “non-versation” because the folks wringing their hands the most about whether Biden is up to the task of winning in 2024 are people who, in many cases, have already endorsed him for re-election. A few even work directly for him — and are still having the same uneasy feeling as they watch Donald Trump methodically consolidate Republican support while a right-wing information ecosystem turns the Biden brand into the Clinton brand circa 2016.

Ultimately, Democrats in Washington — in both the executive and the legislative branches — share the same concern voters have been expressing for the last six months: They fear voters can’t be convinced Biden is up to the job, and they don’t have confidence the team around Biden fully appreciates the concern.

The caveats before this non-versation are all very similar. “He’s really done a remarkable job, given the circumstances,” goes a common one. The handwringing after the various caveats are set aside all has the same sound to it, too, with answers hidden in questions like: “Do you think he looks too old?”

Team Biden has tried to brush off the concern, pointing to the unpopularity of the last two Democratic presidents at this same moment in their presidencies — before they went on to win re-election. At this time in 2011, Barack Obama was bruised by a protracted standoff with House Republicans over the debt ceiling and government spending levels. It was the low point of his re-election campaign. Bill Clinton’s first-term struggles and low point were a tad earlier, but in the spring of 1995, things were grim enough to spark talk of a Bill Bradley primary challenge.

And then there’s the one Republican president Team Biden is fond of using for age-related comparisons: Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Biden battled a nasty inflation issue at the start of his term. Like Reagan, Biden was the oldest president ever elected. Reagan had a brief moment in 1984 when it appeared the age issue could become a problem, but he joked his way out of it and did enough campaigning to reassure the country he was up to it.

Of course, given all we learned about Reagan’s health in his second term, perhaps there should have been more of a rigorous debate about his abilities, in hindsight.

Still, all three examples — Obama, Clinton and Reagan — are reassuring historical points that offer potential Biden parallels.

But one of the worst afflictions that can affect the political class and the Washington media class at times is “been there, done that disease.” Just because something happened a certain way the last time doesn’t mean things will turn out the same way this time. And yet, an overreliance on historical precedent can delude the normally intelligent mind.

At the end of the day, it could turn out that negative feelings about Trump and anger at the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion are enough to secure Biden’s re-election. It’s probably the most likely formula, given what we are witnessing in just about every election held since the Dobbs decision.

But while the power of the abortion issue might save Biden, it’s separate from the question of whether he owes the public a better picture of his ability to do the job.

So far, Team Biden has decided not to accept the premise of the age question. It publicly chalks it up to the media, even going so far as to say the media should stop asking about it in polls. There’s a naive belief among some Biden partisans that if you don’t mention his age, it won’t be an issue.

In the real world, concern about Biden’s age is an issue, and the voters are screaming it. Every reputable pollster who has asked has found more than 50% of registered Democrats want a primary campaign.

The numbers stem from a simple fact: A number of Biden supporters were never enamored with him but saw him as the safest way to get rid of Trump. When you look at these numbers, it’s as if Democrats are ready to hand Biden a gold watch and thank him for beating Trump, making Congress slightly more functioning and expanding NATO — and call it a legacy.

So what will it take to fire up Democrats for Biden? The best elixir for him could well be a primary challenge. The best way to disprove the age and ability issue is to run an active campaign, something Biden has yet to do.

This advice may be easier to give than receive. For one thing, Team Biden will remind any skeptic like me that running a “Rose Garden”-style campaign from his Delaware home in 2020 worked, though there’s a counterclaim about whether he would have won by more — or had longer coattails — with a more robust campaign.

Biden partisans also argue that his focus on democracy instead of inflation in the midterms was the right call, given his party’s overperformance against the GOP. Personally, I think history will remember the 2022 midterms more as the first evidence of the Dobbs fallout over abortion more than its being evidence of Trump’s unpopularity in key swing states.

As Yogi Berra has been credited with saying, “it’s getting late early” in this Biden handwringing story. If others are going to run, they have to do it now. And this is where Biden ought to be saying “bring it on,” answering this whisper campaign wondering whether he has what it takes to win again by showing voters.

Currently, this White House has decided a “do no harm” strategy is the best way to go about this. It has basically given up fighting the news cycle and instead is trying to ignore it — or to use certain media outlets or media personalities to talk to certain constituency groups on their terms.

What you don’t see is Biden barnstorming the country. He’s spending very little time with voters, though the few times his team has had him with the people (see the UAW picket line event), he has done pretty well.

A confident Biden team would push the president to say things like: “If I were a voter, I’d be concerned to about my age. So watch me.” Well, right now, folks are watching, and they don’t love what they see.

At some level, it’s about trusting the voters. The voters know the difference between someone who is 80 but still has it, even if at a slightly slower pace, and someone who is 80 and doesn’t seem to keep a schedule that any previous modern presidents have kept. So get out of the White House and Delaware. The more he’s out on the trail or with the people, the more any single gaffe will get minimized.

Need a proof of concept on that? Just look at all things Trump. He’s so ubiquitous with his grievances and outrages that when he ends up stepping on himself in some way, the moment (while it goes viral and gets dunked on by his critics) disappears as fast as it comes, because there’s something else he says or does for his supporters and detractors to chase.

Right now, every Biden public appearance seems unique, not ubiquitous. It only serves to elevate any gaffe or misstep. But if he is campaigning a lot and tripping over himself every once in a while, it becomes “Biden being Biden” more than “Biden showing his age.” And it’s that perception the current White House and campaign team have some control over. They simply have to believe it’s better to let Biden be Biden, no matter what.

Quick hits from the trail: The bellwether that’s getting ignored

As our polarization becomes more ingrained, it does make it seem as if every annual election cycle — be it an even-numbered year or an odd-numbered one — is now nationally important. This year is no different — though in my 30 years covering campaign politics, this election cycle has been among the most ignored by the national media.

Part of the reason is that the three main statewide races are in three states that don’t they don’t share a media market with Washington, D.C., or New York. The year after presidential elections, races for governor of Virginia and New Jersey easily get nationalized and produce nationally ambitious winners. That hasn’t been the case in Kentucky or Mississippi or Louisiana, the three states holding governor’s races this year.

And yet, this election cycle features what may now be among the best national bellwether elections: Kentucky governor. Since the turn of this century, the party that has won Kentucky’s Governor’s Mansion has foreshadowed the party that wins the presidency the following year.

In 2003, Republican Ernie Fletcher flipped the Governor’s Mansion to the GOP. A year later, George W. Bush won re-election.

In 2007, Democrat Steve Beshear (father of the current Kentucky governor) defeated the incumbent Fletcher; a year later, Democrats would expand their majorities in the House and the Senate and win the presidency.

In 2011, in tough economic times, Beshear won re-election quite handily. A year later, Obama won re-election with over 50% of the vote, one of the largest vote shares any Democratic presidential campaign has received since LBJ in 1964.

In 2015, a conservative firebrand named Matt Bevin was the surprise GOP nominee (upending the Mitch McConnell-led GOP establishment) and won the governorship. Bevin was the canary in the Kentucky coal mine for Trumpism and the grievance politics that handed the White House to Trump in 2016.

In 2019, Andy Beshear (son of the former two-term governor) defeated Bevin, foreshadowing Biden’s defeat of incumbent Trump a year later.

And that brings us to 2023 and 2024. Right now, Beshear looks like a solid favorite for re-election. The GOP nominee, Daniel Cameron, while he’s a McConnell protégé, has tied himself in knots on the abortion issue and can’t seem to find a safe political position.

So does a Beshear re-election victory foreshadow a Biden re-election victory? In some ways, the political climate one year before a presidential election is usually more similar than it is different a full year later. And the singularity of the abortion issue in Beshear’s re-election definitely could foreshadow the issue terrain Democrats believe plays in their favor nationally.

As Kentucky goes, so goes … America? We could find out soon enough.

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