ONE: THE REVERSE-IMAGE PARTIES
Those of us who follow politics in granular detail view the woof and warp of our daily battles as though we’re looking at a topological map, jagged and pocked with crevices we’re in danger of falling into at any moment. But what if we’re just spooking ourselves? What if the road to the future is actually a flat smooth surface, just like the two-dimensional map your teacher pulled down like a movie screen in front of you and your classmates back in the old days?
Consider. The drama that has enveloped the two leading candidates for president is nothing less than operatic. One has been indicted in four separate criminal cases, been sued in civil court for tax fraud, and been found liable for raping a woman more than a quarter century ago (and then for defaming her after the verdict). The other has shown consistent signs of cognitive decline, spends more than 40 percent of his time away from the White House at a vacation home where we have no idea what he does all day, and has become progressively implicated in criminal matters involving his son in past years (some of which took place, with his undeniable participation, during his vice presidency). And yet the race between them has been remarkably static—and basically tied nationally.
On January 1, 2023, Joe Biden led by six-tenths of a percentage point in the RealClearPolitics average, 44.8 to Donald Trump’s 44.2. On April 1, they were tied at 43. On June 1, Trump led, also by six-tenths of a single point, 44.6 to 44. On August 1, Biden zoomed into a crushing lead of nine-tenths of 1 percent, 44.9 to 44. But by September 7, Biden was up only four-tenths of a point, at 44.5 and Trump at 44.1. So all the melodrama—the mugshot for Trump, the way the sweetheart plea deal for Biden’s son blew up in a Delaware courtroom, the rape finding, the sight of Biden wandering out in the middle of a Medal of Honor ceremony over which he was presiding—has had no effect. If American politics is opera, it’s not Verdi. It’s Philip Glass—two notes played, over and over again, forever.
What helps these two men hurts them as well, and vice versa. Take Trump. Pundits and partisans alike agree that Trump’s indictments have helped him achieve overwhelming dominance in the Republican primary field. His legal woes provide ballast for the argument that he is being pursued relentlessly and unjustly by the very people whose influence he wishes to counter and eliminate. But at the same time, his troubles have surely injured him with those who are not susceptible to his argument. Fifty-six percent of Americans disapprove of him and his personal conduct. Of course they do. They should.
And Biden? His disapproval number is almost exactly the same as Trump’s, at 55.6 percent. However, the president’s current political condition is the reverse image of what is happening with Trump and the GOP. Think of it. Trump leads his closest Republican rival in the RCP poll average by 38.5 percent. Meanwhile, a staggering percentage of Democrats—seven out of every 10, every time they’re asked now—tell pollsters they want someone other than Biden to be their party’s nominee in 2024. Of course they do. And they should, too.
They and we have daily evidence of Biden’s infirmities. The mainstream press may downplay or soft-pedal the worrisome nature of Biden’s condition, but they cannot blind the public to what it sees. And yet no serious Democratic rival is willing to take the plunge and challenge the president for their party’s nomination. In point of fact, Biden’s obvious liabilities are not luring ambitious men and women to grab at the great brass ring. If anything, they are hindering those ambitions.
To take the nomination from Biden—either by beating him outright or by convincing him through a popular upstart bid to decline to run for reelection, as Lyndon Johnson did in 1968—a Democrat would have to talk about the president’s health and his problematic son. And if that rival’s effort were to fail and Biden were then to stand in the general election, that rival’s negative words about Biden would be used as a weapon in hundreds of millions of dollars of Republican advertising leading up to the election. To sum up: A Democrat can’t run against Biden because it is too dangerous in the general election for any Democrat to make a case against Biden’s weakness if the president isn’t going to step aside or be pushed aside.
So here we are. Two extraordinarily unpopular men whose reputations have been called into question on a daily basis all year are on what appear to be separate glide paths to their nominations in the first showdown between a president and a former president since the year 1912 and the first presidential rematch since 1956.
Ever since Trump’s rise it has become a commonplace for people who follow politics to refer to the dangerous instability of our politics, especially considering Trump’s flaunting of law and custom on the one hand and Biden’s mental decline on the other. That conventional wisdom has proved to be a complete misreading of the American political mood. Things aren’t really that unstable, and they haven’t been, at least when it comes to voters and their presidential choices, for a long while now.
Think back. The GOP primary race was stable after August 2015, when Trump took the lead and never surrendered it. He did lose Iowa, but won New Hampshire and then pimp-walked into the nomination. As for Biden, the race was pretty stable for him, too, in the run-up to the 2020 election. He led without letup by 10 points at least throughout 2019 before losing Iowa and New Hampshire—then won the nomination in the biggest landslide ever measured in a contested primary.
Even the outcomes of the extraordinarily divisive Trump elections seemed to rhyme. Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by 3 million but prevailed in the electoral college due to 88,000 votes cast strategically in three states, winning 306 electors1 (36 more than necessary) and the presidency. Biden beat Trump by 7 million—but prevailed in the electoral college by only 44,000 votes cast strategically in three states, winning 306 electors (36 more than necessary yet again) and the presidency.
We have been awash in the most breathless and exhausting political and ideological jousting in America since the years when Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Graham Bell and Friedrich Nietzsche were walking the earth. And at the same time, we have two national parties at relative parity, trading control of the White House and Congress with margin-of error results. And now we have two major candidates, both of them presidents, whose political standing has not changed in the course of this year.
Their overwhelming leads are not, however, the result of uniformity among Democrats or Republicans. There is no such uniformity. To wit: A clear majority of Republican voters want Trump. But the overwhelming majority of members of the Republican elite—politicians and major donors and policy mavens—do not. Fox News has done everything it can to focus positive attention on Ron DeSantis. The Super PACs supporting Republican candidates in the race against Trump have raised an astounding $200 million. Practically every major Republican politician would clearly prefer that Trump be gone. But those politicians, even the ones running against Trump, do not dare to say it. And those 200 million dollars might as well have been set on fire for all the good they’ve done the cause of moving the GOP beyond Trump.
Here, once again, we see the two parties as though they are mirror images. Democratic voters do not want Biden. But Democratic elites apparently do. The media are continuing to run a prevent defense for Biden. They are doing everything they can to keep the astonishing developments in the Hunter Biden story from becoming a major scandal—and highlighting alarming footage of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s two public moments of incapacity while consigning to Twitter/X the more alarming daily images of Joe Biden wandering off stages and trailing off as he speaks.
Republican voters consume media that have made them uncommonly literate in the life and times and laptop and business dealings of Hunter Biden, and they know enough about Donald Trump’s troubles to follow him in cursing the names of DAs Alvin Bragg, Fani Willis, and special prosecutor Jack Smith. Democratic voters have dined for eight years on the ambrosia of outrage surrounding the activities of Donald Trump and seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for having their outrage reaffirmed on a daily basis. They, too, know Willis and Bragg and Smith, and are probably very fond of them. But it’s doubtful they could name either the Hunter Biden special prosecutor (David Weiss) or the judge in the Hunter case (Maryellen Norieka). Even more striking, if you’d ask them who Tony Bobulinski and Devon Archer are, or who Gary Shapley and Joseph Ziegler are, they would likely have no idea.2
Another commonplace in current American politics is to say that left and right both live in bubbles that keep them unaware of the news of the other. But that’s not quite right. The right is fully aware of everything that’s being thrown at Donald Trump and others in their ambit. There is no real way for them to live unaware with the mainstream media and pop culture in the hands of liberals and leftists. But awareness does not equal acceptance. The right no longer cares about the left’s cases against Trump. In fact, any allegation tossed at Trump is viewed as dismissible because of the source.
Something a little different is happening on the Democratic side of the ledger. Liberal and leftist elites can completely isolate themselves from conservative media investigations into Hunter Biden or Joe’s own cognitive difficulties, because of the way they consume news and information. Indeed, since they are also in charge of the way that news and information come out, they are, in effect, blinding themselves to reality.
These Democratic lions do not really understand how significant the president’s liabilities might be. For their part, Republican “thought leaders” have tried to do something to deal with the threat of a Trump presidency, even if their efforts have been halting and unsure and confused. But Democratic thought leaders look at Biden and see a man who beat Trump once, whose governing agenda they really like, and whose vice president they have come to disdain. Since they feel no pain from inflation, they clearly have no feel for fellow Democrats less well-heeled than they whose grocery bills are 10 percent higher this year than last and for whom used-car prices and travel expenses have skyrocketed.
So our fun-house mirror shows elites in both parties out of touch with the party’s grassroots normal people, but for wildly different reasons. Rank-and-file Democrats are expressing an entirely realistic concern about the choice that is being imposed on them from above, while rank-and-file Republicans are more enthusiastic about Trump than they have ever been and are openly resisting efforts to provide them with a choice come primary season.
TWO: THE REVERSE-IMAGE RESPONSES
The next year is going to see more unprecedented political and legal news. Donald Trump and his company will be tried in a New York civil court beginning in January, and soon after he will face criminal proceedings in matters relating to January 6 (in D.C.) and the classified documents he is accused of having handled unlawfully (in Florida) in the spring. There may or may not be a trial in Georgia before Election Day, but whatever.
At the same time, Joe Biden will not be getting any younger. He will only get older, even as the demands on his time and attentiveness both as president and as candidate metastasize. Hunter Biden is, we hear, likely to be indicted on a felony gun charge, and who knows what might follow from that; his behavior and the behavior of his father will continue to be a subject of intense focus from the House Oversight Committee.
But ask yourself: Will any of that change anything in any direction as we look at 2024 from the 2023 vantage point?
Unless the cases against Trump feature smoking-gun revelations, they are—shocking though this may seem, up to and including a felony conviction—unlikely to affect his bid for the nomination. And if Trump is there in the general election, Biden will have a floor under him through which he will probably not fall simply because he will be the only way to stop Trump.
The two parties and their associated soft-money organizations will spend a billion dollars or more, and the “earned media” (the free coverage of the two candidates and campaigns) will be incalculably large. But it seems plausible that none of it will matter. The likeliest scenario at this present moment is that Trump and Biden will go into Election Day effectively tied.
Which way will the scale tilt? Trump has signaled he will no longer insist, as he did in a particularly psychotic fashion in 2020, that his voters cast their ballots on Election Day alone, which should help Republican turnout modestly. That is a necessary adjustment toward basic reality, since his team knows that the swing states of 2016 and 2020—Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona—have all moved slightly in a Democratic Party direction in each of the past three elections. So Trump will need to harvest every vote he possibly can if he is to have a shot at the Electoral College.
If I’m right about this, and things remain as they have been, Democrats and liberals are going to get increasingly unnerved as the next 13 months progress. They have done everything they can to drum Trump out of public and political life, and their efforts have had the paradoxical effect of helping keep him at the red-hot center.
The lesson should be apparent by now, after the indictments and the findings and the January 6 hearings and whatever: Stop trying to use whatever means are at hand to eject your rival. Instead, take the mote out of your own eye. Change the trajectory by changing the dynamic in a way you can control. Which is to say, do whatever is necessary…to get Joe Biden out of the race. Convene a cabal of leading Democrats to visit him, praise him for his salvation of the country, promise him a spot on Mount Rushmore—in exchange for his retirement in sufficient time to allow for the Democratic contest that the party’s voters seem to crave.
That’s a long shot, though it shouldn’t be. More plausible is that Democratic leaders will continue to seek novel and untried means to deny Trump the presidency. The one that seems to have struck a chord recently isn’t even one they originated; it comes from conservative legal scholars.
It’s worth remembering that conservative legal scholars are as capable of sophistry as liberal legal scholars. Like Talmudists, they often advocate positions simply because those positions are interesting. The proper response to a 118-page law review article arguing that Trump’s violation of the 14th amendment ban on insurrectionists in American politics is so obvious no one even need prove he is an insurrectionist and he can simply be removed from ballots even without white-out is to collapse into a heap of disbelieving laughter. There is no such thing as a “self-executing” provision of anything in American public life. Even something as plain as the language in the Constitution forbidding anyone from being president who was born on foreign soil hasn’t proved to be self-executing; if it were, Ted Cruz (born in Canada) wouldn’t have run for the office in 2016.3
Three initial feints in this direction—arguments that Trump’s name be ruled ineligible for a presidential ballot—hit courts in September. A Florida judge dismissed one on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue, and I think we can expect the same result in Colorado and Minnesota.
But there is a real danger that this argument will seize the imaginations of other ambitious elected Democrats in the course of 2024, especially if the race remains a jump ball. The intoxicating possibility of becoming instantly world-famous and a hero working to save democracy might be just the thing to seduce, say, the secretary of the commonwealth in the swing state of Pennsylvania. Following the logic of the factitious law-review article, he might declare his action self-executing and not even bother involving the courts.
This sounds like an extreme scenario, but is it really? It should be out of bounds because if some Democrats actually want to see what a genuine insurrection looks like, to see the world burn Joker-like, they could get their wish. This would appear to be, and would in fact be, an effort to fix a national election for America’s own good, to burn down the “it takes a village” in order to save it.
If that doesn’t happen, something else might. But if nothing happens, and the election is a jump ball, and the jump ball goes to Trump, I suspect the months leading up to the inauguration in 2025 might make January 6 look like a hootenanny.
Right now, we are not heading anywhere good.
1 Though in the end, only 304 electors named Trump because two went faithless.
2 Both men are former business partners of Hunter Biden, and both have provided evidence not only that Hunter sold himself to foreign actors using his father’s name but also that Joe Biden participated in Hunter’s business dealings while vice president. Shapley and Ziegler are IRS whistleblowers who have claimed political interference in their investigation of Hunter.
3 Cruz’s mother is a U.S. citizen. But had he actually won the party’s nomination, there would have been a major hoo-ha about the place of his birth.
Photo: AP Photo
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