The consensus opinion in political and media circles that a rematch of the 2020 presidential election remains the most likely scenario for the 2024 presidential election has been jostled but not overthrown by last month’s midterm elections.
Thus, the year is coming to a paradoxical end. The flaws of the prominent members of both major parties are amply demonstrated. However, for the time being, it appears difficult to prevent either one from receiving the nominations they both desire. The American electorate seems prepared or even desperate to move on, especially as evidenced by the opinions of younger voters. However, the party dynamics are unchanging, at least in the eyes of a particular group of political experts. Trump, of course, came out of the midterms worse than he had appeared before, which may have given competitors more confidence as they move forward knowing that over the course of seven years, he has consistently humiliated every GOP figure who has attempted to run against him. Biden has come out even stronger than before, which has further deterred would-be rivals.
And yet, it is simple to find politicians and operatives in both parties who continue to be terrified that Trump could still win the presidency in off-the-record conversations. It is simple to find people who think that Biden’s ageing and declining approval ratings increase the likelihood of a Republican victory (whether it be Trump or someone else). It’s simple to find people who blatantly think they would make better presidents than either of the two. The conventional wisdom that opposing these leaders for the 2024 nomination would be a highly risky proposition—in most cases, too risky to take seriously—has so far been hard to find many who appear eager to defy.
These potential challengers should brush up on two significant aspects of the previous generation of presidential history before abandoning or delaying their ambitions.
The first is that only after ignoring the “consensus view,” “outward indications,” or “prevailing wisdom” about their prospects did four of the last five presidents become in office. One of the most crucial job requirements may be the ability to challenge conventional wisdom.
The second is that the electorate typically finds a means to achieve change when it is eager for it. This implies that someone will give it a shot and probably succeed more than most people think.
With Bill Clinton, this was the situation. He only accepted the Democratic nomination in 1992 after more renowned and intimidating figures in his party declined to do so. This decision was reportedly based on the belief that incumbent President George H.W. Bush was a prohibitive favourite to win a second term in the wake of the first Gulf War, which seemed plausible enough a year before the election.
Barack Obama also experienced that. While still a new member of the U.S. Senate, he declared his candidacy for president in 2008, refusing to concede to the widely held perception that the Democratic nomination unquestionably belonged to the more well-known Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The challenger of conventional knowledge became its enforcer eight years later. Obama was the most influential Democratic voice in 2016, discouraging his vice president from running for the party’s candidacy. Nearly everyone assumed that Hillary Clinton was the actual winner this time. Donald Trump, who is arguably the best illustration of how it pays to be dismissive of the establishment certitudes of both parties, was one of the dissenters.
The final illustration is Biden himself. The same people who recently declared him likely unstoppable for another nomination still thought poorly of him in February 2020. How sad that he was ending a decades-long career with a string of primary losses, they said. Wouldn’t it be more respectable if he did so politely?
This time, a wide range of ambitious next-generation Democrats have refrained from running in favour of Biden, including Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Gavin Newsom in California. The two pillars of the logic are apparent. The first is that Biden is actually more stronger than previously thought, especially in light of Democrats’ above-average showing in the most recent midterm elections. The second is that it typically benefits the opposition party in the general election when incumbent presidents face opposition from within their own party.
Both pillars appear unstable. Both the fact that younger people turned out in greater numbers than typical for the midterm elections and the fact that Democrats performed better than expected last month are true. It’s also true that Democrats did not want Biden to run for office in the most competitive races. Younger voters are those with his lowest approval ratings, which are often in the low forties. Additionally, there were no ominous signs on Election Day for Republicans willing to distance themselves from Trump. In Ohio and Georgia, Republican governors who distanced themselves from Trump comfortably won, as did Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has angered Trump despite tapping into the same populist fury that propelled Trump’s campaign. Their success in swing states does not portend an easy victory for Democrats in the next presidential election.
According to the conventional wisdom, incumbent presidents who face challenges, like Jimmy Carter in 1980 or George H.W. Bush in 1992, suffer from nomination contests. However, it is more likely that these presidents face challenges because they are weak, rather than that nomination contests made them fatally weak.
Regarding Trump, it is currently believed that while he may lose the GOP nomination to someone, such as DeSantis, he would most likely win it if he had multiple opponents who would split the anti-Trump vote.
All of this has led to what my colleague Jonathan Martin refers to as “the bipartisan truth that dares not speak its name” in the words of Oscar Wilde: Many members of both parties desire to eject leaders from the podium, but lack the confidence to do so.
It brings to mind the first occasion in the modern era when the political establishment was preoccupied with the possibility of challenging an incumbent president. Robert Kennedy was debating whether it had been a mistake to not challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson at the beginning of 1968. On a campaign of opposition to the Vietnam War, another Democrat, Eugene McCarthy, was picking up support from supporters who Kennedy thought were inevitably his. He was interested in hearing from Walter Lippmann, a prominent columnist from a previous generation. In a conversation that both men’s biographers have recorded, Kennedy argued that LBJ’s war strategies were a failure. Then he argued that a nomination challenge would likely be pointless.
Lippmann didn’t say anything; he just silently listened until Kennedy directly queried him. Well, Lippmann said, “if you think Johnson’s re-election would be a catastrophe for the country—and I completely agree with you on this—then the question you must live with is whether you did everything you could to avert this catastrophe.
Kennedy eventually decided to run, but his campaign was ended in June 1968 by an assassin. However, Lippmann’s query should reverberate with every politician who believes they should be president rather than either Biden or Trump — all while waiting in the wings.