This edition is a companion piece to last week’s on why Democrats would be unwise to nominate someone other than Joe Biden in 2024, which you can read here.
There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch from the lead-up to the 1988 presidential election in which the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis (played to perfection by Jon Lovitz) debates Vice President George H.W. Bush (embodied by Dana Carvey). The bit’s famous punch line comes after Bush spends multiple minutes filibustering with meaningless talking points to avoid offering a substantive response:
Moderator: You still have a minute-twenty, Mr. Vice President.
Bush: Well, sure, more has to be done, but the program is in place. Make no mistake. We are doing the job. So let’s just stay the course and keep on track. Stay the course.
Moderator: You still have 50 seconds left, Mr. Vice President.
Bush: Well, let me just sum up: On track. Stay the course. A thousand points of light. Stay the course.
Moderator: Governor Dukakis, rebuttal?
Dukakis: I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.
This incredulous exclamation could just as easily encapsulate the experience of many Republicans over the last two years, as they’ve watched their president and party lose repeatedly to Joe Biden and his agenda. To conservative partisans, this state of affairs is almost inconceivable. After all, from their perspective, Biden is old, notoriously gaffe-prone, and historically unpopular. How is it possible that he has not only managed to pass multiple key pieces of legislation in recent months, but that his approval rating is actually rising?
I am here to help.
Admittedly, I may not seem like the ideal messenger. Personally, I think Donald Trump is a bigot who bragged about assaulting women and a boor who shows no interest in doing the actual job of president. I believe he is an embarrassment to our country and an ugly example to our children. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to agree with any of that to understand that Trump—whatever his merits as president—is the root of Republican dysfunction today and the reason the party cannot seem to beat Biden. And that for the same reason, they would be fools to nominate him again in 2024.
1. Trump neutralizes all of Biden’s weaknesses. Biden’s critics underestimate his still-formidable political skills. But they do correctly identify his flaws. He is the oldest president in history, and not as deft a public performer as he once was. And he was never that deft to begin with, having long been a font of foibles and verbal miscues. There’s a reason, in other words, that Biden lost his first two presidential campaigns. But there’s also a reason why he handily won his last one by 7 million votes: Donald Trump is his dream matchup.
That’s because every key criticism that Republicans would normally level at Biden applies equally or in greater measure to Trump. Yes, Biden is a septuagenarian—but so is Trump. Yes, Biden is unpopular—but Trump is even less popular. Yes, Biden often sticks his foot in his mouth, or goes off on meandering tangents. But Trump’s entire presidency was defined by his bizarre public pronouncements. There was his obsessive Twitter feed, which featured a nonstop stream of insults and invective. There were his speeches and international appearances, which were filled with comical misstatements, straight-up lies, and diplomatic faux pas.
And there were his press conferences, where he did things like entertain notions of curing the coronavirus by injecting people with disinfectant. Placed alongside Trump, Biden appears positively presidential. And that is the point: Trump effectively negates the most effective lines of attack against Biden, and makes it much easier for him to win by comparison. This was entirely predictable, which is why I predicted it before Biden even got the Democratic nomination:
Here's the thing about Biden: I think his biggest weakness is his propensity for gaffes, which helped derail his prior presidential runs. But this might be the perfect moment for him, because in the age of Trump, any such gaffes will pale in comparison to his in voters' minds. https://t.co/zYc3J3vbVF— Yair Rosenberg (@Yair_Rosenberg) April 30, 2019
Simply put, the best political candidates take advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses, while the worst political candidates defang them. And Republicans should know. After all, this is how Trump beat Hillary Clinton.
In 2016, Clinton wanted to paint Trump as beyond the pale of moral probity and acceptable society. But she and her husband had attended Trump’s wedding. Clinton rightly sought to highlight Trump’s long history of misogyny and alleged sexual misconduct. But her husband had famously continued serving as president despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. The point is not whether these counterpoints were fair—a woman should not be held responsible for her spouse’s actions—but that they were politically effective. Clinton’s weaknesses canceled out several of Trump’s liabilities.
Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by casting him as an out-of-touch, rich corporatist. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by painting him as an elitist egghead. Accurate or not, these attacks succeeded because they preyed on preexisting public doubts. Today, the public has plenty of doubts about Biden. But Trump is uniquely incapable of exploiting them—whereas almost any other GOP candidate in 2024 would be able to.
2. Republicans can’t make 2024 about Biden when Trump makes everything about himself. As I noted last week, sitting presidents are very hard to dislodge; only 11 have lost reelection. To overcome this dynamic, opponents need to assail the incumbent’s record and argue that they’ve made Americans worse off. Republicans have an entire playbook ready to run against Biden along these lines. They will argue that his American Rescue Plan juiced record inflation; that his administration is mired in runaway wokeness; and that his forgiveness of student-loan debt constitutes an unconscionable giveaway of taxpayer money to the privileged.
It’s a powerful pitch that polls pretty well. There’s just one problem: Trump isn’t playing along.