Biden is entirely a creature of the party establishment, a politician devoid of hard edges, known to drift safely within the mainstream of elite opinion. He was chosen as a last-gasp backstop to block the anti-establishment Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and to defeat the detestable Trump. These tasks he accomplished. Quite naturally, he’s looking for gratitude—particularly now, when his fortunes are at a low ebb. Though it’s easy to forget this, Biden is president. He has revealed his intention to run for a second term. He believes he has earned the right to the establishment’s support.
He may not get it. Institutional loyalty has been bred out of contemporary elites. Most Democratic grandees are cut from the same cloth as the president: All that matters is staying at the top. From their perspective, Biden was the right tool to accomplish this purpose in 2020 but may be totally wrong for 2024. After all, he’s polling behind Trump. The holocausts a vengeful Trump might wreak on Democrats, if returned to power, can justify any number of betrayals. . . .
Even if the president steps down, there’s still the vexing question of choosing his successor. Historically, Democratic presidents have been succeeded as party chief by their vice presidents: That was the case with Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and, of course, Biden himself. The difficulty is that the current incumbent, Kamala Harris, has actually failed at the job of vice president and is even more unpopular than Biden. Harris seems unable to utter a word in public without delighting the meme-makers of the internet. However, in a caste obsessed with identity, can tradition be overturned to deny a female “person of color” her shot at the top spot? That would not be a good look.
Behind Harris, ambition runs high but presidential timber gets scarce. Members of the cabinet, like Pete Buttigieg, are lightweights already tarred with failure. Elizabeth Warren crashed and burned early in her last try at the nomination. Gavin Newsome, governor of California, is the white, male equivalent of fellow Californian Kamala Harris. Bernie Sanders is about to turn 800. We can gauge the desperation of the liberal flock by current whispers that maybe, just maybe, this is finally Hillary Clinton’s turn. Clinton is the worst politician of recent times—but she’s competitive with this bunch.
The best hope for Democrats in this bleak landscape is the second coming of Trump. Despite improved polling numbers that, at 42 percent approval, make him the “most favorable” political figure in the country, the former president strongly unites and galvanizes the opposition while having the opposite effect on his own party. Like Biden, Trump would enter the contest burdened by an immense weight of baggage. Like Biden, he would be an old man seeking redemption rather than a fresh face on the offensive. And if Biden can be said to bar the way to more attractive Democratic candidates, Trump does much the same to Republicans: He’s too volatile to embrace but too important to ignore.
For all this, Democrats remain terrified of Trump and are spending vast amounts of energy plotting his destruction. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s January 6 production in the House, for instance, is an attempt to persuade the public that the most important issue confronting it lies in the past: namely, Trump’s supposed machinations to engineer an “insurrection” against our democratic system. This is futile stuff: Trump’s popularity has actually increased during the hearings. Opponents have never learned that attention is the helium that lifts this strange political mutant above the competition.
Yet Trump also is stuck in an ungainly posture that looks backward to the 2020 election. He’s no longer interested in making America great but in proving himself to be the greatest winner of all time. The Democrats would make 2024 about January 6, 2021; Trump insists that it should be about November 3, 2020. Meanwhile, the public is wholly concerned with bread-and-butter issues and has shown no interest in making the next presidential contest an exercise in the interpretation of history.