The worst-kept secret in American politics is now on full display. After interviewing nearly 50 Democratic officials about 2024, The New York Times has a message for Joe Biden: Get out!
No hard feelings, though, Uncle Joe. The party isn’t angry with Biden. It’s worse than that. The party “seems to feel sorry for him,” according to the Times’ reporting. That’s right, Biden has reached the “pity” stage of his presidency.
Just listen to what former Obama strategist David Axelrod told the Times: “The presidency is a monstrously taxing job and the stark reality is the president would be closer to 90 than 80 at the end of a second term, and that would be a major issue.” After praising Biden’s accomplishments, Axelrod continued: “He looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of a camera as he once was, and this has fed a narrative about competence that isn’t rooted in reality.”
Talk about damning with faint praise.
In a sense, this is old news. But the Times report makes it clear that Democrats are no longer willing to ignore the elephant in the room and hope Biden’s presidency will fix itself. As inflation and gas prices continue to plague the administration, Democrats are hurtling toward a potential political tsunami in November.
Now, it’s true that we’ve been here before. Sort of. In 1982, a majority of Americans polled thought Ronald Reagan shouldn’t run for re-election. But after a rough 1982 midterm, the Gipper went on to win 49 states in 1984.
Unfortunately for Democrats, Biden doesn’t have Reagan’s political skills, and tough decisions made by Reagan and his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, spurred an economic recovery just in time for his 1984 re-election. Maybe history will repeat itself, but I doubt it. As things stand, Biden seems more likely to replicate Carter’s re-election outcome than Reagan’s.
But brace yourself, Democrats, because things are somehow even worse than they sound.
Donald Trump, the man who tried to remain president after losing the 2020 election, is still the prohibitive favorite to be the GOP nominee. This leaves America with a potential choice, as conservative John Podhoretz recently described it, between “a man with a drool cup, versus a raging psychotic.”
Now, Podhoretz engaged in a bit of hyperbole here, but his colorful description is not terribly inaccurate in terms of public perception.
Making matters worse is the weak state of the Democratic bench. Biden’s heir apparent, Vice President Kamala Harris (who is regularly mocked for her gaffes, has endured criticism over her failure to resolve the border crisis, and flamed out quickly in the 2020 primary), is charitably described by the Times as someone “who has had a series of political hiccups.”
As an electoral force, Harris would actually be a downgrade from Biden. But really, what’s the Democrats’ alternative? There is no savior waiting to rise from these streets, but there are a lot of 2016 also-rans (Pete Buttigieg! Amy Klobuchar!) who briefly made noise in the primary, but never never demonstrated an ability to build a sufficiently broad coalition.
Of course, column writers aren’t great at spotting winners and losers. Few people in 2014 would have predicted that Donald Trump—a reality TV star!—would be the Republican nominee in 2016, much less the next president. This is to say that crazy things can happen. And actually, maybe that is ironically the best hope for Democrats.
This is where I start to feel a little weird about political prognostication, but stay with me for a moment, if you would be so kind.
I have spent a lot of time and energy decrying the celebritization of politics (the calamity of Trump being a good example of what concerned me about the trend), but the horse is out of the barn. We live in the age of celebrity; and while mixing entertainment and politics can result in a toxic brew, not all celebrities behave like Trump, and entertainers can sometimes make terrific communicators and effective leaders.
Could this be what Democrats—who are obviously out of ideas (and inspiring politicians) need?
The aforementioned Ronald Reagan, a former movie star, was supposed to be a joke, and then he became a successful governor and a two-term president. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and actor before entering politics, has demonstrated tremendous courage and leadership skills. And just last week, actor Matthew McConaughey, a native of Uvalde, Texas, made an emotional and compelling argument for common sense gun reform at the White House. (Was this a first step in a journey toward elected office?)
Now, I realize that this is sort of magical thinking. Back in the old days of a liberal media monopoly, every once in a while, someone on the right would come up with what they thought was a novel solution: Why don’t we just buy CBS? On one hand, this is a laughably obvious quick-fix solution. On the other hand, the Democratic Party is currently in a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of situation. Actually, this is bigger than just a political party. The more I look at the potential field of Democratic politicians, the more I think this deus ex machina plot device might be the only scenario that could finally extract America from a Trump-Biden race-to-the-bottom death spiral.
This doesn’t have to be a gimmick. I’m not suggesting they go all Kardashian. But why not draft Tom Hanks, George Clooney, or even McConaughey? They’re all beloved mainstream performers—and each to their own extent has demonstrated a passion for politics.
Or how about the most obvious choice—the billionaire celebrity so world-famous she only needs one name: Oprah?
Some economists credited Oprah Winfrey’s early endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 with earning him about 1 million votes he wouldn’t have otherwise received in the primary. Imagine how many votes an Oprah endorsement of herself could win!
To be sure, any would-be Democratic savior would have to engage in their own Trump-like hostile takeover. After all, going this route would require Democrats to dispatch Kamala Harris, the first African American female vice president. It would also likely require loosening up on some of the woke progressive orthodoxy—which isn’t nearly as popular as its primary proponents in academia and coastal media believe it is. But building larger coalitions, rather than smaller ones that regularly purge their own, is how you win (if winning is, in fact, the goal).
Maybe a celebrity with a cult of personality is the way the party survives Biden sleepwalking to certain defeat.
This is a gamble, but desperate times call for desperate measures. With an incredibly weak incumbent president, and an anemic field of would-be successors, nominating a popular and charismatic celebrity—one commodity the Democratic Party has plenty of—seems like a risk worth taking. The only problem is finding one who’d be willing to be drafted. But the alternative, to me, seems even riskier: sticking with Biden or Harris.
The electoral beatings will continue until morale improves.