Steve’s not saying a third-party candidate is the right answer, the best answer, or even a good answer. But such a candidacy may at least be addressing the right question.
During the 1960 Presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy noted that fiscally conservative Republican Richard Nixon had been criticized by The Wall Street Journal. “That’s like the L'Osservatore Romano criticizing the Pope,” JFK wryly observed.
Well, here’s something that is actually worse: watching The New York Times repeatedly trash an incumbent Democratic President.
And that is what is currently happening to Joe Biden.
“Young Voters Say It Is Time for New Blood” cries a Times headline. That, however, was a whiffle ball compared to the laser cannon the Times fired off the previous week: “Most Democrats Don’t Want Biden in 2024, New Poll Shows.” Saying his support was “hemorrhaging,” the Times quoted from the poll they conduct in concert with Sienna College that found that only 26% of Democrats favor Biden’s renomination. Then the real zinger: Peter Baker’s article entitled “At 79, Biden is Testing the Boundaries of Age and the Presidency,” which included this quote:
“His energy level, while impressive for a man of his age, is not what it was, and some aides quietly watch out for him. He often shuffles when he walks, and aides worry he will trip on a wire. He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he makes it to the end without a gaffe.”
Biden “shuffles.” Geez, NYT, with friends like this…
Of course it is not just the Old Grey Lady sounding the alarms. Biden age-watching has become a sport on all the flavored news channels, and then there was the recent Axios Poll that concluded “Most voters don’t want Biden or Trump on the 2024 ballot.”
Which is problematic, because as of this moment, that is the most likely scenario for 2024. Even after the January 6 Committee finishes eviscerating Trump’s innards, it still appears that he will have the Republican nomination for the asking.
And – as of now -- the only person who is going to stop Joe Biden from taking the nomination in 2024 is, uh, Joe Biden. This could happen: Biden truly is a “team” guy, and if he is convinced that he would be a liability in 2024, he may step aside. But there’s no indication of any such abdication coming out of the White House as of now.
Biden v. Trump in 2024. Yep, the match-up that seemed old, unsatisfying, and uninspiring in 2020 is heading for a re-match in Season Two of America Doesn’t Have Talent.
Here’s what makes such a rematch Chernobyl-grade toxic. In this Presidential election, we will see a truly once-in-our-nation’s history scenario in which each party effectively has an “incumbent,” and both “incumbents” have massive liabilities.
There’s the real incumbent – Biden – and his devastating statistic: an AP-NORC Survey that reports that a mind-blowing 85% of US adults say that the country “is headed in the wrong direction.” Personally, I want to go to a party of the 15% who seem to think everything is peachy keen. That would be the most upbeat gathering I have attended since 2015.
It makes all the sense in the world that 85% of Americans think the country is going in the “wrong direction.” Of course, Republicans will all say that. The problem is that many, many Democrats today would also say that “the country is heading in the wrong direction” – through no fault of Joe Biden. Dems are watching a Supreme Court attempt to put the country back in the 1950s, children continuing to get slaughtered by AR-15s, and the continued pervasiveness of “The Big Lie” among Republicans even as the January 6 committee exposes the sham. You bet most Dems think the country is heading in the wrong direction.
The problem is that the statistic makes Joe Biden look awful.
Indeed, just about the only good news Biden got last month was that Bernie Sanders announced he would not challenge Biden in 2024. Biden actually breathed a sigh of relief, happy that he would not face a very serious challenge from a Democrat who is older than he is.
Bernie Sanders, of course, was simply hewing to the time-honored tradition that you don’t primary an incumbent President. Ted Kennedy tried in 1980, humiliating himself, but wounding Jimmy Carter in the process. And Republican firebrand Pat Buchanan took on the elder George Bush in 1992. Internecine warfare is never pretty, and the simple fact that a member of their own party thought they were vulnerable had to have damaged Carter and Bush. Not coincidentally, both lost the general election.
But it is not certain that all Democrats will follow Bernie’s example.
When asked, all the plausible future Democratic presidential candidates bite their lips and dutifully toe the party line that Joe Biden is the man, and that the nomination in 2024 is his. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have shadow political operations humming in the background waiting for Biden’s shoe to drop. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, is clearly aiming to raise his national profile with the campaign ad he ran in Florida, and with the new law that uses the vigilante provisions of Texas’s anti-abortion laws to target those who violate California gun laws.
Biden himself seems to continue to be driven by the singular belief that drove his 2020 candidacy: he felt – and he may well have been exactly right – that he was the only candidate who could beat Trump. Biden believed it then, and he appears to believe it now.
So the Democrats are looking at running potentially the weakest incumbent since Jimmy Carter. The only good news? The “Republican Incumbent” could be running his campaign from Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Why do we refer to Donald Trump as effectively the Republican “incumbent?” The GOP is accustomed to seeing their defeated Presidential candidates politely surrender their party leadership and recede from the spotlight. Smashing yet one more genteel custom of democracy, Donald Trump has refused to accept that he lost in 2020 and he has turned the “Big Lie” of the stolen election into the litmus test for candidates seeking his endorsement. The practical effect is that Republicans are forced to behave as if Trump won and treat him accordingly.
“Treating him accordingly” essentially means that the nomination is his if he wants it. Painfully, Trump is making clear noises that he intends to run, signally that the only real question is whether he will announce his bid before or after the midterms.
Would he face a primary challenge? Ron DeSantis is the only significant Republican who has refused to rule out a run, and the Florida Governor must be pumped by the poll that showed him running 39/37 ahead of Trump in New Hampshire.
But such a brazen challenge to Trump is fraught with risk. If he takes on Trump and loses, he may well be banished to Republican Siberia for the rest of time. If he takes on Trump and wins, he may have alienated a large percentage of die-hard “Trump nation” – and any Republican needs that support to win. DeSantis is a young man. He will have many shots at the White House, and the only thing he could do to screw up his long-term prospects is to alienate Trump’s base by challenging him in 2024. Same goes for Greg Abbott or anybody else who is playing the long game and hoping to inherit Trump’s followers.
So, sure, what’s left? A bunch of William Weld wannabees? Mike Pence sure looks like he is going to make a run, but the last time we looked, he was not terribly popular in Trump country. Maybe Liz Cheney? Adam Kinsinger? Glenn Youngkin? Mitt Romney? For a Republican to try to primary Trump is a charge of the light brigade right into the heart of the far-right brigade, straight into the valley of death.
So, for now, we have to assume that it will be Biden v. Trump in 2024.
And, if you believe the Axios poll, the majority of Americans are nauseated by their choice.
Which is why one has to wonder if 2024 may finally be the year that some very rich, very ambitious, and very aggressive wild-card pounces on the rarest of opportunities… a third-party candidacy that actually has a chance at winning the White House.
Not since Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose party in 1912 have conditions so favored a legitimate third-party candidate.
Here is the stat, again from The New York Times, that should make all those Private Sector Presidential Wannabes start to drool that their time has come:
“A majority of American voters across nearly all demographics and ideologies believe their system of government does not work, with 58 percent of those interviewed for a New York Times/Siena College poll saying that the world’s oldest independent constitutional democracy needs major reforms or a complete overhaul.”
“Major reform or complete overhaul.” That is a clarion call for a true outsider.
We stand at a unique moment in history. A majority of Americans believe that their government is broken. A majority of Americans disagree with what their government has done on abortion rights and what it hasn’t done on assault weapons. Most Americans have already decided that their choices in the 2024 Presidential campaign have overwhelming liabilities.
Does anyone really think that two borderline octogenarians with lousy favorability ratings are what the country is craving right now? These candidates will have a tough time uniting their own parties, let alone the country. You think there is polarization between our political left and right? Polarization is pulling apart the parties themselves. Trump has taught his base to loathe “RINOs” as much as Democrats and spends his time trying to defeat Republican incumbents who are not swigging the Kool Aid by the pitcher.
Meanwhile, Democratic Progressives are furious that Biden’s FDR-sized agenda is being gutted, denuded, miniaturized, sterilized, and castrated by one jerk from West Virginia.
Americans think their government is broken: Trump broke it, Biden can’t fix it, a permanently gridlocked Congress can’t accomplish anything, so an illegitimate, unelected Supreme Court is running the country… and 85% of Americans think the country is on the “wrong track.” Did I miss anything?
The winning platform for 2024 is all there for the taking: a self-funded charismatic declares that the government is so irretrievably broken that it cannot fix itself. It cannot be fixed by a Democrat or a Republican. It needs someone from outside of government who will return American government to the will of the people: fiscally constrained, taming the national debt, taxing the superrich, protecting abortion rights, regulating guns, and creating Federal oversight for reckless and irresponsible social media companies. Expand the Supreme Court and impose term limits, get rid of the filibuster, gerrymandering, and the Electoral College. Above all, reform the very process through which we amend the Constitution – which political polarization makes an impossibility. Perhaps this platform concludes with a call for a new Constitutional Convention to reform all the loopholes, legally codify that which had been merely honored “customs,” and create a government that can neither be tyrannized by a majority nor a minority.
In other words, create a government that is able to implement what the majority of people want.
That is the winning political platform in 2024. It is not right wing, it is not progressive, it is not even centrist. The winning platform is the promise of re-orienting government to implement the will of the majority of citizens.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying a third-party candidacy is the right thing, or even a good thing. Heck, when Howard Schultz made noises about a third-party candidacy in 2020, this writer urged a national boycott of Starbucks to stop an egomaniacal blowhard from siphoning votes away from the Democratic candidate and thereby handing the Presidency once again to Trump.
And many would argue that a third-party candidate who espoused the platform noted above would be --by definition -- left of the political center, and once again siphon votes away from Biden in 2024.
But the issue in 2024 is different. Biden’s approval ratings are not the worst on record for a President – four Presidents fell into the 20s – but if they remain stuck where they stand now, having him as the sole opponent of Trump may be a higher risk than a left of center Third Party candidate who could take votes from both traditional party candidates.
Could a third-party candidate even have a chance of winning?
The conventional wisdom says no: too hard to achieve without a party organization, name recognition, endorsements, blah, blah, blah.
The truth is that it has never been easier to run as a third-party candidate. All it takes is the time and money… and a multi-billionaire who starts today has enough of both. Time and money to build an organization, to get the candidate’s name on the ballot in all fifty states, to build a brand-name, and to hone the right message. Then punch away until you get enough support to get a podium at the Presidential Debates. A young, persuasive, well-informed charismatic political outsider could easily outshine Biden and Trump in a debate. Once on the equal footing of a debate stage, an effective third-party candidate could create the plausibility of victory and jump-start a momentum shift. A competent, charismatic multi-billionaire (or someone with multi-billionaire supporters) who started now and was prepared to blow through two billion dollars could be extremely well-positioned to take on a field of Joe Biden and Donald Trump in 2024.
This is where our notion of the year of “double-incumbents” is interesting. Because the only thing better than running against a badly weakened incumbent is running against two badly weakened incumbents.
The billion dollar question: who is the mega-billionaire who could pull it off?
There are actually a number of people out there who could give it a very serious run.
Can you spell O-P-R-A-H? A brilliant communicator, nearly universal name recognition, a super-successful business-person, a salt-of-the-earth biography, someone whose appeal cuts across polarized politics… the day Oprah Winfrey were to announce her candidacy, she’d be standing on third base.
At eighty years old, Michael Bloomberg hardly represents the kind of generational shift young people crave. But a $76 billion net worth counts for plenty. Bloomberg probably regrets participating in the Democratic party ten-podium madness of 2020, and has to be watching the current state of our politics with his trademark arrogance.
Mark Cuban was actually asked if he is considering running for President, and got himself quoted saying that “based on everything I know now, no. But I mean like you said, if things go south, it depends on how they go south and how far south and whether or not I thought I would be the right person. I wouldn’t do it just to do it. I would only do it if I thought I was the right person.”
Rule of thumb: billionaires think they are the right person for everything.
Google “Is Jeff Bezos running for President?” It seems such speculation is almost automatic for persons of spectacular wealth… and Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post demonstrates his interest in politics.
Elon Musk? You may be able to buy Twitter and possibly Mars, Elon, but no Air Force One for you. You must be a natural born U.S. citizen. Musk was born in South Africa.
Sheryl Sandberg? Lean in! There were numerous stories about Sandberg considering a shift to politics after Meta, and the rumor mill had Sandberg in consideration for a cabinet post had Hillary won, and considering a run at Diane Feinstein’s seat. Count on Zuckerberg to contribute ample coin to this effort.
Another billionaire who scored a Democratic podium in 2020 is Tom Steyer, who, at 65, comes off as a feisty young man relative to Trump and Biden.
Andrew Yang? Why, the Presidency is the only logical step for a man who was soundly thumped in the New York Mayoral race!
And we haven’t even started on the entertainment celebrities: Tom Hanks. Dwayne Johnson. Bruce Springsteen. The list goes on…
However, it is every bit as likely that it is some person you haven’t heard of … someone who just took a software company public and is cocky enough to believe he or she can solve the world’s problems. Maybe this mystery person is a true idealist and wants to return America to her glory as a functioning democracy. Maybe this mystery person is just an opportunist who sees a once-in-a-lifetime grab at the gold ring. Maybe it’s a bit of both…
Sure: this magical candidate will have to deal with every reality of governing that causes gridlock today. This candidate cannot wave a wand and end the filibuster, the Electoral College, gerrymandering, or pass a single Constitutional amendment.
Neither, however, would this person be hamstrung by rigid party affiliation. Republican Senators might not feel an obligation to vote lock-step knee-jerk against an Independent the way they do against a Democrat. And a President who won on a platform of adherence to the will of the American majority has created a powerful bully pulpit.
Meanwhile, Democrats had better start thinking very, very hard about whether they are prepared to nominate a candidate who would be 86 years old by the end of his second term. If, that is, he won a second term.
Joe Biden was the right guy in 2020. He was the only Democrat who could beat Donald Trump, and he did.
The hope is certainly that Joe Biden can turn things around and have inflation tamed, Covid solved, Ukraine free, the filibuster eliminated, abortion rights restored, AR-15s far away from elementary schools, and right-wing militias behind bars, all by 2024.
But when The New York Times is already at Def Con three, it is time to make sure we are asking the right question.
Somebody out there will realize that the question in 2024 will no longer be “who can beat Trump in a two-person race?” (Or, for Republicans, “who can beat Biden in a two-person race?)
Somebody is out there saying, “Americans are screaming that their government is broken, and they don’t think that either of their options are going to fixing things.” Those Americans are not some “silent majority,” nor are they the virulent minority.
Somebody is going to have a clear shot at winning because they finally call them what they are: the real majority.
The question of the day is not "how do we ram programs through a broken process?" The question of the day is "how do we fix our government so that the will of the majority is easily implemented and reflected in our laws?"
I’m not saying a third-party candidate is the right answer, I’m not saying it is the best answer, and I am not even saying it is a good answer… but at least that mystery outsider has the opportunity to address the right question.
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