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Age Hysteria 2: Looking for Unicorns
New candidates, New VPs, New Parties
Monday’s newsletter tried to address the hysteria over the age of the leading presidential candidates. Experts on aging could lead us to see all the ways in which Biden and Trump, 81 and 78 respectively, might well defy our default expectations of people of a certain age. Their lifestyle choices (no drinking or smoking), medical care, and overall social class standing put them well above the median person of similar age.
Nevertheless, the “Biden is too old” stories are just too easy to write. All you need is generic polling data and a couple of interview quotes and you’ve got a story.1 This piece in yesterday’s Washington Post, running with the headline “Anxiety Ripples Through the Democratic Party Over Biden”, has this lede:
A growing number of polls are showing voters concerned about President Biden’s age and energy. Democratic lawmakers have hesitated to offer full-throated endorsements of his running mate. Prominent commentators have ruminated on whether he should drop out of the presidential race.
The story contains all the standard issues. Biden’s gait is slower (so is mine). He doesn’t speak well. Approval numbers are too low. Inflation and gas prices aren’t coming down fast enough. He hasn’t dealt with all the desires of progressives. People may not have confidence in Kamala.
The reality, as Jonathan Last observed this morning, is that these are our two candidates today and will be for the next 13 1/2 months. And they are tied for understandable reasons.
When people say that early matchup polling is worthless, what they really mean is that this far out there is a large window for voters to take in new information and reassess their opinions. So maybe that Unknown Candidate turns out to be a rock star, voters fall in love with him, and he beats Sen. Smith.
But in our case, everyone knows Trump and Biden. And not only do we know everything about them as individuals, but we have actually seen how they perform as president. This has not happened in more than a century. We are heading into the most apples-to-apples presidential choice any living American has ever seen. And when information sets are this complete, volatility should decrease. There simply isn’t much new information out there.
JVL’s “Unknown Candidate” reflects the Unicorns in my title. Perhaps there’s somebody out there who will declare their candidacy and disrupt the dynamic. Maybe if Biden replaced Kamala Harris for a different vice president people would be happier. Maybe a third party could provide us with a way around the rematch of Biden-Trump.
None of these alternatives is going to happen. But it keeps the commentariat entertained.
In yesterday’s Message Box, Dan Pfeiffer demolishes the new candidate narrative. He observes that Biden’s favorability within the Democratic party stands at 77% favorable to 19% unfavorable (nearly identical to Trump’s support in the Republican party). Furthermore, there is no consensus alternative to Biden. He cites a CNN poll from last month that asked Democrats and Democratic leaners if they’d prefer someone other than Biden as the candidate. Of those who said yes, 82% of respondents said that they would prefer a generic “somebody else”, only 18% had anyone in mind. None of those names were favored by more than 3% of respondents. It’s a Unicorn!
That’s not even considering that an imaginary Unicorn candidate could meet primary ballot deadlines or build a robust ground game or establish a dynamic online network between now and the spring. In addition, anyone who would try such a tactic would be political suicide for people who actually have hopes of running for president in 2028 or beyond.
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Then there’s Nikki Haley’s ongoing claim that she’s running against a dead Joe Biden and a live President Harris. This claim was clever when she first made it but it’s running incredibly thin. Besides being evidence free regarding Biden, it is lacking in specifics. It’s the standard “liberals want to destroy America” ploy but it’s unclear in what way Harris differs from Biden or any other possible Democrat.
Jennifer Rubin poked holes in Haley’s argument yesterday. Not only would dumping Harris be unnecessary, it would alienate some critical voting blocks in the Biden-Harris coalition. It is indisputable that Black women made a difference in the Georgia runoffs (resulting in a Democratic Senate) and that their voter registration efforts have proven terribly effective. Dump Harris and, even if there were another Black woman ready to step into her place, this block would know that there were seen as expendable. Rubin also talked about the youth vote and the tremendous support Harris has received on her current college tour.2 The Post story linked above ends up quoting Maxwell Frost and a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement. While they might prefer a better embrace of progressive policies, they are in Biden’s camp (but the latter said that Biden could “be younger if he wants”.3
Perry Bacon took on Haley’s critique directly this morning. He makes the point I did at the end of Monday’s piece. What if something happens to Biden in the second term? Harris would become president and she would do a fine job.
Instead, no matter what Biden and official Democratic Party officials say, the 81 million or so of us regular citizens who voted for him in 2020 — and will do so again — should be upfront about Biden’s age and what it means. If you are talking to a friend who is undecided or probably voting for Biden, but worried about him being so old, try something like this: “President Biden is flying around the world, giving long speeches and making tons of complicated decisions. He’s very up to the job right now. I hope and expect he will be able to serve his full four-year second term if reelected. That said, he’s 80 — so no one can promise he will be in great health in 2028. But Vice President Harris of course could step in if needed. She has plenty of experience — and the presidency isn’t a single person anyway. All of the people helping Biden would be by her side, too. And a President Harris would be much better than a President Trump.”
So the search for a different VP candidate who would calm Nikki’s disingenuous concerns is yet another Unicorn to look for.
But maybe another party would be the answer. After all, the polls say that people don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch. Which, by the way, is a stupid question even worse that the CNN would you want someone else question. People may say, “do we have to do this again?” but it is what it is. There are no other options on the horizon.
Libertarian Washington Post pundit Henry Olsen wrote a piece yesterday on why a potential (imaginary?) centrist ticket of Romney/Manchin or Manchin/Romney wouldn’t work. Then he goes on to describe a Unicorn of a third party.
There might be a thirst for a centrism that avoids both parties’ extremes, but it must not be ignorant of our sharp divisions. Rather than settle divisions through deals and forbearance, it must seek to form a new consensus that is grounded in a vigorous definition of renewed American identity.
This new centrist approach would celebrate religious freedom while protecting progressive values free of government interference. It would cut subsidies to the rich while making sure welfare only goes to the “truly needy”. It would build international alliances while maintaining a strong military just in case. It would decide when life begins and solve our abortion conflicts.
While this is a more interesting approach than the No Labels sham, it has a number of problems. There is nobody who is pursuing those policy goals at the national level. There is no organization or state parties. So suggesting a new approach that provides diversion from the Biden-Trump choice is our third Unicorn.
So, if there are no Unicorns out there, what should be done? I’ve recently subscribed to Simon Rosenberg’s SubStack.4 Yesterday’s post was about new data from Navigator Research. One chart he has highlights the advantages Biden and Democrats have on issues of health care, abortion, democracy, and climate change. But there are lagging problem on economic issues. People favor Republican on responding to inflation by 13 points and on jobs by 8. Still, the undecided figures are substantial with 15 on the former and 12 on the latter. Rosenberg writes:
You can see that economic issues dominate now, which is why I talk so much about Dems needing to win the economic argument. We simply cannot have the election we want to have next year and get to 55 if we trail Republicans on the two most important issues for the overall electorate by double digits. We have work to do here, and need to keep focused on talking about and selling Biden’s achievements.
So, in summary, JVL is right that the presidential campaign is going to be Biden and Trump and we just need to accept it. There are no Unicorns hanging around to change the situation. Because a great deal of the party adherents are already committed to their candidate, the battle will be addressed around turnout, what happens in swing states, and the economy.
In the meantime, we can all talk more about what the real issues are. As Biden likes to say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Conversations with friends and family over the next year should be comparing the priorities of the two candidates as we look toward 2028. As JVL says, we don’t need to imagine what those priorities will be. We’ve already seen them.
Another shoutout to James Fallows’ Breaking the News, which observes that understanding how journalists go about their craft explains a lot of what’s wrong.
I think he means “appear younger”
Rosenberg is the democratic pollster who predicted why the supposed Red Wave would not happen in 2022.