May 4, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Don’t overthink 2024
The choice? President Debbie Downer or President Sunshine.
People ask me whether Joe Biden can win in 2024. The context is usually something about his golden oldie-ness. The occasion is usually some kind of concern-trolling that’s been published by one of the country’s most lucrative media properties. My answer is everyone is overthinking it.
First, Biden is the incumbent. They almost never lose, unless there are conditions beyond anyone’s control. Republican George HW Bush could not keep Ross Perot from running in 1992. An independent rich man who stroked the Republican sweetspot, he took just enough voters away from Bush for the Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton, to beat him.
Incumbents can’t control fluke moments. Neither can they control structural shifts in the electorate. The time before George HW Bush’s defeat was Jimmy Carter’s in 1980, and his one and only term – ask a political historian – was a consequence of a major change in the national temperament, a double reaction to the tragedies of the Vietnam War and the triumphs of two decades of social reform.
The liberal consensus had exhausted itself.
From that arose a new “conservative” era.
Today, you can see that the conservative consensus is now taking its turn. From its exhaustion will arise a new “liberal” era. What “liberal era” means is hard to say, but we can say that, whatever it comes to mean, it will exhibit the values, character and attitude of the first president of that new era. Anything can happen. God forbid Biden dies before getting reelected! But everything about politics right now points to the reelection of a president who’s leading us out of the past.
Meanwhile, the other candidate is stuck in the past. Instead of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his failed campaign, building on the good, getting rid of the bad, modifying where he can, Donald Trump is leaning into this new era (in which a tolerable liberalism is becoming the consensus view) as if history has no consequence at all.
That makes sense.
Donald Trump inhabits an Eternal Present Tense. He does not and will not hold himself responsible for anything. Whatever he said yesterday, well, it never happened. All that matters to his pickle-powder mind is what he’s saying right now, and maybe not even then, given his childish refusal to take responsibility for anything while scrambling to take credit for everything. On a metabolic level, Trump is incapable of leading anyone, much less a country, out of the past, because the past isn’t the past. It never happened. There’s nothing to lead us out of.
Yet even as he fails to lead the country out of the past, he keeps reminding us the present has left him behind. Forgive me for repeating myself but the criminal former president compels me: the GOP used to be the party dedicated to protecting individual liberty from the scourge of Big Government. Under Trump, it became its biggest cheerleader, overshadowing the greenest greenie’s longest longing for it.
Consider this, from the Post: “Trump’s emerging platform marks a sharp departure from traditional conservative orthodoxy emphasizing small government, which was famously summed up in Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address: ‘Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’ Trump, by contrast, is proposing to apply government power, centralized under his authority, toward a vast range of issues that have long remained outside the scope of federal control.”
Isaac Arnsdorf and Jeff Stein reported from the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Trump said, in March: “In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
As Arnsdorf and Stein said, Trump keeps doing this, over and over, adding new layers, building a theme, heightening tension, upward toward what we can only presume is a climax of some kind to his encephalitic reality-TV mind, whose only impact is on the here and now. While he does this, he remind us, again and again, of two factors:
One, that the things he did to become president the first time (2016) didn’t work the second time (2020), yet he’s running for a third time in the same way he ran the first time, because history never happened.
Two, that history did happen on account of Trump sounding nothing like the Republicans of old, who said they stood against all the things he’s calling for. In this sense, he’s deepening the feeling in the electorate that the old ways are gone, that new ways must come, that they can’t come from a guy who inhabits an Eternal Present Tense.
The 2024 election will be a contest between two very old men with very different views. One looks to the future and sees problems but hope. The other sees nothing but doom and gloom. Americans value cheeriness so much, they can’t tolerate another four years of President Debbie Downer. Joe Biden is President Sunshine. Don’t overthink it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.