The Memo: 2024 chatter reveals Democratic nervousness

Greg Nash

Speculation has begun about the 2024 Democratic presidential ticket, almost three years before the election. 

Some of the suggestions are blasted as risible. But the early chatter itself reveals the nervousness that permeates the party.

In the past week alone, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman held out the possibility of anti-Trump Republican Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) being added as President Biden’s 2024 running mate.

A Wall Street Journal column by Douglas Schoen and Andrew Stein posited the possibility of a third Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy. And a thinly source suggestion that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) might make her own quixotic run lit up social media Friday.

All those ideas were met with ridicule from many quarters.

But more serious discussions are simmering in Democratic circles, especially if Biden does not seek a second term.

Would Vice President Harris be too flawed a candidate? Would a more left-wing figure such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) be a better standard-bearer? Would other contenders more in line with Biden’s centrist politics such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) be viable?

Straddling the line between reality and fantasy is a long-cherished notion for many Democrats: a Michelle Obama candidacy. The former first lady would be a formidable contender. But she has been crystal clear in statements stretching back years that she has no interest in elected office.

Harris, in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show earlier this week, dismissively discounted Beltway “high-class gossip” about the 2024 ticket.

Yet the gossip will pick up steam unless Biden’s troubles ease. 

Inflation is at its highest point in 40 years. The pandemic is resurgent. The White House’s quests for voting rights legislation and the Build Back Better bill have fallen short so far.

In a Quinnipiac University poll this week, Biden’s approval rating was a miserable 33 percent. Even though that survey was an outlier, the president’s standing in the polls is poor. Data site FiveThirtyEight put his average approval rating at 42.2 percent on Friday.

Then there are the constant mutterings about the most sensitive topic of all: Biden’s age and vigor. If Biden sought reelection and won, he would be 82 by the time of his second inauguration.

Some Democrats admit the worries go deep — even if they pin the blame on overarching circumstances rather than failures or frailties on Biden’s part.

Nervousness within the party “is pretty understandable under the circumstances,” said Texas-based Democratic strategist Keir Murray. “The election was pretty close in 2020, relatively speaking. We are still mired in COVID. And the economic and other societal effects of that have made the public at large pretty unhappy with the status quo. To some extent, Biden is suffering from that.”

Murray and other Democrats who spoke to The Hill stressed that they took Biden at his word that he intends to run in 2024.

If he were to decline, he would become the first incumbent since President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 not to seek a second term.

Johnson’s decision to stand aside — largely a response to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War — sparked a bitter Democratic primary in which Vice President Hubert Humphrey eventually prevailed. Humphrey was beaten by Republican Richard Nixon in the fall.

Veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf recalled the “scramble” that ensued following Johnson’s decision. Sheinkopf also noted that then, as now, the nation felt close to being torn asunder by winds of societal conflict and change.

Right now, he said, “the fact that the incumbent president and vice president perform so badly in public opinion polling leaves room for everyone else to be a contender should Biden not run.”

Under better circumstances, Harris would be the clear heir apparent to Biden. But some missteps in media interviews, staff shake-ups amid reports of discord, and a failure to make tangible progress on her signature issues of migration and voting rights have fed a sense that the vice president has underperformed.

If Biden were to bow out, “I don’t know necessarily that Vice President Harris would be the first choice of everyone in the party,” said Murray. “There would certainly be some that would get behind her, but others would step to the forefront, too. It’d be pretty chaotic.”

In that hypothetical, Democrats would face an agonizing choice: go with a nominee about whom they have serious misgivings or allow someone else to wrest away the nomination from the nation’s first Black female vice president.

Amid the early speculation, some voices urge a look at the bigger picture.

Strategist Joe Trippi, who has worked on presidential campaigns for Democrats for several decades, argued that the fate of the next election would be determined by the big, underlying trends more than by the identity of the party’s candidate.

“2024 will be decided by one question: Was Joe Biden’s presidency successful?” Trippi said. “It might not matter who the nominee is.”

Trippi pointed out that some millstones weighing Biden down now could easily be lifted before 2024 — COVID-19 and inflation, in particular. 

If the pandemic is a receding memory, the economy is booming and no other crises intervene, he said Biden would be in prime position for reelection and “there might be a whole bunch of Democrats hoping and praying that he doesn’t run, thinking, ‘I want a crack at this.’” 

But conversely, if inflation is still elevated or the overall economy had soured, Democrats could be doomed whomever they put up.

In that scenario, “people are really going to say, ‘Well, OK, but Hillary might run’?” Trippi asked with a derisive laugh. “There’s no friggin’ way Hillary will run! That’s stupid.”

Democrats are also vigilant about another specter: a comeback for former President Trump, who has maintained his grip on the GOP, has built a considerable campaign bank account and is returning to campaign-style rallies this weekend in Arizona. 

If Trump runs again, Democrats will regard defeating him as an existential necessity for the nation.

There may be almost three years to go. But the odds, and the scale of the stakes, are already causing plenty of Democrats to fret.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Amy Klobuchar Donald Trump Douglas Schoen Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Kyrsten Sinema Liz Cheney Michelle Obama Pete Buttigieg

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