Will we be able to avoid a re-run of 2020?

Associated Press
Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump are shown in a May 6, 2022, split image.

2024 is likely to be an extremely unusual presidential campaign. The two frontrunners for their parties’ nominations, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, are the most unpopular figures in American politics. In the June YouGov-Yahoo News poll, 53 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable opinion of Biden. And Trump? Exactly the same: 53 percent unfavorable. In trial heats for the 2024 election, the two have been running neck-and-neck all year; as of mid-June, Biden averages 42.8 percent support and Trump 42.4 percent.

Several wild-card issues could have unpredictable consequences. The Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade may rally progressive voters. You can’t take away rights that Americans have had for 50 years without provoking a backlash. The three justices nominated by President Trump created the anti-Roe majority. 

The gun safety measure passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden may provoke a backlash among Second Amendment activists. Republican House members voted 193 to 14 against it. It’s a far weaker measure then Democrats wanted, but pro-gun activists are super sensitive to anything that threatens their gun rights.

Then there’s the possibility of a criminal indictment of Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. The evidence is mounting that Trump knew, or should have known, that the 2020 election was not rigged or stolen; nevertheless, he and his allies actively sought to disrupt a constitutional process. Attorney General Merrick Garland could appoint a special prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against Trump, a process that could take two years and blow the 2024 presidential campaign wide open.

A majority of Americans don’t want to see either Biden or Trump run for president again. In the YouGov-Yahoo poll, 55 percent of voters said they don’t want Trump to run again; 64 percent said Biden shouldn’t run. Only 43 percent of his fellow Democrats want Biden to run again. One factor clearly is age. Biden will be 82 years old in 2024. Trump will be 78. Either would be the oldest president ever elected

The result is a lot of whispering and nudging in both parties about finding alternatives. The obvious alternatives would be the candidates’ chosen vice presidents. But Kamala Harris did not show much strength when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020. And her job ratings are no better than Biden’s. On the Republican side, Mike Pence has clearly been damaged by charges of disloyalty to President Trump. Pence committed the unpardonable sin of abiding by his constitutional obligation and presiding over the certification of Biden’s victory.

Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a culture war champion of the right, is becoming the leading alternative to Trump. Interestingly, DeSantis has not asked for Trump’s endorsement in his re-election campaign for governor this year. And Trump has questioned why DeSantis refuses to say that he won’t challenge Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination. DeSantis is positioning himself for 2024 as the non-Trump, not the anti-Trump. He is raking in contributions from Trump donors.

By refusing to acknowledge his defeat in 2020, Trump is aiming to make 2024 a rerun of the last election. That’s likely to be a costly mistake. The 2020 election was a referendum on President Trump. Trump’s flaws of character were the main issue — his coarseness, his abusiveness and especially his divisiveness. Biden’s basic decency offered a telling contrast. At least for Democrats, what defines Biden’s legacy more than anything else is his defeat of Trump in 2020.

Biden told ABC News in December, “Why would I not run against Donald Trump if he were the [Republican] nominee? That would increase the prospect of running. I’d be very fortunate if I had that same man running against me.” Especially given the revelations about Trump’s efforts to sabotage the 2020 election.

Trump seems to be stuck in 2020. The former president has made “the Big Lie” a test of Republican identity. To be a loyal Republican, you have to believe that the 2020 election was stolen — an assertion for which there is no valid evidence. “It is time to move on,” a Republican operative told the Washington Post. That’s true for every Republican but Donald Trump.    

2024 is supposed to be about Joe Biden and his record as president. But Biden could look like a bystander if Trump runs again. Trump’s problem is character. Biden’s problem is weakness. To voters of a certain age, Biden comes across as another Jimmy Carter — weak, hapless and ineffectual. Asked this month whether they see Biden as “a strong or a weak leader,” 61 percent said “weak” and 39 percent said “strong.” The issue that did Carter in? Inflation, particularly gas prices. The current inflation rate is the highest since 1981, the year Carter left office. 

Donald Trump has been called many things, but “weak” is not one of them. The risk for Democrats is something Bill Clinton warned about after 9/11, when George W. Bush was president and Democrats unexpectedly lost seats in the 2002 midterm. Clinton’s assessment: Strong and wrong beats weak and right.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

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