Should Democrats concede the White House in 2024 to win in 2028?

President Biden speaks in the Indian Treaty Room
Associated Press/Patrick Semansky
The Democratic Party may need to privately concede that the Biden/Harris team cannot win in 2024 and reinvent itself for the 2028 presidential election.

Can you win by losing or conceding an election? Yes.

At the moment, a growing number of people in politics — including many from the left — believe that both the Biden/Harris White House and the Democratic Party are damaged brands.  Granted, in politics the negative can often be flipped back to the positive in a matter of weeks or months. 

That said, people are expressing legitimate concerns about President Biden’s cognitive health; the continuing staff exits from Vice President Kamala Harris’s team, combined with stories of dysfunction in her office; ongoing fallout from the pandemic and the policies associated with it; escalating inflation; punishing fuel costs; supply shortages; rising crime in major cities; serious security and immigration issues at our southern border; the seeming dismissal of parental rights with the regard to the education of children; and a Democratic Party held hostage by the “woke” fringe of its base. All this would seem to indicate that such a turnaround for the current occupants of the White House is unlikely.

What is the Democratic Party to do? Here are three options. 

1. Do nothing and ride the status-quo donkey into the 2024 election. In this case, if one assumes that Biden may not be up to seeking a second term when he is then 83, Harris would be the party’s standard-bearer.

2. Mount a primary challenge to the Biden/Harris team. In this case, one believes their brand is so toxic that the only possible way to retain the White House in 2024 would be to cast both aside in favor of a charismatic, competent challenger.

The party tried this option in 1980 when the Jimmy Carter White House was so battered by negative current events, policy and competence issues that Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy decided to mount a serious primary challenge to his party’s incumbent president. Had Kennedy been better able to answer the simple softball question lobbed at him in 1979 by Roger Mudd from CBS News — “Why do you want to be president?” — he might well have pulled off the victory.

As it was, even with Kennedy’s cringe-worthy answer to the question, he still managed to win 12 primary contests and a vote total of about 7 million to Carter’s 10 million. More than that, Kennedy went into the 1980 Democratic Convention with momentum and didn’t concede to Carter until the second day, after failing to get the nominating rules changed.

Carter did barely manage to fend off the Kennedy challenge, but it was that challenge combined with his historically low poll numbers (ring a bell today, Democrats) that led to crushing loss to Ronald Reagan — who won 45 states and 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. 

Hence, a third option three might be the best course of action for Democrats in 2024, because challenging the Biden/Harris team might very well replicate the 1980 result. The party would never officially concede the general election, but here’s option three:

3. Retain Harris as the “sacrificial lamb” and quietly work to identify candidates for a 2028 ticket and shape an agreement on the voice of the party going forward.

At least for some, the party’s major dilemma seems to be its remaining hostage to the far-left fringe whose progressive ideas don’t match those of most moderate Americans. The Democrats need to create and champion a platform that speaks to the tens of millions of working-class voters who feel overwhelmed by events and bad policies beyond their control.  

Should the party decide to stand up to its fringe and make working-class Americans its true priority, then its leadership might want to reacquaint itself with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and how then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton used that model to win the White House after three Republican landslide victories in a row.  

It was a model that correctly argued that the pulse of the American people did not beat in Washington but in every state, county and city in the nation. Entrenched elites in D.C. had ignored that pulse — as many are doing today. 

In 2009, at an event honoring Al From, the founder and former CEO of the DLC, Clinton said in his vigorous defense of the centrist organization: “I would have never become president if it wasn’t for you. You have evidence that what you did mattered. … We wanted to believe what the DLC had articulated from the beginning: a country of a shared community. We thought we needed to get out of the politics of the past.”

Though the liberal wing of the Democratic Party opposed the DLC, working-class Americans were strongly attracted to its commonsense, pragmatic solutions to everyday problems plaguing their lives.

Can the Democratic Party decouple itself from the miniscule progressive fringe in its ranks to reinvent itself once again as the “Party of the People”? Sinking poll numbers and rising problems would indicate it’s worth a try — and 2028 would be the best time to showcase a new and improved Democratic Party.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration. His latest book is “The 56: Liberty Lessons From Those Who Risked All to Sign the Declaration of Independence.”

Tags 2024 presidential election Biden Bill Clinton Democratic Party Inflation progressives Ronald Reagan Ted Kennedy

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