Friday, February 16, 2024

Her Emails - Again?

Eight years ago, the U.S. electorate was asked to choose between a predictable, neo-liberal, internationalist Democrat and a pseudo-populist, neo-isolationist demagogue. And so, to help voters in their discernment, mainstream media endlessly obsessed about the Democratic candidate's emails. There were, in fact, many issues worth debating in 2016. If, however, the proverbial visitor from Mars had been dropped to earth for the election, he or she might well have concluded that the single most important issue - and without doubt the most serious challenge facing the United States that year - was Hillary Clinton's emails.

And now media coverage is doing it again. This time it is not Hillary's emails but President Joe Biden's age, which is the media's fixation. Forget that Biden's opponent in the election is just a few years younger and if elected will also be in his 80s by the end of his term. Forget too the Biden, whatever his physical frailties, has governed like a normal president (and actually governed quite competently and successfully), while his opponent sounds increasingly unhinged and is facing four trials for 91 criminal indictments. 

Media malfeasance undoubtedly helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, and may well do it again in 2024. That said, that is the political universe which we inhabit at present. Somehow or other, Biden and the Democrats must defuse the age issue in some way and get on with the campaign.

Perhaps, in an ideal world Biden would have been satisfied with one term, as some supporters may have hoped he would back in 2020. The problem with that, of course, is that, in American politics, a one-term president is inevitably remembered as a failure. History may treat George H.W. Bush better than his contemporaries did, but that is no compensation for being remembered first and foremost for having lost re-election. It is hard enough, if you are the sort of person who has spent much of your life imagining Hail To the Chief was composed just for you, to choose not to run again. It is even harder to do so knowing that any such decision would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, a harbinger of historical failure.

Perhaps, Biden could have gotten away with it if he had declined to run in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterm election, in which the Democrats did very well. (Had the Democrats done badly, as had been expected, there might have been more pressure on Biden to withdraw, and any such withdrawal would almost certainly have been seen as an acknowledgement of failure.)

And, perhaps, Biden will follow Ross Douthat's recommendation and announce his withdrawal at or just before the Convention and throw the Convention open to choose the party's candidate. While it might be nice to see the Convention reclaim its historical role, that would be a scenario at least as risky in terms of defeating Donald Trump as Joe Biden's running against him. And, however attractive Douthat's scenario of an open convention, it remains extremely unlikely that Biden will actually do it - or that many in the party would really want to sail out into such uncharted waters. After all, it is not the case that there is any obvious alternative for the party to rally around, whose electoral prospects appear any better than Biden's. (That, of course, highlights a larger problem in American politics of a lack of obvious heirs to replace the current ruling gerontocracy.)

So, in the real word in which we live, Joe Biden will be the candidate of his party, and the fact that he is old must simply be factored in - like Hillary's emails in 2016 - as an unfair burden to be borne by the campaign. (Hopefully, however, with a less spectacularly catastrophic outcome!)

It has been suggested by some that maybe some of the (artificially inflated) anxiety about President Biden's age is symbolic of other concerns, in particular the sense that Biden represents - and is overly wedded to - a 20th-century style of politics, which may have made sense when Biden entered the Senate 50 years ago but which no longer describes the way Washington and political parties work now. There is some truth to that, of course.  I certainly think Hakeem Jeffries may have a better appreciation of the full meaning of Republican MAGA intransigence than Biden does. On the other hand, Biden has accomplished a great deal - perhaps more than any president since LBJ. If only that message were as interesting as his emails (I mean, his age)!

Underlying all this is the perennial problem that, whereas Democrats really want to fall in love, Republicans are more ready to fall in line. There are still some less than fully MAGA Republicans around, most of whom, however, will faithfully endorse Donald Trump by Election Day, if they have not done so already. On the other hand, disgruntled Democrats are a common occurrence and appear perennially prepared to imperil their candidate's and their party's prospects by attacking their own leadership instead of attacking the opposition. And the Democratic coalition is basically looser and harder to hold together against the bizarre attractiveness of third-party candidates or the seemingly greater satisfaction of staying home rather than voting at all. Republicans are just better at supporting their candidates and their party than Democrats are. And, if the Republicans win again this year, that may well be the main reason why.

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