Before giving up or delaying their ambitions, these potential challengers should refresh themselves on two important features of the latest generation in presidential history.
The first is that four of the last five presidents have only reached office after ignoring “consensus”, “outside guidance” or “mainstream wisdom” about their prospects. The willingness to challenge the assumptions of the smart set may be one of the most important qualifications for the job.
The second is that when the electorate is hungry for change, they usually find a way to get it. It suggests that someone is going to try this and do better than many people expect.
This was the case with Bill Clinton. He took the Democratic nomination in 1992 only after more established and seemingly formidable figures in his party declined to run, apparently on the belief – which seemed plausible enough a year before the election – that incumbent President George H. W. Bush following the success of the first Gulf War was a prohibitive favorite for a second term.
This was also the case with Barack Obama. He announced his candidacy in 2008 while still a newcomer to the US Senate, refusing to bow to the widely held belief that the Democratic nomination surely belonged to the better-known Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Eight years later, the defier of conventional wisdom has become its enforcer. Obama was the most important Democratic voice that pushed his vice president not to seek the Democratic nomination in 2016. This time it was really Hillary Clinton’s turn, almost everyone believed him. One of the dissenters was Donald Trump – perhaps the supreme example of how it pays to disregard the certainties of the establishment on both sides.
The final example is Biden himself. As recently as February 2020, the same voices that recently declared him likely unstoppable for another nomination saw him as a pathetic figure – how sad that he ended a decades-long career with a series of primary losses . Wouldn’t it be more dignified for it to gracefully fade away?
This time around, all sorts of ambitious next-generation Democrats, from Gavin Newsom in California to Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, and many others, stayed out of the race out of respect for Biden. Logic apparently has two pillars. The first is that Biden — following Democrats’ above-average all-time performance in recent midterm elections — is actually much stronger than previously assumed. The second is that when incumbent presidents are challenged within their own party, it usually helps the opposition party in the general election.
The two pillars seem to be shaky. It’s true that Democrats exceeded expectations last month, and it’s also true that young voters turned out in greater numbers than usual midterm. It is also true that Biden has not been well received by Democrats to campaign for them in the hottest races. His approval ratings, usually in their 40s, are lowest among younger voters. Nor was Election Day filled with dire omens for Republicans eager to part ways with Trump. Republican governors who distanced themselves from Trump in Ohio and Georgia easily won, as did Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who drew Trump’s ire while striking the same deals of populist resentment that fueled the Trump movement. Their success in electoral states does not portend an easy presidential election for Democrats two years from now.
As for the conventional view that nomination contests are bad for incumbent presidents – like Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Bush in 1992 – these presidents are more likely to be challenged because they are weak, rather than the nomination contests have left them fatally weakened.
As for Trump, the current speculation is that he could lose the GOP nomination to someone – possibly DeSantis. — but would likely win it if challenged by a bunch of someone, splitting the anti-Trump vote.
Collectively, this has created a situation that my colleague Jonathan Martin, channeling Oscar Wilde, calls “the bipartisan truth that dare not speak its name”: many people from both parties want to drive the leaders off the stage, but cannot find the courage to do this.
It recalls the first time in the modern era that the political class was engrossed in the question of whether an incumbent president could be challenged. Early in 1968, Robert Kennedy wondered if he had made a mistake in not running against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. Another Democrat, Eugene McCarthy, was gaining momentum on an anti-Vietnam War platform, winning support from voters whom Kennedy believed were naturally his own. He wanted to hear an esteemed voice from an earlier generation, the aging columnist Walter Lippmann. In an exchange documented by both men’s biographers, Kennedy explained why LBJ’s war policy was a disaster. Then he explained why a contestation of the nomination would probably be futile.
Lippmann just listened quietly, until Kennedy asked him directly what he thought. “Well,” replied Lippmann, “if you think Johnson’s re-election would be a disaster for the country – and I completely agree with you on that – then the question you have to live with is whether you did everything you could to avert this catastrophe.”
Kennedy eventually ran, before an assassin shut down his campaign in June 1968. Lippmann’s question, however, should echo any politicians who think he or she should be president rather than Biden or Trump. – while waiting for time on the sidelines. .