Who Has the Courage to Take on Trump and Biden
Written by ABC AUDIO on December 10, 2022
Last month’s midterm elections jostled but did not dislodge the consensus view in political and media circles that the most likely scenario for the 2024 presidential election remains a rematch of the 2020 presidential election.
So the year is closing with a paradox. There is abundant evidence of the infirmities of the leading figures in both major parties. Yet for the moment the outward indications are that it will be hard to thwart either one for nominations they both want. Especially as reflected in the views of younger voters, the American electorate seems ready or even desperate to move on. But the dynamics of the parties, at least as perceived by a certain class of political professionals, are stuck in place. Trump, of course, emerged from the midterms weaker than he looked before, perhaps emboldening challengers — who will proceed with the knowledge that over seven years he has systematically humiliated every GOP figure who tried to confront him. Biden emerged stronger than before, in ways that have further discouraged potential challengers.
And yet . . . It is easy, in not for attribution conversations, to find politicians and operatives in both parties who remain terrified that Trump could yet regain the presidency. It is easy to find people who believe that Biden, with his advancing age and receding approval ratings, makes the chances of a Republican victory (whether Trump or someone else) more likely. It easy to find people who plainly believe they would be more effective presidents than either man. So far, however, it is hard to find many who seem eager to defy the conventional appraisal that challenging these leaders for the 2024 nomination would be a highly risky proposition—in most cases too risky to take seriously.
Before relinquishing or delaying their ambitions, these potential challengers should refresh themselves on two important features of the last generation of presidential history.
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The first is that four out of the last five presidents reached the office only after ignoring the “consensus view,” “outward indications” or “prevailing wisdom” about their prospects. The willingness to defy smart-set assumptions may be among the most important qualifications for the job.
The second is that when the electorate is eager for change it usually finds a way to get it. This suggests 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 election — that incumbent President George H.W. Bush in the wake of the successful first Gulf War was a prohibitive favorite for a second term.
That was the case also with Barack Obama. He announced his 2008 candidacy while still a newcomer to the U.S. Senate, declining to bow to the widespread belief that the Democratic nomination surely belonged to the better-known Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Eight years later, the defier of conventional wisdom became its enforcer. Obama was the most important Democratic voice nudging his vice president out of seeking the Democratic nomination in 2016. This time, it really was Hillary Clinton’s turn, nearly everyone believed. One of the dissenters was Donald Trump — perhaps the supreme example of how it pays to be contemptuous of the establishment certitudes of both parties.
The last example is Biden himself. As late as February 2020, the very same voices who lately have pronounced him probably unstoppable for another nomination regarded him as a pathetic figure — how sad that he was ending a decades-long career with a string of primary losses. Wouldn’t it be more dignified if he would gracefully step aside?