For more than a year, a prominent subplot of the coming 2024 election has been the wide chasm in enthusiasm between many Democratic voters on the one hand, and party elites and donors on the other, for president Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. Yet a spate of recent stories suggests that chasm may be slightly narrowing.
This isn’t because Democratic voters have come around en masse to Biden running again. Surveys continue to show that his own party’s voters would prefer someone else run in his place, that a large share of them don’t like his handling of the economy or think he’s too old to serve a second term, and that core parts of the Democratic base that put him over the line last year — Africans Americans, Latinos, young people — look like they won’t be turning out in the same numbers next year.
No, that gulf in attitudes is closing because it seems at least some establishment voices are starting to move closer to voters. The most eyebrow-raising example is a piece earlier this week from longtime Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, gently but urgently begging Biden to step aside. After a lengthy preamble heaping praise on the president, lauding his accomplishments, and assuring readers of his admiration for the man, Ignatius confesses that he thinks neither he nor vice president Kamala Harris should run for reelection.
“It would be a wise choice for the country,” Ignatius writes, before outlining the “two big liabilities” Biden would carry into the 2024 election, starting with his age. (The other is Harris herself, whom Ignatius correctly notes has “failed to gain traction in the country or even within her own party.”)
There’s a reason why Ignatius’s column has made headline news. Not only is he, as Axios put it, one of Biden’s “favorite” columnists, someone who’s gotten to know the president better than most others thanks to the more than forty years they’ve spent together in the furnace of Washington. He’s also someone who continues to break major stories about what the current administration is thinking and planning thanks to his access within the Biden White House and across the US government.
That Ignatius would express such reservations suggests that he’s either worried enough about Biden’s ability that he’s willing to risk jeopardizing those relationships — or, more drastically, that his dour view is more widely, if quietly, shared by Washington’s power brokers than we know. Going on the proudly Biden-loyalist Morning Joe on MSNBC, Ignatius hinted as such, mentioning as his rationale for writing the column that this past summer, “I haven’t gone anywhere in the country, I haven’t talked to any group of people, where this issue . . . hasn’t been a centerpiece of conversation.”
“I’d be surprised if you and [Morning Joe host] Joe [Scarborough] and the people you talk with are not discussing it in private,” Ignatius added to cohost Mika Brzezinski. “I find everywhere I go it’s a subject.”
Unease at the Top
Ignatius’ column isn’t the only hint this might be the case. Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported in July that Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN) — a centrist who in August called on “well-positioned, well-prepared” Democrats to mount a challenge to Biden while predicting a “grave risk of another Trump presidency” if the president ran in 2024 — was getting “inquiries about his willingness to challenge Biden” and was headed to New York to “meet with Democratic donors about such a race.” Phillips later said that he never did go to New York, but conducted the meeting over Zoom, and that “if they’re asking me, they’re asking everybody — and I know that they are, by the way.” He made clear in that interview that his lonely public intervention was “just giving voice to private conversations.”
Before that, this past June, the New York Times reported that “unease about Biden’s age suffuses Democratic circles,” noting that “among party donors it was all anyone was talking about,” and that a group of former Democratic elected officials from Biden’s generation agreed at a private dinner that “he was too old to run again.” That report explicitly stated that the president’s staff “make what they consider reasonable accommodations not to physically tax an aging president,” including by scheduling the bulk of his public appearances between noon and 4 p.m. — something that would be notably difficult to do on a grueling reelection campaign — and by not disturbing him on weekends, most of which Biden happens to have spent out of the White House and in his house and beach property in Delaware.
In fact, the proliferation of such articles in the paper of record — noting Biden’s memory-related stumbles, reporting that his travel schedule is organized to fit a diminished energy level, and outright stating that he’s “generally a five- or five-and-a-half-day-a-week president” — are themselves a hint there’s wider unease about the president among the liberal establishment. Recall that when Biden was just another candidate in the Democratic primary and not favored to win, Democratic officials and pundits openly commented on his difficulties, until he became the nominee and such talk was banished.
This past September 11 alone saw three separate articles in the Times lightly questioning Biden’s fitness, noting his meandering performance at a press conference in Vietnam where, among other things, he again let slip that his staff prearrange which reporters he calls on. In April, the president was caught at a press conference holding a cheat sheet telling him in advance what a reporter he ended up calling on was going to ask him.
In light of all this — as well as in light of Biden’s frequent unexplained public disappearances during the 2020 campaign and his team’s near-unprecedented efforts to keep him away from unscripted interactions with reporters the past three years — we shouldn’t be surprised if the public and, apparently, Democratic elites privately wonder if there’s something they’re not being told about goings-on in the White House. But more pertinent is what it all says about the nature of the US political process and, particularly, the workings of the Democratic Party.
“The Nominating Process Is What Brought Us Donald Trump”
The bubblings of elite unease about Biden running again come at the same time party officials are acting to ensure he’ll be the nominee without challenge — from refusing to schedule debates with his primary challengers (even though they outpoll the GOP challengers who appeared on the debate stage last month) to rearranging the primary schedule in a way advantageous to Biden specifically, but nonsensical and potentially damaging to the party’s long-term success. This is bigger than Biden, too. The obviously ailing and unfit Dianne Feinstein — who is suffering from such advanced dementia that she doesn’t recognize colleagues and has to be told on the Senate floor by her staffers how to vote — is currently a sitting senator only thanks to a ploy by former House speaker Nancy Pelosi to try and install her own preferred successor in her place.
The party establishment’s skepticism of democracy was, fittingly, on full display in Ignatius’s Morning Joe interview. When Brzezinski asked who other than Biden could put the United States “back on a track to lead on the world stage” the way Biden had, Ignatius had to remind the hosts that “the thing about the democratic process is it yields answers to questions like that.”
“I don’t have the confidence that David Ignatius has in the nominating process, because the nominating process is actually what brought us Donald Trump, and is gonna bring us Donald Trump again,” replied Claire McCaskill, a former elected official herself who now does commentary on the network. “So it’s flawed.”
This is, after all, a party that had to be forced to abandon an outrageous rule in its nominating process allowing party elites to overturn the will of voters in primary contests, and which demonstrably put its thumb on the scales behind the scenes in 2016 to get the nominee it wanted (a nominating process that, incidentally, resulted in a disastrous election loss).
What makes the establishment’s no-one-but-Joe stance even more absurd is that the Democratic Party does have, for the first time in a while, some genuinely accomplished elected officials who could run in Biden’s stead. Those include Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (who repealed her state’s right-to-work law, restored union rights for teachers, and implemented other progressive reforms), Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker (who, despite being a billionaire, put in place his own right-to-work ban, a $15 minimum wage, recreational marijuana legalization, and a state-level Green New Deal, among others), and Minnesota governor Tim Walz (who recently signed into law measures ranging from restoring voting rights to felons and statewide paid family and medical leave to $1 billion for affordable housing and a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers).
So why, then, are Democrats stuck with a candidate that voters and, increasingly, party elites themselves aren’t happy with? Part of it is the undemocratic behind-the-scenes maneuverings from Biden’s loyalists that we’ve already discussed. But part of it is also the unofficial omerta that Democrats and their media arms have placed on criticizing, let alone challenging, Biden, usually through heavy-handed accusations of helping Trump or any number of malevolent forces behind him, and the threat of being turned into another Ralph Nader should the sitting president eventually lose. Taken together, it makes a mockery of the “Democratic” in the party’s name, particularly as the party’s leaders posture as brave defenders of American democracy.
Maybe this will all change if Biden’s poll numbers continue to trend the wrong way. But the party may well have created a monster it can’t control.