The Open Road to 2024
The prospects of a rematch on the 2020 presidential race seem to grow dimmer every day. Biden versus Trump? Not likely. And that means an open road for every senator and governor who sees a president in the mirror every morning when they shave (or put on lipstick, even).
On the Democratic side, it's hard to see how Biden turns things around. The economy is heading south -- even Democrats say we're on the wrong track -- and Biden's approval rating is under 40% according to most polls. More troubling still are the number of Democrats who want another choice. According to a much-repeated poll done by The New York Times and Siena College released on Monday, 64% of Democrats want another choice for 2024. The president has claimed that Democrats want him to run, but the numbers don't back that up. It's a set-up for an outsider to knock off the incumbent in one of the early contests, where organization and ideology count most heavily.
Donald Trump is, or should be, in even worse shape. If the Jan. 6 committee hearings do not result in prosecutions of the former president or those close to him, they should at least spell the end of his reelection ambitions. This is a man who tried to subvert democracy. The testimony is damning, and if most Americans didn't watch the hearings, they will certainly see the excerpts if Trump ever runs again. Trump remains the choice of 49% of Republican primary voters, meaning that he is not the choice of half the party, a decrease in his standing.
What that means is that, on both sides, there is at least the prospect of an open contest for the nomination, with a special bonus that, on both sides, there is the opportunity to emerge as a victor by knocking off the party's titular leader. A president can easily lose a primary that he wins; even those old enough to remember might forget that Lyndon Johnson was forced to abandon his reelection campaign because he faltered in New Hampshire, not because he lost. Uncommitted beat the little-known governor of Georgia in the Iowa caucuses in 1976, but the fact that a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter came in second earned him national headlines and launched his White House run.
There will, of course, be the usual grumbling about how unfair and unrepresentative the process is for picking a nominee. Trump and Biden could both win national primaries a lot more easily than they may win Iowa and New Hampshire. That's a fight that has been going on for as long as I've been doing politics, and the result is always the same. No one goes to Iowa and New Hampshire because of the number of delegates they award; they -- and by "they," I mean the candidates, the press, the donors, the organizers, the activists -- work these early primaries and caucuses because of the attention you get and the screening function they play. The early states may not always pick the winners, but they do the job of screening out the losers and awarding much-needed momentum (and money) to those who do better than expected.
So, if not Biden and Trump, then who? We are always looking for the perfect candidate we've never heard of, but if you've never heard of him or her, can they really be ready to be president? The usual source of candidates is the Senate, because the Senate is full of frustrated would-be leaders. The problem is that the Congress as a whole is held in lower regard than your local used car dealer, which is not an ideal base for running. Being a governor is "better" right now; it would have been ideal for Andrew Cuomo were he not Andrew Cuomo, but for now, at least, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California is the candidate from central casting. But it is way too early to place bets, except on the likelihood of a whole new ballgame in 2024.
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