American Politics Needs a Freshening Up

From a Washington Post column by Charles Lane headlined “American politics needs to freshen up its menu”:

Midway through the presidential term that began two years ago, the two parties might be on track to offer voters precisely the presidential choice in 2024 — President Biden vs. former president Donald Trump — that a substantial majority do not want. In various ways, depending on methodology, polls by the Washington Post-ABC News, CNBC, Associated Press and USA Today-Suffolk University confirm voters’ unhappiness at the prospect of a 2020 rerun.

Political consultants and pollsters say the message comes through even more clearly when they present the possibility to focus groups. “It’s not just that they’re unenthused,” GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson told me. “It’s like a physical reaction.”

If the two-party system were a restaurant, its menu would be in dire need of a refresh. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have an immediately available recipe for anything new, however, much less a chef who can really take charge and impose change. What’s more, the current, limited offerings have loyal fans who resist experimentation.

The resulting situation might be more fluid than it seems. The party that manages it flexibly could have the upper hand in 2024 or beyond. Each faces challenges in doing so.

First, the Democrats: Biden’s job approval ratings are hovering in the low 40s, and more than half of his party says he should not run. His age is the reason. There’s no gentle way to say it: Even if he avoids a health crisis, his vitality is not what it was, as the mixed results of his ad-libs during the State of the Union on Tuesday showed. Average life expectancy for an 80-year-old male is 8.4 years, according to the most recent Social Security actuarial tables.

Biden is nevertheless likely to run and secure the nomination — probably unopposed. In addition to his own expressed intention, the president’s possible reelection bid has backing from a critical mass of the party faithful, roughly a third, including, crucially, about half of Black voters. The potential alternatives, headed by Vice President Harris — beset by unflattering recent Post and New York Times articles — are younger but present electability problems of their own.

No less a pundit than former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich thinks the president has a good chance at reelection. Having predicted, mistakenly, a huge red wave in 2022, Gingrich has pivoted to warning that the GOP should not underestimate Biden. Are Biden’s polls bad now? So were Ronald Reagan’s in early 1983. He trailed Democrat Walter Mondale — then came back and carried 49 states in 1984.

Decent inflation and jobs numbers, plus a campaign moment that visibly dispels age concerns — such as the 73-year-old Reagan’s self-deprecating promise, in a debate with Mondale, not to “exploit” his opponent’s “youth and inexperience” — could spell victory for Biden.

The problem with this analogy, of course, is that the country is much more polarized along party lines than it was in 1984. “Reagan Democrats” flocked to the Gipper’s banner, but it’s hard to imagine a similar Republican crossover vote for Biden in 2024.

The GOP electorate is hostile to Biden, and it either favors, or at least could stomach, Trump. Hence, even after everything he has put the country through since 2015, and even after his mistakes cost Republicans victory in 2022, Trump leads Biden in some polls. The recent Post-ABC survey had him up, 48-45. Alarmingly for Democrats, that one also showed Trump leading among independents, 50-41.

On balance, though, the Republicans’ predicament might be worse than that of the Democrats. Biden’s implicit appeal — “he may be old, but at least he’s not crazy” — taps the anti-extremism pitch that paid off for Democrats in 2022. The spectacle of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) outbursts during his State of the Union address and Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s lugubrious rebuttal speech unintentionally reinforced that contrast.

Sanders, 40, held out the prospect of a “new generation of Republican leadership.” Major players in the party, such as Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, are trying to steer the nomination away from Trump.

There is clear GOP voter interest in alternatives to Trump, such as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Yet Trump has “a lock” on roughly 30 percent of the GOP electorate, according to a poll for the Bulwark by North Star Opinion Research. In a multi-candidate field, that much support could be enough to win. Trump has pointedly not pledged unequivocally to support the GOP nominee; if he did lose and ran as an independent, these “always Trump” voters could bolt the party with him, according to the poll.

Running almost anyone but Trump in a two-way race against an aging Biden, Republicans might have a better shot at the White House. Alas for them, it won’t be easy to get to that point.

The two parties’ candidate selection processes are ripe for disruption but, for now, incapable of effectuating it. Meanwhile, three key variables will probably shape the 2024 contest: the economy, how fit Biden appears and Trump’s behavior. Biden has at least some ability to affect the first two. No one can control the third.

Charles Lane is a Post editorial writer and a weekly columnist.

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