If you’re not particularly concerned about the immediate future of the United States, or if you don’t really think who’s president has much to do with it, the next two years ought to be a fascinating and tantalizing experience. It’s likely to be that way for the rest of us too, except we’ve also doubled down on which individual, or at least which party, we want to win the presidency in 2024.
Here’s the rub: the Democrat and Republican candidates with the biggest downsides, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, respectively, may very well emerge as the party nominees once again, the first time that happened in major party presidential politics since Democrat Adlai Stevenson lost to Republican Dwight Eisenhower in two landslides, in 1952 and again in 1956.
Except things were very different back then: Ike was the incumbent and the president with the broadest interparty appeal since Theodore Roosevelt. He was unbeatable and, had he been a decade younger, Republicans surely would have clamored to repeal the 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to two elected terms, so that Ike could run for a third.
Stevenson was considered by many to be the most qualified person to run for president in the 20th century. In fact, major party presidential debates founder Newton Minow created the process specifically to benefit Stevenson, who was considered more articulate than Eisenhower, as a method to win the election (a delay caused the debates’ rollout to be deferred until 1960).
This time around, though, Biden is anything but a popular president. His approval ratings are stuck in the 30s, and three-quarters of the country thinks America is on the wrong track. A year ago, I wrongfully assumed that if we lifted ourselves from our pandemic plight and the restaurants, bars, beaches, and stadiums refilled with joyfully maskless Americans, people would consider themselves better off than they were under Trump. Biden, of course, would have deserved next to none of the credit, but, like Bill Clinton in the 1990s when the Internet took the world by storm, would have gotten it because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But you can set your watch to how ungrateful Americans can be: two years ago, they might have said: “let all this virus stuff go away and we’ll be happy to survive on nuts and berries and ride around on bicycles.” But, now, inflation dominates the public’s concerns, and they’re not likely to give Biden a second chance.
Paradoxically, while Biden remains the Democrats’ biggest liability, he’s the only one at this point whom the party trusts to bring home the grand prize a second time – at least as compared to the rest of the field. Sure, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, or Pete Buttigieg sounds like an interesting prospect to emerge as the party nominee, but after a few seconds of daydreaming, reality sets in and the Democrats chicken out.
On the Republican side, the problem is very different. Some are beginning to point out the 500-pound elephant in the room: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is rapidly gaining national appeal, much of which because of his state’s pandemic policies. While some vilify him as criminally negligent in response to a deadly virus, many more became attracted to his leadership and migrated to Florida from other states simply to live under his governance (it can’t be the sun and the beaches that caused the mass migration, because those have always been there).
I’ve spoken to many people who would vote for DeSantis in 2024 in a heartbeat, but refuse to vote for Trump even if it means that Biden gets a second term. But DeSantis fully realizes that Trump made him: he was polling horrendously in 2018 while running for governor, and Trump’s strong and early support caused him to leap above his Republican rivals to capture the party nomination and eventually the general election.
Granted, DeSantis’ political superstardom is self-made, but if it wasn’t for Trump, he never would have had a spotlight under which to shine. And if DeSantis didn’t know that, Trump surely would remind him – and the American people – every day.
For that reason, DeSantis may stick to his word and not run for president in 2024 if Trump runs, and the latter has all but declared.
Speaking for those of my fellow Republicans who don’t want to see the Dems control any branch of government, but think that a milquetoast duplicitous establishmentarian Republican like Mitt Romney or any of the Lincoln Project characters would be almost as bad, we’re torn between DeSantis and Trump. In DeSantis, we pick up never-Trumper swing voters and hardly lose any of Trump’s base in return. We make it hard for the Democrats to excoriate DeSantis without making themselves seem like pathetic, sore losers. Thus, we might actually get a president who is both capable and doesn’t have to fend off concerted efforts to destroy him every second of the day.
In Trump, though, we get satisfaction. Some think Trump actually won the last election (I don’t), while others (such as me) think the Democrats won by getting enough gullible Americans to despise him from day one, and using their limitless arsenal of the media, academia, and Hollywood to convey that message. To watch the expressions on their faces as Trump takes the oath of office yet again is almost worth knowing what an uphill battle he’d face a second time, whereas DeSantis might actually enjoy a presidential honeymoon of some sort (like every president before Trump did).
Trump or DeSantis? It’s a tough choice, but a happy problem.