A year from now lawn signs will be vying for attention with Halloween skeletons and pumpkins. Political analysts will be again grappling with the Gordian Knot of election forecasting: deciphering the meaning of early voting turnout. And Democrats, in predictable fashion, will be hyperventilating over every tenth-of-a-point shift in swing-state polls and national polling averages.
But right now, on the Democratic side, we are still in the test-kitchen phase of the 2024 campaign. Some of the recipes looked better in the cookbooks than when whipped up on the stove. The effort to credit the president with what, on paper, seems like a buoyant economy curdled in the pan. Even though the jobs numbers continue to stun economists, voters have convinced themselves that we are locked in a return to the out-of-control inflation of the late 1970s. Claiming the mantle of Bidenomics doesn’t work for the president when polls show that about 60 percent of the voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy.
That’s why the most intriguing gambit by the nascent Biden campaign was a late-September speech in Arizona ostensibly honoring the legacy of John McCain. The Biden team made scant secret that this speech in Tempe was a dry run for a likely campaign against Donald Trump. And in some of the bluntest words of his presidency, Biden accurately accused the “MAGA Republicans” of “attempting to abuse power … spewing conspiracy theories, spreading lies for profit and power to divide America … inciting violence against those who risk their lives to keep America safe, weaponizing against the very soul of who we are as Americans.”
The Tempe speech, like most of Biden’s efforts, got a one-day blip in the news before it faded from memory. But the importance of the McCain event goes beyond Biden’s specific attacks on the Former Guy: “Trump says the Constitution gives him, quote, ‘the right to do whatever he wants as president.’ End of quote. I’ve never even heard a president say that in jest. Not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency towards fellow Americas but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”
What the speech raised is the potent question: Can the Democrats successfully frame the 2024 election around the quest to preserve our democracy from the authoritarian whims of Trump and his right-wing clones? And will such a stratetgic maneuver be enough to combat swing voters’ persistent belief that the president’s management of the economy has been an unmitigated disaster?
Traditionally, when a president seeks reelection in peacetime, the campaign pivots on his record in office and the economy. Even in 2020, the decisive issue was Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic as he peddled quack cures (remember injecting bleach?) and willful Covid denial.
As with almost all political rules, there is an exception. In his 1964 landslide, Lyndon Johnson turned the election into a referendum on the extremism of Barry Goldwater. While the famed daisy ad—with its powerful imagery of a little girl and a nuclear countdown—was broadcast only once, it reflected the tone of a Democratic campaign out to prove that President Goldwater would bring on Armageddon. In the 1964 election, Johnson and his allies were successfully able to transform the contest into an existential battle between a steady hand and a right-wing senator who talked cavalierly about wanting to “lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin.”
The challenge facing the Biden campaign as it tries to elevate democracy into a central theme for 2024 is that it is difficult to make abstract threats tangible in a presidential campaign. Inflation is real for up-for-grabs independent voters, while the implications of a Trump restoration need explaining.
Biden mentioned Trump by name only once in his speech honoring McCain, preferring to call him “the defeated former president.” But for the Biden gambit to work politically, he probably will need to drop the fake coyness and confront Trump directly. As Trump’s rhetoric becomes even more unhinged and inflammatory—such as the bizarro accusations of treason against General Mark Milley—Biden needs to focus on his likely opponent rather than “MAGA Republicans.” As memories of the January 6 insurrection have begun to fade, Biden in his speech wisely avoided emphasizing the Trump-induced attack on the Capitol and instead focused on more recent affronts to decency and democracy.
Polls, the basis for any Biden campaign strategy, can be confusing on the subject of democracy. A mid-September Quinnipiac University poll found that almost as many voters (26 percent) said that “preserving democracy” would be the most important issue in determining their presidential vote as opted for the economy (33 percent). In contrast, only 8 percent named “immigration” as the most important issue for them.
The problem—and this goes to the core of the challenges facing America in the age of Trump—is that Democrats and Republicans now mean different things when they employ the phrase “threats to democracy.” For Republicans, the concept encompasses election fraud, open borders, and “government control over people’s lives,” according to an August analysis by the independent polling firm SSRS. Democrats (no surprise) worry about efforts to overthrow elections, voter suppression, and extremism.
Obviously, democracy would not be the sole arrow in the Biden quiver in 2024. Voters are certain to also hear about abortion, Republican threats to popular social programs, and Biden’s ambitious plans for a second term. But democracy, as defined by the president in his Arizona speech, has a potency that all the other potential Democratic issues lack because it is the true rationale for Biden seeking a second term in his eighties.
In normal times, Biden may well have fulfilled his long-ago pledge to be a transitional president. In normal times, given his troubling poll numbers, Biden might have been challenged in the primaries by an ambitious Democrat too impatient to wait until 2028. But these are not normal times—and that makes all the difference.
Probably never since the Civil War has America faced an internal threat like a second Trump term in the White House. This time around, Trump would be surrounded by aides who know how to wield the levers of power—and would have no compunction about bludgeoning career federal employees, law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and the media. To update a famous line from Karl Marx, a first Trump administration was a farce, but a second would be a tragedy.
Those are the stakes if Trump is indeed the GOP nominee or if another candidate like bully-boy Florida Governor Ron DeSantis snags the brass ring. That is also the rationale for rallying around Biden—despite his age, his lack of charisma, and the debilitating political consequences of inflation. It is truly a question of Biden versus the abyss.
Not since 1892 has an incumbent president squared off against a former president in the fall campaign. A historical account of that race between President Benjamin Harrison and his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, noted, “The actual campaign was tame.… The fact that each was a former President cut down on the name-calling.”
Bulletin: That historical parallel won’t apply to 2024.
But the no-holds-barred Johnson race against Goldwater might offer a better model. Of course, it’s not the height of the Cold War. But America in 2024 could well be facing the Armageddon of democracy.