In 1888, James Bryce, an Oxford historian and member of Parliament who would later become Great Britain’s ambassador to the United States, published “The American Commonwealth,” a perceptive survey of US politics in the last half of the 19th century. In the book’s best-known chapter, Bryce attempted to explain why Americans so infrequently sent “great and striking men” to the White House.
In a country that more than most was open to success through merit and in which there was no shortage of political ambition, he wrote, “it might be expected that the highest place would be won by a man of brilliant gifts.” And yet, with rare exceptions, the voters kept electing mediocrities. “Who now knows or cares to know anything about the personality of James K. Polk or Franklin Pierce?” asked Bryce. “The only thing remarkable about them is that being so unremarkable they should have climbed so high.”
If that was true in the 1880s, it seems even more indisputable today, as two of the most uninspiring, second-rate presidents ever elected prepare to run again in 2024.
When it comes to contemporary politics, Americans don’t see eye-to-eye on much. But they agree by large majorities that Joe Biden and Donald Trump should not be seeking another term as president. An NBC News poll released last Sunday found that 70 percent of respondents, including 51 percent of Democrats, believe Biden shouldn’t run for reelection. Similarly, 60 percent of Americans — including 1 out of 3 Republicans — think Trump shouldn’t be trying to return to White House.
Of course, both men are running for president in 2024. Biden made it official last week, which means that his renomination at the Democratic convention in Chicago next summer is a virtual certainty. He has no serious primary opponent, and if he did it likely wouldn’t matter: The last time a sitting president was denied his party’s nod for another term was 1884.
Trump does face credible primary opponents, both announced and likely to announce, including former South Carolina governor and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and former vice president Mike Pence. Thus far, though, Trump leads nearly every survey of Republican primary voters, and he has been endorsed by dozens of incumbent GOP governors and members of Congress.
So here we are: The election rematch America doesn’t want is shaping up to be the one it gets. In 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton were repeatedly described as the two most disliked presidential nominees in living memory. Eight years later, the same scenario is unfolding again. Only 38 percent of Americans view Biden in a positive light. Only 34 percent have a positive view of Trump.
Is there no way out?
At this point, only death or disability will keep Biden off the 2024 ballot, so Americans can avoid another Biden vs. Trump contest only if Republicans say no to the former president.
There are excellent reasons for them to do so, beginning with the fact that nominating Trump is the best way to ensure Biden’s reelection.
If Biden and Trump are next year’s nominees, they can count on the votes of their respective parties’ most loyal voters. But the key to winning will be swing voters — and most of them recoil from Trump. It isn’t just that Trump is viewed favorably by even less of the electorate than Biden. Rather, as Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio noted in The Wall Street Journal, when voters who dislike both Trump and Biden are asked whom they would cast a ballot for if they had to choose one or the other, Biden is the overpowering favorite, 54 percent to 15 percent. That’s why Democrats hope and pray that Trump is the GOP nominee.
Make no mistake: There are strong arguments against reelecting Biden. His spending has fueled the worst inflation in 40 years, his handling of Afghanistan was a fiasco, he has presided over an alarming spike in violent crime, and, contrary to the moderate image he cultivates, he has gone along with many of the most radical priorities of his party’s left wing. Above all, there is his advanced age — Biden is the oldest man to assume the presidency, he would be 82 at the start of a second term, and Vice President Kamala Harris is painfully unready for prime time.
But however strong the case against Biden, the case against Trump — the only president who ever tried to overturn an election, the only one to be twice impeached, the only one to call for suspending the Constitution, the only one to be indicted on criminal charges — is far stronger. If Trump is on the ballot next year, Republicans up and down the ballot will be forced to campaign with the shackles of Trump fatigue clanking around them. If Trump isn’t on the ballot — if the GOP instead picks a standard-bearer who is more appealing and less bizarre — everything changes. Biden will still have the advantages of incumbency, but Republicans will have a much clearer path to recapturing the White House.
Nothing unites Democratic voters like their loathing of Trump. Democrats nominated Biden for president in 2020 because they concluded — correctly — that he had the best chance of ousting Trump. They suffered minimal damage in last fall’s midterms because numerous Republican candidates endorsed by the former president went down in defeat. After three consecutive election cycles — 2018, 2020, 2022 — in which Trump proved to be an electoral liability for Republicans, will the party really be so foolhardy as to hitch the GOP wagon to his falling star again?
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.