Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
With so much going on at home, Brits may be forgiven for not noticing the political crisis brewing in America. Nevertheless, last week was almost as bad for Joe Biden as it was for Boris Johnson.
The leader of the free world is coming to resemble that most pathetic of creatures: the first-term lame duck President. Of course, there was always a risk of that. At 79, Biden is by far the oldest person to have occupied the Oval Office. Running for re-election and completing a second term would mean carrying on until he’s 86.
However, it’s not infirmity that looks like dooming the Biden administration, but unpopularity. Last week a Quinnipiac poll recorded a new low — an approval rating of just 33 per cent. That’s lower than at the same stage of Donald Trump’s Presidency. It should be said that Biden does a bit better with other pollsters, but not by much.
There are multiple reasons for what has gone so wrong so fast: the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan; the ongoing Covid crisis; and inflation like Americans haven’t seen in decades. Biden is also having trouble getting his agenda through Congress. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona were elected as Democrats, but on key measures they’ve sided with the Republicans.
Things could go from bad to worse. The mid-term elections coming up later this year could produce Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. That could mean complete legislative gridlock and the confirmation of Biden’s lame duck status.
Still, never mind. At least the old stager’s had his last hurrah. Instead of running again in 2024, he could retire gracefully and everyone would understand. He could simply pass the baton to his much younger Vice President. Kamala Harris is ready-and-waiting to become America’s first female President.
Sounds like a plan. Except there’s one tiny problem with it: Harris is unpopular too. She’s not a calamitous Veep like, say, Dan Quayle; it’s just that voters don’t like her. I think it was Bob Monkhouse who quipped “people like sincerity — and if you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Whether for good or ill, Harris can’t fake sincerity. In fact, she’s hampered by an inability to communicate any sort of emotion without it sounding forced.
She’s a poor campaigner too. Her attempt to win the 2020 Democratic nomination went badly. She was monstered in one of the early debates by Tulsi Gabbard — and withdrew not long after. Luckily for her, the eventual nominee Biden was determined to pick a woman as a running mate and she got the nod. And thus she found herself one heartbeat away from the Presidency.
But for how much longer? Even if Biden runs again in 2024 there’s talk of dropping Harris from the ticket. The idea would be to nominate her to the Supreme Court, while he finds a more popular running mate. If, on the other hand, Biden doesn’t run again, then the Democratic nomination is likely to be contested — and Harris can’t count on a coronation.
Let’s not forget that the current favourite for the Republican nomination is Donald J Trump. Should that remain the case, then the Democrats will be desperate to stop his comeback. If that means dropping a persistently unpopular President and Vice President, then they’d be stupid not to.
And yet that would place the Dems in a difficult position. Holding on to the White House without either the incumbent President or Vice President isn’t easy. In fact, it hasn’t happened since 1928 when Herbert Hoover succeeded Calvin Coolidge — and those, of course, were Republicans.
In 2024, the Dems would have to stand before the American people and say “sorry about the previous President and VP, folks — they were hopeless, but please vote for us again.”
There’s also the risk that, in an open race for the nomination, a candidate from the so-called “progressive” wing of the party might win. The nightmare nominee is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who’ll be old enough to run next time). The Congresswoman may be an ultra-woke firebrand, but she’s popular with the party’s rising generation of millennial activists.
So, in the absence of Biden and Harris, the Democratic establishment would need to pull a really big name out of the hat. Big enough, in fact, to distract voter attention from the party’s disarray and to bulldoze any challenge from the Left.
But who? Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Douglas E. Schoen and Andrew Stein make the case for Hillary Clinton. Yes, that Hillary Clinton — the one who lost against Trump in 2016. They can’t be serious, can they?
Well, there is a case. First, instead of scrabbling around for some obscure Governor or junior member of the Biden administration, the party could put forward a household name. Second, she’s a woman — which would erase the embarrassment of sidelining the first female Vice President. And third, there’s the delicious prospect (for Democrats) of righting the “wrong” of 2016.
But isn’t she just too old and controversial? Not really — at least not anymore. Biden has extended the acceptable limit of age (Clinton is five years younger), while Trump has done the same for disagreeability.
So could we see a Trump-Clinton rematch in 2024? Not if there’s any chance of Trump winning again — she surely wouldn’t run the risk of a second humiliation. However, if the Republican nominee (whether Trump or someone else) looks beatable, then why not?
Indeed, there’s a scenario in which Clinton becomes the best hope of victory. If the Republicans winning a crushing victory in the mid-terms, it may dawn upon the Democrats that the party’s wokeness, which Biden has pandered to, is electoral poison. A particular worry is the Hispanic vote, which is showing signs of a historic shift to the Republicans.
In such a bind, the only way out for the Democrats would be to triangulate between the extremes of Right and Left just as they did in the 1990s under Bill Clinton. So could Hillary emerge as the triangulator of the 2020s?
She starts off with the right ideological bona fides. She’s a moderate, but a liberal moderate. If anyone can talk her fellow liberals back from the edge of lunacy it’s her. Furthermore, she’s tough, outspoken and, most importantly, she’s got nothing much to lose at this stage. Assuming she’s not succumbed to the woke mind virus herself, no one is better placed to save the Dems from their own worst instincts.
Right now, the mainstream reaction to the idea of a Clinton comeback is “you’ve got to be joking!” But by the end of the year it could shift to “isn’t there a better candidate?” If that becomes the question, then she’s in with a shot.