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Notes from the Front

by David Bender

Jul 7, 2024 | Election 2024

PHOTO CREDIT: 
Below the Sky

These hot, early summer days have brought with them a sudden torrent of fast-breaking political news. Was Biden’s poor showing in the debate an off night, is he failing, can he govern. How will our republic fare following the Supreme Court’s decision granting full immunity to the president for official actions, and how will this finding affect Trump’s ongoing legal entanglements.

The air is thick with armchair punditry. To make better sense of these story lines, we’re asking seasoned political observers to help us understand the underlying dynamics of the election ahead.   A contest which offers, as Mark Green argues in his new book The Inflection Election, a stark choice between democracy and fascism.

David Bender, democratic strategist, political activist, aide to Allard Lowenstein, field operative for presidential campaigns, Air America talk radio host, magazine editor and LGBTQ advocate joins us in this inaugural edition of Notes from the Front, a new Spectator feature that aims to lift some of the fog that hangs over our current politics.

There are now only 121 days remaining until the presidential election on November 5th.

Donald Trump is seeking to duplicate “the Grover Cleveland,” a head-spinning feat of electoral gymnastics in which a candidate wins election as president, loses re-election and then wins back the office.  Cleveland was our 22nd and 24th president. Trump hopes to be our 45th and 47th.

Does the number of days remaining until the election cause a tightening in your throat?  It should, but this next immutable date on the electoral calendar will leave you gasping for air: September 20th.

Unlike the days of Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison (our one-term 23rd chief executive), many Americans now have the ability to cast general election ballots well in advance of the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  Three states – Virginia, Minnesota and South Dakota – begin that practice in just 75 days, on the aforementioned 20th of September.

Which brings us to the stark realization that this race is now a sprint, not a marathon. The Republican National Convention begins a week from tomorrow in Milwaukee (a “horrible city” says the presumptive nominee, gifted from birth with a silver forked tongue in his mouth), while the Democratic Party convenes its own quadrennial gathering in Chicago (who says irony is dead?) a month later, on August 19th.

The title of this column is “Notes from the Front.” Within the Democratic Party, the frontlines are in disarray. Some, like Congressman Lloyd Doggett and former Obama HUD Secretary Julian Castro, are in full retreat from presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, who set fire to his own campaign at the June 27th debate in Atlanta, as if given a match by General Sherman.

Biden’s halting and almost whispered answers which, when they could be understood, were often rambling and disjointed, left a clear majority of the fifty million Americans watching with the conclusion that serving another four-year term was now simply beyond his capability. On the other side of the screen Trump seemed like a cartoon villain who had somehow managed to slither out of the hangman’s noose and slip it around his opponent’s neck, happy to give him all the rope he needed.

In the ten days since the debate, I’ve spoken with multiple sources; some within the campaign, some prominent supporters, and many seasoned political operatives.  Here are the key takeaways:

  • The President’s team has known for months that he is in decline.  To be clear, no one has suggested to me – nor do I believe – that he is unfit to serve out his term. Indeed, it is the strong work ethic that he has brought to the office, in stark contrast to his predecessor, the Chauncey Gardiner of American presidents, that has contributed to the toll on Biden’s vitality.
  • The decision to have him debate Trump this early is viewed as either political malpractice or as a four-dimensional chess move which would, in effect, put the president in check now, leaving enough time to avoid checkmate in November.
  • Talk of the President withdrawing from the race and releasing his delegates at the convention is not idle chatter or a plotline from House of Cards. It is happening at the highest levels within the Democratic Party.
  • The President and his family (the First Lady, his sister Valerie Biden Owens, his son Hunter and his two adult granddaughters, Naomi and Finnegan) remain resolute in their determination to stay in the fight.  The more pressure put on Biden now, the more it gets his “Irish up,” causing him to dig in further.  His answer to George Stephanopoulos’ question during Friday’s interview (scheduled to prove that the debate debacle was an anomaly) strained credulity. When asked if he had watched his debate performance, the President said “I don’t think I did. No.”  The Biden clan remains, understandably, in the first two stages of grief: denial and anger.
  • The next two weeks are crucial.  Both the House and Senate will return to Washington this week, so the flurry of panicked phone calls will now be replaced by equally panicked cloakroom conversations.  At the same time, from Tuesday through Thursday, the President will rise above the political fray to welcome world leaders to the White House for the 75th Anniversary of NATO. This should serve to freeze, if only temporarily, a lot of the public sniping from Democratic elected officials calling on the President to leave the race.
  •  Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries is holding a conference call today with his committee chairs to take their temperature, even as he is being careful not to show his own hand. On the Senate side, Virginia Senator Mark Warner is doing the same with many of his colleagues.  The normally quotable  Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, has been notably quiet after the debate, both in deference to his long-time friendship with Joe Biden in the Senate, and because he is aware of the crucial role he may yet have to play should the subsequent stages of grief – bargaining and acceptance – become manifest within the Biden family.
  • The following week, July 15th-19th is the Republicans chance to publicly crown their felonious nominee and give him hours of prime time to crow about his masterful triumph over his “weak” opponent.  The former reality TV performer and bankrupt real estate developer will allow his groveling would-be apprentices – J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio and Doug Burgum – to fawn for a few more days before choosing one of them as his running mate at the convention. Or, in classic Trump fashion designed to maximize ratings, he decides to cast someone else in the part at the last minute. This is definitely not the week that Joe Biden will do anything to signal he might leave the race.  He cannot – nor will he – be perceived as being chased out by Donald Trump.
  • Which brings us to the weekend of July 21 and 22, slightly less than a month before the Democratic Convention begins.  There are those who believe that this will be the time for the President to decide, as The Clash famously sang, “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?”  There are four people who will have the most influence with the President in making that decision: Majority Leader Schumer, Congressman James Clyburn (who is already on record saying, “We should do everything we can to bolster [Kamala Harris], whether it’s in second place or the top of the ticket,”), Delaware Senator Chris Coons and perhaps most influential of all, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who is the role model for gracefully voluntarily passing the torch to a new generation of leadership.
  • The last time an incumbent president declined to seek renomination was in 1968 when on March 31st, Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation with these words in an address from the Oval Office: “With America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

I was a young volunteer in Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign when we heard those words in the headquarters.  People cheered, jumped in the air and hugged each other in joyous disbelief.  At that year’s Democratic Convention in Chicago, I remember no one was surprised that the deeply unpopular Johnson would decide not to attend his party’s convention, even as he remained its incumbent president.

There will be no cheering and no jubilation if Joe Biden decides to bow out in favor of his vice president. There will be a bittersweet acceptance that time catches up with all of us.  But if that should happen, I guarantee you this — Joe Biden will attend his Democratic Convention in Chicago. And when he walks out to that podium, the cheering will be prolonged and deafening enough to shake the chandeliers in Mar-a-Lago.

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1 Comment

  1. Chauncey Gardner reference … brilliant

    ….but Chauncey had empathy and compassion

    The chandeliers shaking with the thunderous applause to Joe Biden’s standing ovation … brilliant

    Reply

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