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Seven Pillars of Political Wisdom

by Mark Medish

Dec 26, 2023 | Politics

Thomas Hengge

On the doorstep of the long U.S. political season, it’s worth pondering the significance and shelf life of several familiar political maxims. Each contains at least a grain of truth.



Everybody who understands statistics knows this maxim. There is always much more Noise than Signal in the data — and we often do not know exactly what we are measuring. Politics is not physics: respondents often shade their answers, opinions change, new things happen, and underlying conditions can shift. And social media can speed changes of perception and amplify emotions in a miasma of misinformation like never before.

Among many variables perhaps the black box of turnout looms largest. The 2020 U.S. election saw the highest voter participation in a century — 69% of registered voters; the electoral college outcome was effectively decided by about 44,000 votes across just three states.

Opinion surveys may be imperfect, but they also can and do shape perceptions (think push-polls). Without putting a number on it, it is safe to say that President Biden’s reelection is at risk, possibly on the level of the incumbent candidacies of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Much attention has been paid to an early November NYT/Siena poll, which suggested that President Joe Biden lags behind former President Donald Trump by 4-10% in five of six key battleground states that can determine the final outcome in the antiquated and anti-majoritarian Electoral College.

Yet the day after that poll, Democrats enjoyed significant ballot wins in state by-elections, for example in Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

Subsequent national polls have underscored the countervailing trends and uncertain dynamics of public opinion.  Trump may lead slightly with registered voters, while Biden leads with likely voters.

How to integrate these disparate data points? The reality is nobody knows—2024 is up for grabs.

As Hillary Clinton’s campaigns demonstrated in 2008 and 2016, the aura of inevitability based on polling is an illusion in politics.  It could even be good karma to be perceived the slight underdog as Biden appears today.



Both Biden and Trump are ducks, in their own ways.

Trump looks and sounds like a bully, fraudster, national security risk and would-be dictator (at least for a day).  His record as a rule-breaker and norm-flouter could not be clearer. He’s not ashamed about it.

Biden looks and sounds too old, not only because of the number of his years but because of his aura of senescence. Biden himself seems to be aware that his advanced age is a factor, and voters can be forgiven for concern about the age of their pilot.  In 2020 Biden’s advisers implied he might not seek a second term. Recently Biden conceded to donors that he was unsure he would seek reelection if Trump were not running.

To be fair, Biden has sharp moments, such as his quick repartee to GOP hecklers during the State of the Union address, but the wobbly uncertainty of his public performances and his overall seclusion from media grilling have led to friendly calls for him to consider not running. The focus on Biden’s lackluster vice president Kamala Harris further reflects widespread anxiety that Biden may not make it through a second term.

Most Americans do not want a 2020 rematch, but that is quite likely what we will get. In that scenario, partisans are likely to stick with their respective ugly ducklings.

Republican strategist Karl Rove has observed that whichever party manages to put forward a new face will win in 2024. He is probably correct, tantalizingly so.  But who, when, and how? As of this reckoning, Trump dominates his rightist rivals such as Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis, and the increasingly moderate Chris Christie is far from the center of gravity of Republican politics. Democratic governors such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or California’s Gavin Newsom do not have a path to the nomination unless the Chicago Democratic Party convention in August were to be open or brokered for some reason.


U.S. President Joseph Biden speaks as he kicks off the AFL-CIO’s annual Tri-State Labor Day Parade in Philadelphia, PA, USA on September 4, 2023.




Yes, but… Despite much positive news and legislative success, The White House has suffered a major communications deficit on the economy.

While ‘Bidenomics’—a phrase now mostly jettisoned by the Biden campaign—has led to solid post-pandemic growth and soaring jobs numbers and inflation is finally, discernably slowing, prevailing price levels are still a shock to most Americans and interest rates are punitive. Modulation by the Fed could be too little, too late.

Biden had a (potentially defining) positive moment standing up for striking auto unions. But student debt remains high and Biden’s plans for relief were thwarted by the courts.

Averting recession and virtuous commitment to a greener economy are not enough. Biden has had a hard time channeling Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s “I feel your pain” vibe.

There’s also the stupidity problem: the willingness of large numbers of people to vote against economic self-interest and to fall prey to demagogic populism.

The salient point is that issues such abortion and women’s rights (favoring the Democrats) and immigration and law & order (favoring Republicans) are looking like stronger vote drivers than macroeconomics alone.




Voters universally care most about their own households and neighborhoods.

This factor is particularly important in the U.S. due to the electoral college system, which is part of the problematic but seemingly unamendable anti-majoritarian electoral and political architecture embedded in the Constitution. The electoral college, like the Senate, gives smaller states a disproportionate say. The current conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which can decide contested elections as in the case of Bush v. Gore in 2000, has been achieved through nominations by a popular-minority President (Trump) and confirmation by a popular-minority Senate. For more on this theme, a useful guidebook is Tyranny of the Minority by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The bottom line is that a single state or a handful of them can swing an election against even a decisive national majority, as happened in 2000 and 2016.

In recent years the Republicans have generally been better at the game of local politics, and have worked to paint Democrats as an increasingly elitist party preoccupied with nuanced identity issues that don’t readily translate to the kitchen table, and are certainly out of favor with the faith-based voters who now make up the majority of the Republican base. The GOP has invested systematically in taking over state legislatures, county administrative posts and local school boards often with culture warriors and election deniers.

Does Biden have the insight, stamina and time to change this dynamic?



As a corollary of the previous two maxims, this one is usually true too, though only up to a point.

The “turkey shoot” victory of the first Persian Gulf War over Saddam Hussein to defend the borders of the Kuwaiti emirate did not save George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

However, Biden’s approval ratings, stuck around 40%, have never recovered from the August 2021 pull-out from Afghanistan. Social media video images of chaotic evacuation scenes at Kabul airport have proved indelible in the public eye, much like Saigon in 1975 (dooming Gerald Ford) or the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 (dooming Jimmy Carter).

This is ironic because Biden, like Trump, had campaigned in 2020 against ‘forever wars’ and had questioned the grand narratives about transformative interventionism used to sell those wars. Yet Biden has paid the price for following through on his Afghan promise. It turns out that people don’t like the look of defeat.

The irony deepens because Biden has ended up embroiled in two other proxy wars—in Ukraine and now Gaza—plus the ongoing perilous stand-off with Beijing over Taiwan. Biden’s blustery “as long as it takes” rhetoric about defending Ukraine against Russian aggression and his prolonged obeisance to Netanyahu’s toxic leadership in Israel have tested public confidence in his foreign policy strategy.

Whether Biden can convince enough voters that, notwithstanding current geopolitical challenges, Trump‘s isolationism and unilateralism would pose a far more profound threat to U.S. national security interests is another open question.



Keep in mind that October surprises are like Christmas sales—they can happen all year.

What could the surprises be? It’s speculative but candidates include: the impact of AI and “deep fakes,” the related risk of foreign meddling, the possibility of another war (North Korea? The South China Sea? The Red Sea, or the Persian Gulf?), the rise of third party spoilers such as No Labels, Cornel West’s Green Party and the maverick conspiracist Bobby Kennedy, Jr., and the sudden incapacitation of a nominee due to health, incarceration or other adverse legal complications.


WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES - JANUARY 6, 2021: President Donald Trump supporters storm the United States Capitol building.

PHOTO CREDIT: Thomas Hengge



The “die is cast,” as they said in the waning days of the Roman Republic circa 49 B.C.E.

The thing to understand about 2024 America is that the new coup attempt is already under way. January 6 should be understood as a dress rehearsal, as the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has observed.

The sound of splashing water that we hear are horse hooves crossing the Rubicon. Trump and his radical confederates know they have only two outcomes: the White House or the jailhouse.

That’s what Trump meant by “the final battle” when he launched his retributive campaign at Waco, Texas, scene of a bloody stand-off between a cult leader and over-reaching Federal agents 30 years ago.

Trump’s nihilistic rhetoric has sharply escalated over the past two months since his legal problems have mounted. For example, he suggested that former Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley should be tried for treason and executed; he has referred to his opponents as “vermin” and spoken of America’s blood “being poisoned” by immigrants; and he has publicly laid out plans for revenge against his enemies after he returns to power.

Under sway of Trump’s extremism, the GOP has been reduced to a zombie party, dancing to the tune of Steve Bannon, the pardoned puppeteer, and like-minded agitators. The threat of government shutdown and national debt default is their go-to tactic. The unprecedented GOP ouster of their own House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his replacement by an ultramontane backbencher was a sign of willingness to use extreme measures. The governing philosophy is to court chaos.

Some observers take comfort in the fact that Trump is a man of impulse not strategy or planning and that incompetence characterized his presidency. They may underestimate how power politics can play out in the heat of the moment. Lenin once quipped about the Bolshevik coup in 1917 that “power was lying in the street; we picked it up.”

For the first time since the Civil War, Americans must genuinely wonder whether the center will hold.


Mark Medish is a former senior White House and U.S. Treasury official in the Clinton administration and serves as vice chair of PA Group, a strategic consultancy.

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