In the two weeks since the midterm elections failed to produce the widely predicted Republican wave, Joe Biden has finally met Xi Jinping in person, reaffirmed his “intention” to run again without formally deciding upon another bid, celebrated his eightieth birthday in the most low-key way possible, and married off his granddaughter Naomi on the White House lawn. His relief at not being more decisively rebuffed by the voters midway through his term has been palpable. “The only ‘red wave’ this season is going to be if our German shepherd, Commander, knocks over the cranberry sauce on our table,” Biden cracked at the annual pre-Thanksgiving turkey-pardoning ceremony, on Monday.
From his exile in Mar-a-Lago, meanwhile, Donald Trump has announced he’s an official candidate “in order to make America great and glorious again,” publicly refused to coöperate with the former war-crimes prosecutor whom the Justice Department has appointed to investigate him, and married off his daughter Tiffany in his Florida club. Trump has hit such a rough patch that his other daughter, Ivanka, who served in a top position in his White House, refused even to show up for his 2024 kickoff event. And in case there was any ambiguity about what that meant, Ivanka stepped on Trump’s news cycle with a carefully worded statement clarifying that she had no intention of publicly campaigning for her father this time or aiding his campaign effort.
One of the more entertaining subplots of the post-election politicking this month, in fact, has been the unexpected rise of an entirely new category of Trumpist—the various senior officials of Trump’s Administration who, while unrepentant about serving in his government, now bash him as a blowhard loser. Even the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose efforts to suck up to Trump caused one diplomat to tell me “he’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass” for a Profile I wrote of him, has started tweeting thinly veiled insults at his former boss. After Trump started his campaign by calling himself a “victim,” Pompeo responded, “We need more seriousness, less noise, and leaders who are looking forward, not staring in the rearview mirror claiming victimhood.” A couple of days later, in a jab directed at one of Trump’s most famous boasts, Pompeo added, “We were told we’d get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing. And so are most Republicans.”
Bill Barr hasn’t bothered to veil his insults. Trump’s former Attorney General, who, unlike Pompeo, broke with Trump publicly in 2020 over his “rigged election” lies, scorched the ex-President in a New York Post op-ed on Tuesday. First, Barr reminded readers that Trump was “grossly self-centered, lacked self-control,” and had a “juvenile, bombastic, and petulant style.” Barr acknowledged that, those noxious qualities notwithstanding, he had supported Trump in 2016 and served in his Cabinet. What he finds more unforgiveable today is that Trump, with his “supreme narcissism,” has proved to be such an electoral flop. “It’s now clear he lacks the qualities essential to achieving the kind of unity and broad election victory in 2024 so necessary if we are to right our listing republic,” Barr wrote. “It is time for new leadership.”
Just a few weeks ago, it would have been hard to imagine either Pompeo or Barr publicly flaming Trump like that. Who says elections don’t have consequences?
Yet for all the appearance of tumult in our politics, the past two weeks have also made it entirely clear that the election of 2024 might come down to exactly the same choice as the election of 2020: Biden versus Trump. The American public appears to dread a rematch between its two oldest Presidents, and both of them are viewed unfavorably by a majority of the public. In one survey this fall, just six per cent of voters wanted another Biden-Trump face-off. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It might even be one of the likeliest scenarios.
Some skepticism, of course, is in order. At this point in the 2016 election cycle, Trump was not even mentioned on many lists of serious Republican candidates, never mind as a front-runner. (See, for example, this piece from the fall of 2014, co-authored by Maggie Haberman in Politico, which I edited at the time: some dozen potential candidates were mentioned, but Trump was absent.) In a memorable cover story that October, Time magazine anointed Rand Paul the libertarian future of the Party, branding him “The Most Interesting Man in Politics.” After a strong G.O.P. showing in the midterms a few weeks later, the front-runner label moved on from Paul to a rapidly shifting array of other potential Presidential nominees, including Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida; Scott Walker, the former union-busting governor of Wisconsin; and Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida dubbed “the first real contender”when he launched his campaign.
So much for the conventional wisdom two years out. For now, we don’t know what we don’t know. Will Trump be indicted? Put on trial? One premise of his candidacy, it now seems clear, is his hope that an early announcement would serve as a deterrent—both to potential Republican rivals, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and to the Justice Department, which must soon consider whether to take the unprecedented step of indicting a former President who is again running for the White House. But deterrence doesn’t always work, in foreign or domestic politics—think of Vladimir Putin’s troops marching into Ukraine this February, deterrence be damned. DeSantis may look at the polls, which show him steadily gaining against Trump, and find them irresistible. And what if Trump is indicted? Are we really so sure that Republican primary voters will be willing to go along with a nominee who could end up running for the Presidency from jail?
Another premise seems to have been that the U.S. economy will continue to worsen under Biden, making conditions even more ideal for a Trumpian “make America great again” campaign come 2024. As Trump put it in his announcement speech, “The citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through. . . . They don’t quite feel it yet, but they will very soon. I have no doubt that by 2024 it will sadly be much worse, and they will see much more clearly what happened and what is happening to our country.”
Trump, in other words, is betting on bad times to buoy his campaign and return him to office. But what if there is no recession or, as some economists currently predict, the economy starts to look up again and inflation starts to wane before the next election? Then what?
For all the focus on Trump since the midterms, the biggest unknown remains on the Democratic side, which is frozen for now, pending Biden’s decision on whether to run again. Usually that’s a foregone conclusion for an incumbent President, especially one who’s done as much as Biden has in such politically challenging conditions. But Biden’s advanced age makes this one of the most fraught decisions I can remember a President having to make. Already eighty, and visibly slower than he was just a few years ago, Biden would be eighty-six years old at the end of his second term. Is that a risk that he, or the American electorate, is willing to take?
Politically, there is certainly a template here that suggests that Biden could run and win, even with age as a perceived drag on his fortunes. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan turned seventy-three and was officially the oldest President in U.S. history until that point, his advanced age was—briefly—a major issue in his campaign against Walter Mondale, who was then a young fifty-six. But only until their second debate, when Reagan delivered one of the most memorable one-liners of his political career. “I’m not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” he quipped. Even Mondale laughed. The age issue was officially defused, and Reagan went on to win a landslide victory in forty-nine states.
Reagan also, and hardly irrelevantly, went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after leaving office. The actuarial tables are what they are for politicians in their seventies and eighties. In this case, if Biden were to run against Trump, himself already seventy-six and routinely fumbling with his words, the age issue might simply be cancelled out by the fact that both candidates would be octogenarians in their next Presidential term. Which would not, of course, make it any less risky. But, who knows, 2024 is a long way off. Maybe one—or both—of them won’t even be on the ballot. The point is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Ask President Rand Paul. ♦