Democrats insist President Joe Biden—who would be 82 if he’s sworn in for a second term and 86 if he finishes it—will be their nominee next year. “President Biden remains a healthy, vigorous, 80-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency,” the White House physician, Kevin O’Connor, said in February.
Talk on the record to any adviser, bundler, consultant, office-holder, or office-seeker, and they’ll echo O’Connor, or at the very least insist that it’s going to be Biden. Guaranteed.
Quietly, they’ll admit that, sure, maybe Biden’s not as sharp as he used to be. Okay, maybe he’s just a wee bit elderly. (Lest you’ve also been asleep, see The Free Beacon’s “Joe Biden’s Senior Moment of the Week.”)
But hey, they’ll point out, just look at the many lapses and gaffes of the former and possibly future Republican president, who was indicted—for the fourth time—late Monday by a grand jury in Georgia, for trying to overthrow the 2020 election. Donald Trump, they note, would also be in his eighties by the time his second term ends.
For most of us civilians, that’s cold comfort.
Which is why we couldn’t help but notice when California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom recently challenged Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to a debate. Isn’t that the kind of thing presidential hopefuls do? (DeSantis, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, certainly thinks so. He suggested Newsom “stop pussyfooting around” and challenge Biden.)
It’s why every story that dribbles out about the president, his son, Ukraine, the Department of Justice—well, it makes one take note.
As many as 70 percent of voters—including 51 percent of Democrats—have said Biden should step down. They’re wondering the same thing perhaps you are: Who would be the nominee if it’s not Biden? Who could it be?
“These parlor games might be fun for some to play, but Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee!” Lis Smith, the savvy Democratic strategist who advised Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, told The Free Press in an email.
But to the rest of us, to the voters of all political stripes who fear the country is mired in its own Leonid Brezhnev moment—with a doddering head of state propped up by loyalists terrified of losing power—you’re (we’re) not crazy. You’re just a normal person and not a fixture of the Democratic establishment whose future earnings capacity depends on your willingness to pretend up is down and hope that America skates through a presidential election and another four-year term without any major hiccups.
So let’s play the parlor game! Let’s consider six alternatives to the seamless, move-along-folks-there’s-nothing-to-see-here re-anointing the White House is counting on.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
When he announced his candidacy with a rambling, two-hour speech in mid-April, RFK Jr., 69, immediately took off, and by mid-May, he was polling at 20 percent among Democrats.
He invoked the idealism of his martyred father; he was vigorous (can you do push-ups like this?); and he had a way of connecting voters with a longed-for past while pointing toward a better future—one that marked a return to the economic populism that once made the Democratic Party a nationwide force, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the election of Bill Clinton.
Above all, he was a disrupter who was happy to buck—no, offend—the establishment, which was (presumably) why Jack Dorsey passionately endorsed him, Elon Musk was playing footsie with him, and Joe Rogan had him on his show.
If Americans could elect Trump, why not RFK Jr.? If they were down with a reality television star, why not a lawyer and an environmental activist with a shiny last name?
The conspiracy theories were sort of understandable when you considered that, when he was nine, his uncle was murdered, and when he was 14, his father was, too.
Still, to RFK Jr., every problem we face has always been the fault of the CIA and probably a few publicly traded corporations. “It’s the same kind of forces that have been dominant in this country since my uncle’s assassination,” he told me.
Even so, the super PAC supporting him raised nearly $6.5 million in July, and his supporters are devout. Yes, of course, he’s still a long shot. But that he’s tapped into something big and deep is undeniable.
A few years ago, the 54-year-old Minnesota congressman was in Beverly Hills at a lunch with supporters, and someone asked him: What’s the hardest thing about running as a Democrat in the Age of Trump?
Phillips replied, “Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.” When both presidents entered the White House, he explained, they were middle-class; by the time they left, they were millionaires. That wasn’t how politics was supposed to work. Their success was evidence of the system’s failure.
It’s unclear whether Phillips—who came out of the blue in 2018 to defeat a Republican incumbent by 11 percentage points—is serious about challenging Biden for the nomination, but we know he met with potential donors two weeks back in New York to gauge interest.
And last week, in an interview with CNN, he urged Biden to “invite people” to challenge him for the nomination. Is he one of those people?
“I think I’m able and prepared for the job, but I’m a third-term congressman, I have 60,000 Twitter followers and $250,000 in my campaign account,” he said. “There are people ready to go.”
But he hasn’t ruled out running. As he told Axios: he’s “not closing the door, but holding it open for others.”
This much is indisputable: Phillips knows business—he successfully ran his family’s business, Phillips Distilling Company—and he grasps that Americans’ underlying problems are economic, not cultural. Voters want affordable healthcare; they want the swamp drained (Phillips doesn’t take money from political action committees); they do not want to defund the cops.
Publicly, most elected Democrats have been mute since Phillips suggested Democratic voters deserve a presidential primary. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz called the congressman “a distracting issue” and suggested everyone “stays in their own lane.”
But Gregg Hurwitz, the best-selling novelist who helped Phillips with messaging during this 2018 congressional run, told me: “This is the mind game a lot of Democrats play. Anything that distracts from the accepted party line enhances Trump and hastens the end of the world. A lot of people, me included, are like, ‘Fuck you. We need a battle of ideas.’ ”
Of course the 55-year-old California governor wants to be president. Of course he hopes Biden steps down. Of course he’s pledged not to challenge him. In June, Newsom said he wouldn’t challenge the president on “God’s green earth.”
But that doesn’t mean, given enough prodding, the governor wouldn’t do exactly that. (The textbook definition of a politician is he who can do whatever he’s literally just sworn he would never do. And Newsom isn’t just any politician. He’s Mr. Covid Lockdown Dining at the French Laundry.)
Isn’t that the point of the proposed debate with DeSantis? To manufacture a showdown between two potential presidential gladiators, to make influential Democrats salivate, to make them wonder what it would be like to run this guy instead of the incumbent? To make them jump on a Zoom with Sacramento and pledge to launch a super PAC that would spend $50 million, $100 million—whatever it takes—to win the nomination and save America from Trump II?
It cannot be an accident that two of the three states Newsom proposed for his debate with DeSantis are Nevada and Georgia—among the first four in the Democratic primaries.
Democratic bundlers privately insist this is all about 2028, not 2024. “Newsom is doing this to raise his national profile given his presidential ambitions,” one Democratic bundler texted me. “He will destroy DeSantis.”
Another chimed in: “He hates him. And he wants to be at the on deck circle if something goes askew with Biden.”
And then there’s the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat that most influential, wealthy Democrats would actually love to see run for president.
“We had an event for her,” one bundler in Los Angeles told me. “She’s fantastic.” Everyone else I spoke with said more or less the same thing. “So smart.” “So dynamic.” “So much energy.” (Whitmer is 51.)
Just like the California governor, Whitmer insists there is no way she’s running in 2024. She just got reelected. She’s focused on her constituents.
But she also just announced her new political action committee—the Fight Like Hell PAC, which is focused on abortion rights and will enable Whitmer to raise money for Democrats nationwide and rack up lots of favors.
And, as the governor notes, she did recently win reelection. By 11 points. And she helped take back the state legislature—in Michigan, a must-win state that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 and Joe Biden narrowly flipped in 2020, winning by 154,000 votes.
Yep, Biden could do it again. But he could also lose. As of early August, polls showed Trump tied with Biden in Michigan.
If the West Virginia senator runs for president on the nonpartisan, or post-partisan, No Labels ticket, he wouldn’t be a Democrat—so, strictly speaking, he’s not really a Democratic alternative to Biden. He’s just an alternative.
But he’s a Democrat right now—a powerful one. And even though he seems to offend pretty much every progressive in America, he descends from the old, economic-populist tradition that RFK Jr. and Dean Phillips think the party needs to return to.
Democrats’ response to this so far has been, no surprise, to attack Manchin or No Labels.
“I became very familiar with No Labels right after the 2016 election,” a Democrat close to Vice President Kamala Harris texted me. “On paper, it sounded like an amazing organization. Bringing people back to the middle. After meeting with them a number of times, both in D.C. and Los Angeles, it was painfully evident to me it’s a shill for the Republican party.”
But didn’t Manchin co-author the Inflation Reduction Act—Biden’s No. 1 accomplishment to date? And didn’t he oppose Donald Trump 50 percent of the time when Trump was president? True, he supported him 50 percent of the time as well, but that hardly makes him a “Republican shill.” It makes him a Democrat from a state that Trump won by nearly 40 points in 2020.
Biden’s term ends prematurely
This seems the likeliest scenario, because there are a lot of things that could go south between now and the first Democratic primary, on February 3, 2024, in South Carolina. The Hunter Biden probe could turn up something really devastating (consider Friday’s announcement that the attorney general is appointing a special counsel to probe deeper into Hunter’s various shenanigans). Biden could get tired of the three-ring circus and step down. He could get seriously ill. He could die.
All of which would mean Vice President Harris becomes President Harris, and the Democratic field cracks wide open. Then we’re talking about every Democrat who’s ever aspired to the Oval Office: not just Newsom and Whitmer, but Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Mark Kelly of Arizona, probably a tech billionaire or two. And perhaps AOC, who will turn 35 on October 13, 2024.
That scenario, hard as it may be to fathom right now, is hardly outside the realm of possibility. There’s plenty of time; South Carolina is nearly six months away.
“What is undeniably true is the economic numbers are frankly borderline awesome, and the political numbers are borderline terrible,” veteran Democratic strategist James Carville told me. Biden’s approval rating stands at 41.2 percent—lower than every president at this stage of their term in the past 75 years except for Jimmy Carter, who lost his 1980 reelection bid badly.
There is, about all this, an analogous disconnect that one encounters these days in corporate-progressive-identitarian circles across America. The pretending. The acting as though something obviously or probably not true is, in fact, completely true, and any questioning of that supposed truth isn’t just ill-informed but heretical:
The 45th president of the United States was obviously a Russian agent.
Those who even considered the lab-leak theory were obviously trying to veil their anti-Asian hate.
Gender-affirming care for children was obviously good medicine.
Defunding the police would obviously make cities safer.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion complex was obviously a good investment, making all of us less systemically racist.
The Hunter Biden laptop was obviously a nonstory.
The climate alarmists were obviously right that our planet was on schedule to implode shortly.
Until, suddenly, quietly, all those stories started to collapse.
Right now, a story is being told about Joe Biden: that he is the only one who can save us from a second Trump administration; that literally anything that distracts from that mission amounts to a crime against the Constitution; that we can go back to serious elections with candidates in full possession of their faculties only after the republic has been saved.
That’s the lie of the illiberal faction trying to pull the proverbial wool over a nation’s eyes. The best time for a serious election with the very best candidates is right now. It is never tomorrow or the next cycle or the cycle after that, and anyone who says as much is propagandizing for a faith, not a politics or program that might actually deliver us from our many demons.
Peter Savodnik is an editor and writer for The Free Press. Read his piece about RFK Jr. and the Populist Wave here.
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