US President Joe Biden’s announcement in April that he would be a candidate for re-election in 2024, and the continuing popularity of former president Donald Trump among hardcore Republicans, make it increasingly likely that the US is heading for a Trump-Biden rematch in the presidential elections next year. The irony is that a number of polls over the past six months have consistently shown that this is just what a majority of Americans do not want to see.
A discredited ex-president who orchestrated an attack on his own legislature in an attempt to steal an election he had lost, versus an octogenarian serving president whose decency is beyond question but whose mental acuity is not? Most Americans want another choice. Trump and Biden each lead in their party’s standings for very different reasons. Biden, as the incumbent, is almost impossible to dislodge and, in all fairness, has been a reasonably successful president in challenging circumstances. Though many Democrats are not happy to be led by someone so old and forgetful—he struggled, when asked by a child, to remember the name of the last country he had visited, just two weeks earlier (it was Ireland)—it is extremely unusual for any party in America to defenestrate its own incumbent president, as senator Ted Kennedy found out when he tried to unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980. In fact only once has a president who was elected in his own right been denied renomination for another term, and that was in 1856. (Four presidents who had been appointed upon the death of the previous incumbent did not win renomination.)
If it were not for his age, forgetfulness, and occasional rambling, Biden’s record is good enough to sustain the argument that, like all but one of his predecessors, he deserves another term.Meanwhile, roughly four in 10 Republicans do not want Trump (“a sociopath who has incited violent sedition against the government of the US”, as one critic dubbed him) as their party’s nominee.
The Grand Old Party (GOP), as it is known, has descended in recent years into a right-wing rabble sustained by a Trumpist personality cult as rabid as Bolsonaro’s in Brazil was. The party’s institutions, and therefore its presidential nomination process, are controlled by diehard Trumpians, whose zeal, bordering on irrational, gives Trump the votes he needs in the party to prevail. Defeating Trump for the nomination would not be easy for any other candidate, because he would face the fanatic opposition of the Trump devotees, who constitute the GOP’s base voters today.
Barring the risk of the various court cases against Trump making it legally and politically impossible to renominate him—something that at the moment seems unlikely, since the cases have only increased Trump’s popularity among the faithful—the nomination is safely his.Indians should not care unduly, because both Biden and Trump have been pro-Indian in orientation, and hostile to our principal adversary, China.
But what should interest us is the muted reaction Biden received to his announcement that he would continue with Kamala Harris as his running-mate. Harris is faring even more poorly in the polls than Biden, which is hard to imagine since his approval ratings are near record lows for an incumbent. But the vice president’s numbers are among the worst of any incumbent vice-president since such polls began to be done. Harris is widely considered to be a fairly lacklustre vice president, prone to making gaffes when unscripted, and with a history of staffing problems that suggest poor management ability. All this matters because of the fear that as understudy to America’s oldest president, she would have to step into his shoes were anything to happen, and there are widespread doubts of her ability to handle the job.
Many Americans (most prominently former New Jersey governor Chris Christie) have been saying openly that they will not vote if the election is Biden versus Trump again. But abstention is no solution in any democracy: staying away from one’s democratic responsibilities is not a responsible choice. But that it is even being considered is a measure of how unappealing are the alternatives confronting America’s voters next year.