by Gene Lyons
Maybe it’s my advanced age talking, but I doubt very much that the conventional wisdom regarding the 2024 presidential election will play out as expected: that is, as a Biden-Trump rematch with the Democratic incumbent winning another relatively close reelection bid.
As The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle has put it: “We appear to be heading for a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump that almost no one wants except the candidates.”
Maybe so, but I’d say the odds are against it. Possibly that’s because I’m also a serious baseball fan, and I’ve noticed that the experts are most often mistaken. The New York Mets were supposed to be serious World Series contenders; instead, they’re holding a trade-deadline fire sale. It takes more than high-dollar free-agents — especially ones over age 35, who tend to get hurt a lot …
But speaking of old age, back to the presidential contest. With several months remaining before even a single vote is cast — although you’d never know it from the daily media racehorse coverage — from a strictly actuarial point of view, there are any number of things that are quite likely to happen that would change everything.
At the rate that 70- and 80-something-year-old public figures are, let us say, leaving the conversation, you’d be extraordinarily foolish not to notice. Living in her hometown, where she went to school and college, my sainted wife keeps in touch with a lot of old friends. Suffice it to say that for the high school class of 1961, the news is largely medical, and most of it is bad.
President Biden graduated from high school in 1961; former President Trump in 1964. Both appear in good health, but that could literally change in a heartbeat. Of course, we’re all hostages to fate, but it’s strange nevertheless watching the American political system churn heedlessly onward as if the most obvious thing in the world can’t possibly happen.
Headline in The New York Times: “Can the Race Really Be That Close? Yes, Biden and Trump Are Tied.” According to a Times/Siena College poll of registered voters, the two old-timers are deadlocked at 43%. This has a fair number of Democrats running scared.
My friend Michael Tomasky of The New Republic speaks for them all: “There is still a reasonably good chance,” he writes, “that this madman, even if convicted of federal crimes, will win next November. About 35% of the country adores him. Another 12% or 13% will vote for him against Joe Biden (or any Democrat) simply because they’re Republicans.”
Although I could list several Democrats I’d prefer should Biden somehow falter, I think Tomasky’s wrong. The Trump who spends most of the next year and a half as a criminal defendant can’t help but emerge a much-diminished figure. On trial, Trump goes from actor to acted upon. From subject to object. He can’t swagger sitting at the defense table, and he can’t wear his ridiculous red hat.
He can’t give judges derisive nicknames, and no way can he bully an experienced federal prosecutor like Jack Smith. As he can’t possibly stand up to cross-examination, Trump’s lawyers would be mad to let him testify. Given the voluminous documentary evidence against him in the purloined documents case, an ordinary defendant would be well-advised to cop a plea and hope for mercy.
Even so, as former Texas GOP congressman Will Hurd argues, Trump’s mainly running for president to avoid prison. The problem there is that even if you buy the constitutionally absurd proposition that a newly elected president could pardon himself from federal crimes, he can’t evade state charges for trying to fraudulently overturn Georgia’s 2020 election. No easy way out there.
Somewhere along the way, the Trump cult could abruptly collapse — a far likelier outcome than the former president being acquitted in the documents case, much less in the even more consequential Jan. 6 charges. You can find Republicans who pretend to believe this is all a “Deep State” conspiracy against Trump, but in the watches of the night, most know better.
A left-wing FBI? Not on this planet.
Meanwhile, you’d think that the recent revelation that Trump’s political action committee — the one soliciting cash from small donors to finance his election campaign, but instead spending some $40 million paying the supposed billionaire’s criminal defense lawyers — would put a crimp in his fundraising. It certainly won’t help.
Conservative columnist Henry Olsen thinks it’s reasonable to see Trump as a victim of Democratic hostility, but also believes he’s apt to withdraw his candidacy: “Even a man of his colossal ego and willpower might eventually decide to save his own skin rather than press his luck.”
Quit and admit defeat? He’ll move to Moscow and campaign from the Kremlin first.
But one way or another, I suspect that the dread Biden-Trump II rematch isn’t going to happen.