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Pre-Season Counts as Much in Politics as It Does in Sports
Much of the nation seems in terror—and has taken for granted—that the 2024 presidential election will be another geriatric joust between an almost 82-year-old Joe Biden and a 78-year-old Donald Trump. After all, Biden is currently unopposed for the Democratic nomination and Trump is farther ahead than Secretariat was when he won the Belmont Stakes by thirty lengths. The media, especially cable outlets, which are forced to cram three hours of news into twenty-four hours of programming, have left many with the impression that the election has already started.
They could not be more wrong. There is no inevitably about either candidate, especially Trump, and assuming otherwise is like deciding that a football team that goes undefeated in pre-season is headed for the Super Bowl.
Cracks have appeared for both and are getting wider, again, especially on the Republican side. Just this past week, an article written by two Federalist Society law school professors insisted that Trump is ineligible to run in 2024 because “former office holders who then participate in insurrection or rebellion,” are prohibited from holding national or state office by Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Days later, in the Atlantic, conservative former appeals court judge J. Michael Luttig and liberal Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, both pre-eminent scholars, supported that notion. This, as I wrote earlier, despite the fact that Trump has not been legally linked to the events in question, a curious omission from the argument.
Regardless, to put their suggestion into motion would a require that a state deny Trump a place on the ballot, leading to an appeal to the Supreme Court. Even as recently as last year, the notion that the Court might have ruled against Trump on such flimsy grounds was just this side of unthinkable. Now, however, four felony indictments later, with the very real prospect that Trump would doom the party in 2024, the Court’s conservatives, almost all of whom owe their seats to Federalist Society lobbying, might well want Trump gone as well.
There is also increasing political sentiment. This week, Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy joined a growing chorus of Republicans who are denouncing a Trump candidacy as a sure loser for both him and the party. Even Ron DeSantis, who does not utter a syllable that he does not think will help him politically, has finally agreed that Biden won in 2020.
Make no mistake. These detractors were not motivated by morality, patriotism, or a belief in the sanctity of the Constitution. If they had been, they would have condemned Trump long ago.
Their real reason is simple.
They are convinced he is going to lose.
If he does, Americans will witness every melodramatic microsecond. In addition to his lead in the polls, most cable news outlets and print media seem to be all-Trump-all-the-time. Every other candidate has been left begging for air time, although DeSantis might have broken through had he not shown himself to be such a laughably inept and personally repellent candidate.
But sucking the air out of the room has its drawbacks. His massive lead and almost total command of the airwaves has created distinct disincentives for Trump to participate in the Republican primary debates, including the one scheduled for August 23 on Fox News. As a result, he has declined to join his fellow aspirants, which will devastate the debate’s ratings and thereby infuriate Rupert Murdoch, not the best way to cultivate the man running the network that arguably made him president in 2016.
But Trump has little to gain by exposing himself. He will be a target for, at the least, Chris Christie (if he signs the pledge), who, while he has next to no chance of gaining the nomination, is a skilled debater and every bit the match for Trump in bare knuckles brawling. There is also the possibility that the moderators, Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum, might press him on matters he would prefer to avoid.
Ceding the spotlight is also not a possibility, so Trump, to feed his poll numbers and his ego, has chosen to stick his thumb in Murdoch’s other eye by airing a competing, pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson, who Murdoch likely loathes. The two are currently engaged in a legal battle to determine whether Carlson can function independently since he is still under contract to Fox.
Murdoch has been playing it cagey as well. On Friday, the Washington Post reported that he has spoken on more than one occasion with Glenn Youngkin, urging him to get in the race. (I’ve written multiple articles on the prospects for Youngkin’s candidacy.) Youngkin has also been cagey, waiting in the wings while the declared candidates bloody themselves up.
Then there is the question of how Trump’s legal troubles will eventually impact Republican voters’ view of his electability. While he is currently outdistancing all his competitors, one-quarter to one-half of Republicans stubbornly refuse to back him, a segment that could easily grow if the party can find an alternative—which such heavyweights as Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and the Federalist Society are now actively seeking out.
On the Democratic side, Biden’s situation is not as dire, but he is also by no means a shoo-in. The fear that he is either fast approaching dotage or has gone beyond it has in no way receded and many Democrats, although dancing around the subject publicly, are clearly hoping he bows out while there is still time to anoint a successor. In addition, the Hunter Biden scandal—and it has definitely risen to that level—promises to become even more tawdry.
Finally, both men are saddled with disastrous unfavorable poll ratings, which plays into the sentiment in both parties that the only Republican Biden will be able to beat is Trump, linking them in a manner each must find perverse.
Given their current positions, Trump and Biden remain the favorites for their party’s respective nominations. But anyone who thinks the pre-season favorite is a lock for regular season success needs only to check out the three major league baseball teams with the highest payrolls—the Mets, Padres, and Yankees. Each was an early favorite to compete in the World Series, but instead each will be trudging home when the playoffs begin.
It is not impossible that Biden and especially Trump may join them.