America’s decision tree has gone horribly awry.
The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, but the Constitution and the two-party system rest on a central Madisonian idea: make politics safer and more boring. James Madison wouldn’t put it that way, though John Adams might.
Both our formal and informal political decision-making processes are designed to force a lot of debate and contemplation, to secure buy-in from diverse coalitions of interests and stakeholders. One reason for constitutional checks and balances is to make sure that momentary popular passions don’t overpower reason with demagoguery.
The parties, meanwhile, are supposed to pick candidates who are the least objectionable to the broadest array of interests within the party coalition. Even the primaries—which I loathe—were intended to give geographically diverse voters a chance to see if a candidate has the temperament and character to be president. They’re also supposed to give the press and other institutions an opportunity to vet candidates before they get the nomination.
None of that is happening.
Let’s start with the Republican front-runner. A majority of Americans think Donald Trump—a twice-impeached former one-term president—should be criminally prosecuted for trying to steal the 2020 election and fomenting a riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Already under indictment in New York in a fraud case, with more serious indictments likely, Trump on Tuesday was found liable for sexual abuse claims and defamation—to the tune of $5 million—in a civil lawsuit.* In that case, Trump repeated under oath that he couldn’t have raped E. Jean Carroll because “she is not my type.”
As for preventing popular passions from overpowering decision-making, Trump is now openly running on a vow of retribution. He has rhetorically embraced the worst actors during the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, promising pardons and an official apology for everyone. Recently, he literally embraced—i.e. hugged—a convicted rioter who says that anyone who helped certify Joe Biden as president should be executed for treason.
As for vetting a candidate’s character and temperament, partisans now care only about that as a weapon against the other team.
A primary reason Republicans have been rallying to Trump is that they believe he’s being treated unfairly by the system. Trump, who has admitted to being “the most fabulous whiner,” leans into this dysfunctional rationale constantly. He recently repeated the claim he’s been treated worse than Abraham Lincoln, who, you may recall, was assassinated. Put aside the contestable claim that Trump is being treated unfairly, how is being picked on a qualification for being president?
Then there’s Joe Biden, who turned 80 last November. His approval rating in a Washington Post-ABC poll is at a devastating new low: 36 percent. Most Democratic voters do not want him to be president again. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think he does not have the “mental sharpness” or “physical health” to be effective. And, he’s losing in a matchup against Trump.
But, so far, his only competition for the nomination is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine gadfly, and Marianne Williamson, a self-described “spiritual guide.”
Biden’s legal and ethical lapses may pale in comparison to Trump’s, but they’re not trivial. His son Hunter is clearly a deeply troubled man who, along with the president’s brother, has traded on the family name to rake in millions from Ukrainian and Chinese interests.
Joe Biden denies any wrongdoing and any knowledge of wrongdoing, but only people inside the Democratic bubble think none of this is a political problem for a candidate who struggles to maintain composure—or recall details—when his, or his family’s, integrity is questioned.
Biden may be okay for 80, but he’s still one fall or one recession away from an implosion in public confidence.
In short, we are on track to have a presidential contest between a whiny, disgraced, septuagenarian, characterologically unfit former president and an octogenarian incumbent who a majority of Americans believe is not mentally sharp enough for the job. Each has an incentive to run against the other because their best shot at winning is having the other as an opponent.
As someone who thinks it would be truly dangerous to put Trump back in power, I think it’s truly irresponsible to run Biden against him. There’s still time to avert a no-win scenario, but that would require party leaders to lead.
If these two old men end up being the nominees, the party hacks will insist it’s a “binary choice,” as if that excuses their role in putting us in such a calamitous predicament in the first place. It’s not supposed to be like this.
Update, May 10, 2023: This piece has been updated to reflect the verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against Donald Trump.