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A 10-Word Epitaph for Democrats’ Hopes
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A 10-Word Epitaph for Democrats’ Hopes

Special counsel Robert Hur says the quiet part out loud.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on February 8, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

It was the week that Democrats had been waiting for. 

Former President Donald Trump, on the precipice of locking down the Republican nomination, was causing chaos everywhere, while the members of his party in Congress were cutting each other’s throats.

Blundering, cynical, weird, shady, and anxiety-inducing as ever, Trumpworld was back at center stage. The former president’s festering legal troubles were on display as an appellate court tanked his claim of “absolute immunity” from criminal prosecution and the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether he was even eligible to appear on the ballot. Meanwhile, Trump himself was shoving out his party’s elected chairwoman in the kind of petty, vindictive move that defies logic in an election year.

In Congress, the selfish, media-obsessed disunity of a Republican Party that put the speaker’s gavel in three different sets of hands in less than a year erupted again with vesuvian force. 

House Republicans united behind the idea of killing a Senate compromise deal that would have traded increased border security for new funding for Ukraine’s effort to repulse Russia’s invasion and Israel’s war against Hamas. 

Populists in the GOP wanted cover to vote for what many of them acknowledged was badly needed aid to Ukraine, opposition to which the right-wing media has made into a litmus test for ambitious nationalists. So the Senate GOP tried to oblige them, crafting what would have been the toughest border measure in memory and winning enough support from the Democratic majority to get it passed.

But new Speaker Mike Johnson, who has his perch as the result of a coup, was in no position to lead his conference. Members feared not only having to take difficult votes just ahead of primary election season, but that they would be seen as helping President Joe Biden address one of his biggest political liabilities, the widening chaos at the southern border that is spreading across the interior of the nation from mass migration from Central America and Mexico. “A Border Deal now would be another Gift to the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump declared.

To cover their hides from such a nakedly political move, House Republicans teed up a pair of “messaging” measures to try to put some pressure back on the Senate. The first, a doomed, incoherent impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spearheaded by the unquenchably ambitious Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, unexpectedly failed. Whoops. Moving right along, Johnson’s team brought forward a standalone bill for Israel funding … which also failed. 

Rather than denying Biden and Democrats “a gift” on the border and Israel, congressional Republicans gave them cover. And in the process of trying to make it happen, Johnson helped screw up what should be an easy Senate win for his party and sent a further message to reliable, experienced House members that it’s time to head for the exits.  

Kooky candidates, bitter infighting, legislative incompetence, desperate toadying for validation from media demagogues, panicky fear of primary voters, and Trump unbound: That’s an election Democrats can win. They did it in 2018, 2020, and 2022, why couldn’t they do it again?

Even better for the blue team, Biden came into the week fresh off of a big win in the South Carolina primary, flexing American power against Iran, and amid stubbornly good news about the direction of the economy. Yes, the president’s poll numbers continued to be a disaster, but as Democrats looked at the political landscape on Thursday morning, they didn’t have to squint very hard to see how, if the economy stayed afloat, Republican self-sabotage could deliver another win for the beleaguered incumbent.

Then came these words: “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

In November, when we assess why it will have been so hard for Biden to have held on to his job, we will remember that line from special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s mishandling of classified documents. We won’t remember the substance of the report, which found fault but not a crime with Biden’s hoarding of records from his decades in politics. But those words will last.

They will last because they are accurate. In 10 words, Justice Department lawyers summed up the electorate’s correct view of the president as someone unsuitable for the task but hard to fault personally. 

The sinking feeling Democrats had should have been familiar to them. It was the same one they experienced in the summer of 2016 when then-FBI Director James Comey stated a similarly obvious truth about Hillary Clinton’s own abuses of classified materials—she knew it was wrong, lied about it, and tried to cover it up. Comey, in declining to charge Clinton, said something Americans long suspected about the former first lady: Her ambitions outran her ethics.

Like Clinton, Biden went before reporters to try to spin the report as a good thing but ended up mostly reinforcing the most damning part. 

What Biden imagined is that he would deliver such a forceful performance—so full of fire and righteous indignation—that voters would say, “Whoa, the old man’s still got it.” But Biden doesn’t have it, and he can’t fake it. 

Like Trump’s astonishing stumble from the spring of 2020 when he riffed on the use of light and disinfectant to remedy COVID, Biden’s press conference affirmed the worst suspicions Americans have about their commander in chief. Once Biden went off the teleprompter, he lost the thread, mangled facts, and appeared overwhelmed. And in one of the most excruciating moments of political theater I can recall, shuffled back to the podium after initially making his slow-motion getaway.

Trump is an enthusiastic foe of the constitutional order who has proven himself willing to employ any means, including the incitement of violence, to achieve his personal ambitions. His venality, cruelty, and dishonesty are manifest to anyone willing to look. Prominent Republicans who know him, including many who are publicly supportive of Trump, rightfully fear what his return to the White House will bring.

Biden says that the magnitude of the threat posed by Trump is why he had no choice but to seek a second term. He is, no doubt, “well-meaning,” and certainly a “sympathetic” figure. But what the president is not is a person with a true sense of himself and of his condition. And those things will not get any better in the 269 days until the election.

The president is not like Sen. John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat who fought to recover from a stroke in hopes of being restored to his former capacity. There is no breakthrough ahead for Biden, who—despite good days and probably impressive moments in private—is facing only diminishment over time.

If Trump is returned to power, there will be many who deserve blame—the voters, the craven Republicans who abetted him against their own judgment, the media hucksters who went along for the ride—but very near the top of the list will be Biden and his inner circle, particularly the first lady, who did not find the courage and humility to step aside. 


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 40.4%
Average disapproval: 57.2%
Net score: –16.8 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.4 points

Change from one month ago: ↑ 1.4 points

[Average includes: NPR/PBS/Marist: 41% approve-54% disapprove; NBC News: 37% approve-60% disapprove; CNN: 40% approve-60% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 41% approve – 55% disapprove; NewsNation: 43% approve-57% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: CROSSING THE LINE

The Atlantic: “[Football’s] yellow line is refreshingly straightforward, uncomplicatedly great, and massively influential. … The first-down marker was one of the first kinds of augmented-reality technology that spectators had ever encountered, and to this day, it is perhaps the most widely viewed use of it ever. … The yellow line has spawned a whole lineage of so-called digital overlays in other sports that have come to seem about as normal as the original one. Pretty much every broadcast of Major League Baseball these days includes a virtual strike zone. Golf broadcasts use augmented reality to display the ball’s flight path. … They augment reality rather than dilute it with fantasy; they provide information that most people seem to want in a way that is relatively unobtrusive to those who don’t. … Now, however, much of the point of AR is to distract you from reality, not to blend into it.”


POLL: BIDEN, TRUMP DEAD EVEN IN WISCONSIN 

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are tied in a hypothetical rematch in Wisconsin, according to the newest Marquette University Law School Poll. Biden and Trump are each tied at 49% among registered voters in the battleground state where statewide races are often decided by just a few thousand votes. … Among likely voters, Trump leads Biden by 2 percentage points when third-party candidates are an option, which is well within the poll’s margin of error. … The poll highlighted a potential enthusiasm gap in a Biden-Trump matchup. Among voters who are ‘very enthusiastic’ about the election, Trump led Biden by 19 points. But in all other categories, Biden led Trump by an average of 18 points.” 

SINEMA EARNS A LOOK FROM GOP AMID LAKE TURMOIL

Wall Street Journal: “If Sinema runs, it would set off a tumultuous and unpredictable three-way race in one of the nation’s most competitive states. Yet, some Arizona Republicans say Kari Lake’s turbulent campaign provides Sinema with an opportunity if she were to enter the race against Lake and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego. … Lake unsettled some Arizona Republicans by secretly recording and then picking a fight with the state’s Trump-connected GOP chairman, Jeff DeWit. … It is Sinema who is captivating some of the state’s business-minded and politically generous Republicans, according to several top GOP strategists. … The state’s business community—once aligned with the Republican Party—has increasingly supported Democrats in recent cycles. Sinema could earn a larger share because of her willingness to clash with Democrats. … Despite optimism from some, Sinema’s path to re-election would be extremely difficult and time is running short for her to make a decision.” 

Rosendale makes it official: New York Times: “Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana is expected to announce a campaign for Senate as soon as this weekend, torching plans from top Republican officials to avoid a bruising primary battle. … Awaiting the results of the Republican primary is Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat seeking his fourth term. … A coterie of powerful Republican super PACs and some of the party’s biggest donors are pouring money behind [Tim Sheehy]. … But Mr. Rosendale, who has long coveted a Senate seat, hasn’t flinched in the face of an intense flex from both sides of the Republican establishment.”

Bob Casey gears up for McCormick matchup: NBC News: “It’s early — and early polls show Casey with a lead — but even after winning three terms in this purple state, Pennsylvania’s senior senator is bracing for this to be his toughest re-election yet — a combination of expecting a close Trump-Biden redux race and facing a well-funded opponent in Dave McCormick, who lost the GOP Senate primary to Oz in 2022 but is back with party backing and big fundraising. … McCormick, 58, a former combat veteran, is already making retail stops across the state, going after Biden — and by extension Casey — on foreign policy, the economy and the U.S.-Mexico border. … Casey repeatedly sought to separate his race — and his issues — from the presidential race.” 

BRIEFLY

‘None of these candidates’ beats Haley in symbolic Nevada primary—Politico

Marianne Williamson calls it quits—Washington Post

Poll: Dem Suozi narrowly leads ahead of special election for Santos seat—Siena College

WITHIN EARSHOT: THAT’S A BOLD STRATEGY COTTON

“We’ve exceeded my wildest expectations on blocking, because we not only block the Democrat agenda, we block the Republican agenda.”—Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) expresses exasperation after the House GOP lost a vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas


MAILBAG

“You said that ‘After back-to-back losses in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020, the former vice president looked down for the count in his third bid for the Democratic nomination. But a massive win over progressive heartthrob Bernie Sanders changed the contest.’ But why did it change the contest? Not why did he win South Carolina, but why did that change the entire nomination contest? At the time, I don’t recall that the contests after SC were particularly leaning for Biden. So why did Biden winning in SC change all that?”—Anthony Pasquini, Arvada, Colorado

Think about it this way, Mr. Pasquini: Whether it was Rudy Guiliani or Ron DeSantis, the notion of frontrunners or even top contenders persevering without victories has always been a hollow threat. The premise is that candidates with mainstream popularity in their parties can endure repeated losses in the early state primaries but still cash in on that appeal when the map opens up on Super Tuesday and beyond. What happens instead is that repeated defeats change the electorate’s image of a candidate that was perceived as electable and reliable. Insurgent candidates, like Nikki Haley, can suffer defeats more easily because they are blessed with low expectations. But when a candidate is supposed to be a strong horse, failure destroys the narrative. Biden’s 2020 candidacy was premised on the idea that he was the safe, electable choice. Finishing behind the always-insurgent Sanders and even newcomer Pete Buttigieg badly damaged the former vice president’s electability argument. Another stumble in South Carolina would have sent the message to pragmatic Super Tuesday voters that it was time to move on to a more viable option.  

“For us relative newcomers, what’s a Croakano and what makes it holy?  Thanks.”—Paul Williams, Shaker Heights, Ohio

I don’t have a sufficient etymology for the word crokano, Mr. Williams. It is an excited utterance or interjection: a mild oath used in place of a more vulgar or blasphemous word. It came to me as a county colloquialism used by my father and, at least, his father before him. How the word came to turn-of-the-20th century Cumberland County, Illinois, I do not know. There was a popular Canadian board game from the 19th century called crokinole, the name for which is thought to be from the French word croquignole, for a small biscuit. But how that would have made itself into crokano and gotten to the crossroads town of Timothy, Illinois, I couldn’t guess, or it may be a false lead altogether. But as always, I invite you and all our readers to share the regional or family linguistic gems that you treasure with us so we can try to keep them alive.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes, and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the perspicacious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: A LITTLE OFF THE TOP 

President Joe Biden greets staff and patrons at Regal Lounge, a men's barbershop and spa, in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 27, 2024. (Photo by KENT NISHIMURA/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden greets staff and patrons at Regal Lounge, a men's barbershop and spa, in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 27, 2024. (Photo by KENT NISHIMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

This photo of President Joe Biden campaigning at a South Carolina barber shop is a feast for the eyes and an opportunity-rich target for this week’s contestants. But our winner took advantage of the complementary gags about a bald-headed man in a barber chair and our president’s infamous unsteadiness and did it in true caption style:

“Patron shielded from mirror as ‘Take Your President to Work’ campaign goes awry.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Plug Away Division:

“Looks like they moved all your hair down a few inches. If you ever want to move it back, I know a good surgeon.”—Michael Smith, Georgetown, Kentucky

Winner, Taking a Shine to You Division:

“Would I be pushing too hard on the empathy thing if I said I see myself in you?”—Bill Ward, St. Augustine Beach, Florida

Winner, Kid ’n Play Division:

“I grew up in the barbershops—no joke. Every Sunday after Mass, Corn Pop’s Dad would give me a nice, tight fade. It’s where I learned to sing doo-wop!”—Tripp Whitbeck, Arlington, Virginia

Winner, Buddha Bounce Division:

“Can I rub your head? I’m going to need more than a photo op based on these polls.”—Derek Lyttle, Chicago, Illinois


TRANSCENDENT CRUNK 

Consequence: “Back in 2013, Lil Jon famously pushed back against the very idea of meditation with his hit song ‘Turn Down for What,’ but the King of Crunk has changed his tune. According to TMZ, the rapper plans to drop a guided meditation album on February 16th. Reportedly clocking in at 10 tracks, the project is described in TMZ’s report as ‘truthful’ to Lil Jon’s personal life, in which he has focused on fitness and wellness of late. … Though Lil Jon is best known for hyping up fans with songs like ‘Get Low,’ ‘Salt Shaker,’ and ‘Snap Yo Fingers,’ he does have lyrics like, ‘Bend over to the front, touch your toes’ that could actually translate over to his newfound direction. … News of Lil Jon’s meditation album comes ahead of Usher’s Super Bowl Halftime Show this Sunday, where Lil Jon is expected to help the singer light up the stage with a performance of their No. 1 hit, ‘Yeah!’”

Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.