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Biden and the Blank Space 
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Biden and the Blank Space 

Progressive activists in Michigan are mounting a write-in campaign for ‘uncommitted.’

President Joe Biden arrives to give remarks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 16, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In 10 days, President Joe Biden will face primary voters in Michigan and confront some familiar challenges: apathy among younger, nonwhite voters and outrage over Israel’s U.S.-backed war against Hamas, particularly in Michigan’s substantial Arab-American community.

But what he won’t have will be challengers. Gadfly Marianne Williamson has dropped her bid following a 2 percent showing in the South Carolina primary. Remarkably, the candidate who finished behind her, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who carded 2,240 votes out of more than 131,000 cast, is pressing on. Say what you will about a guy who keeps running after he loses to a write-in candidate and finishes third behind a faith healer, but you can’t accuse him of being a slave to public opinion.

Michigan might have been a good opportunity for Phillips, a young, energetic, self-funded congressman from a nearby state running against an unpopular, enfeebled incumbent. But Phillips, pro-Israel and proudly Jewish, seems a very unlikeley vessel for for the protest votes of the fellas in Dearborn chanting, “Intifada, intifada” at rallies. 

But neither does Phillips seem interested in giving Biden much trouble with young progressives, using the occasion of the president’s painful press conference in response to last week’s special counsel report to appear on Fox News to lament Biden’s age and infirmity. He’s got all the young Democratic primary voters who were tuned into Jesse Watters Primetime locked up for sure …

We see again how valuable for Biden it has been that he doesn’t have a single credible primary challenger to his left. Every day Sen. Elizabeth Warren must imagine how different things would be if she had taken the plunge and opposed Biden. He might be out of the race already.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t yet be.

The effort by Team Biden to turn the report from special counsel Robert Hur judging Biden to be a “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” into a vehicle for anger and partisan outrage achieved only modest success

There were a couple of problems. First, the central claim from the president as a basis for the anger—that Hur had been grilling the president about the death of his son, Beau—seems to have been false. Second, Hur wasn’t saying anything that almost every Democratic official in America hasn’t said in private. It was the three years of trying so mightily to portray Biden as a robust, younger-than-his-years icon that hit a false note, not the 10 words from a government lawyer.

The other effort has been essentially to say, “Oh, yeah? Well, Donald Trump is a codger, too. And if it’s between the two of them, better to at least have a codger who is sympathetic and well-meaning.” That’s not a terrible argument, but it is one that quickly confronts some sharp limitations, chiefly that Trump has always been unhinged

Americans met Trump as a political figure in 2012 when he was hawking the worst kind of race-baiting, conspiracy-soaked offal in the form of an “investigation” into whether Barack Obama was a stealth Kenyan. When Trump’s Republican rivals tried to suggest that Trump had “lost a step” as a way to equate Trump and Biden without having to directly tackle the former president’s obvious, long-standing characterological deficiencies, it didn’t wash. Trump is very much still the man Americans have gotten to know and mostly dislike. Biden, on the other hand, is obviously very different from the man they knew in 2012.

For a long time, though, Democrats had mostly been able to present a united front about Biden’s age and infirmity. With the exception of Phillips and a handful of others, Biden has mostly gotten the Fabergé egg treatment, being carried carefully through the process as something fragile, priceless, and irreplaceable. Indeed, had Biden not looked so vulnerable he would have gotten a primary challenge from Warren or another progressive firebrand attacking him as a corporatist, centrist sell-out. But who wants to be the one to try to break a president so, well … sympathetic, well-meaning, and elderly? That’s especially true if the result of a primary fight is to help Trump return to power.

But what if Biden is a sure loser anyway? I don’t think that’s the case, since we’re only at the beginning of the many, many humiliations to which Trump will subject Republicans. But in a race to the bottom, don’t underestimate bottom-feeders. The argument for Biden as “the most electable” is looking pretty grim these days.

What we’re seeing now is a shift in the Democratic elite to take more seriously how, at this late date, to move Biden aside.

Here’s Ezra Klein in the New York Times: “I am convinced he is able to do the job of the presidency. He is sharp in meetings; he makes sound judgments. I cannot point you to a moment where Biden faltered in his presidency because his age had slowed him. But here’s the thing. I can now point you to moments when he is faltering in his campaign for the presidency because his age is slowing him.”

This threads the needle pretty well for Democrats. Klein, like some others, isn’t saying that Biden is too old to be president, but too old to run for president. This is turning the electability argument around on Biden: You’re great, boss, but those darned voters …

Klein’s suggestion is that Democrats opt for an open convention in which delegates choose a different nominee in Chicago this summer. It’s an almost impossibly risky approach that could devolve into either a whacky, ill-considered candidate (like Warren), an ugly melee like the one Democrats had in Chicago in 1968, or maybe both. 

But it would have drama and energy and would deprive Republicans of the chance to zero in on the incumbent all spring and summer. If Democratic delegates could keep it together—a big “if”—and choose a candidate broadly appealing to swing voters—a bigger “if”—it might actually work. If ever there was a year to try something new, this feels like it.

But how would Democrats move Biden aside? 

That brings us back to the Michigan primary. While Biden doesn’t have any credible challengers on the ballot, he does face a dangerous blank space. Michigan Democrats can vote “uncommitted,” and progressive activists in the state are aiming to get 10 percent of voters to do so in order to send Biden a message about Israel policy.

It’s unlikely that would be enough to make Biden withdraw. But there is some number that would give ammunition to influential Democrats in public and private to convince Biden that he needs to pull an LBJ. Recent polls have shown Biden getting three-quarters of the vote, and that’s without prompting respondents with the option of declaring themselves “Uncommitted.”

As Nikki Haley learned in Nevada, “none of these candidates” is a very appealing vote these days. There’s no way Biden would lose Michigan, but if he were to be held under, say, 60 percent, that would be hell on his electability argument.

A few months ago, it seemed obvious that Biden couldn’t really be the Democratic nominee, but just as obvious that there was no one who could stop him. 

Maybe no one is just the person for the job.


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STATSHOT

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

Change from one week ago: no change

Change from one month ago: ↑ 2.4 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: ACES HIGH 

The Athletic: “When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, it began a trend of talented Black athletes making an impact in the big leagues. Many of those individuals were accomplished athletes on the mound. Don Newcombe was the first Black pitcher to win 20 games in a season in 1951. After Newcombe did it two additional times in 1955 and 1956, Sam Jones joined Newcombe with a 20-win season in 1959. Since then, 13 other pitchers have joined the fraternity known as the Black Aces. Coined by the late Jim ‘Mudcat’ Grant, the Black Aces collectively are all of the Black pitchers from the United States and Canada who have won at least 20 games in a Major League Baseball season. … The first major-league pitcher to capture Rookie of the Year, MVP and a Cy Young Award in a career, Newcombe … had a dominant fastball, and per his oldest-living teammate, 97-year-old Carl Erskine, that fastball was all Newcombe needed.”


MANCHIN DROPS NO LABELS BID 

The Hill: “Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced Friday that he will not run for president, ending long-running speculation that he would mount a third-party bid. ‘I will not be seeking a third-party run. I will not be involved in a presidential run,’ Manchin said in remarks at West Virginia University. … The West Virginia senator, one of the most moderate Democrats in the Senate, already announced that he would not seek another term for his Senate seat, but he had previously not ruled out running for president. The potential bid had spurred fears among Democrats that Manchin could’ve taken votes away from President Biden and acted as a spoiler. Manchin had appeared at events for the organization No Labels, which is overseeing a ballot access initiative for a potential independent bid in November. … The national co-chairs for No Labels  [said] the group is speaking with ‘several exceptional leaders’ about serving on a unity ticket.”

TRUMP PUSHES FAMILY TIES IN RNC SHAKE-UP 

Washington Post: “In a statement, Trump backed Michael Whatley, the chair of the North Carolina GOP, as the new chairman of the party to replace Ronna McDaniel, a longtime ally he has recently soured on, according to people familiar with the discussions. But Trump also said he would support Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, as co-chair of the party and Chris LaCivita, a top aide, as the top operating officer. … The moves come amid Trump’s growing criticism of current RNC chair McDaniel, who is expected to leave her job after the Feb. 24 South Carolina primary amid Trump’s unhappiness over lagging fundraising and other problems. … Installing a family member and a top aide would probably give Trump far more operational control over the RNC and how it spends large sums of money in the election.” 

And makes nice with Club for Growth: Politico: “After being at war with each other for the past year, Trump and Club for Growth President David McIntosh met for dinner Wednesday evening at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, according to two people with knowledge of the sit-down. McIntosh is also flying with Trump on Saturday to South Carolina, where the former president is campaigning ahead of the state’s Feb. 24 Republican primary. … The rapprochement represents the latest turn in the ongoing, hot-cold relationship between Trump and the conservative organization. … The moves are another indication of how the GOP is consolidating around Trump as he establishes a stranglehold on the party’s nomination.”

GOP GETS A BREAK IN BID TO UNSEAT TESTER 

Associated Press: “Montana Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale dropped his U.S. Senate bid on Thursday, less than a week after he got into the race only to see former President Donald Trump quickly endorse his opponent. Rosendale, a hard-line conservative, said in a statement that with Trump’s backing of fellow Republican Tim Sheehy and a lack of resources, ‘the hill was just too steep.’ Trump’s endorsement came just hours after Rosendale had signed paperwork to formally launch his campaign on Feb. 9. His exit from the race avoids what was likely to be a monthslong fight within the GOP leading up the June 4 Montana primary. … Republicans in Washington had worked to keep Rosendale on the sidelines. … It’s not clear if Rosendale will seek re-election to his U.S. House seat following Thursday’s announcement.”

Wisconsin’s Hovde to launch challenge to Baldwin: Politico: “Wisconsin Republican Eric Hovde is expected to launch his Senate campaign next week, according to two Republicans familiar with his plans, as the GOP tries to avoid a damaging battleground state primary. The wealthy GOP banker is expected to garner support from key Republican outside groups, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee. … Simultaneously, Republicans are hoping Scott Mayer, another Badger State businessman, won’t run against Hovde in the primary to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke had also made some noise about running, but has been quiet in recent weeks.”

Crowded Michigan field thins as Craig drops Senate bid: Detroit News: “Republican James Craig, the former Detroit police chief, is suspending his campaign for Michigan’s open U.S. Senate seat and weighing running for mayor of Detroit. … Craig’s departure from the Senate race leaves former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Brighton, businessman Sandy Pensler of Grosse Pointe Park, former U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township and Michigan State Board of Education member Nikki Snyder of Dexter as the most well known Republicans seeking their party’s nomination.” 

Poll: Hogan ties Trone, leads Alsobrooks: The Hill: “Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is leading or tied with his top two potential Democratic challengers in the Maryland Senate race, according to a poll released Thursday. The survey found Hogan leading Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) in a hypothetical match-up at 44 percent to 37 percent. … When Maryland voters are asked to pick between Hogan and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), the poll shows a tighter race, with both men tied at 42 percent. … It’s a remarkable showing for a former GOP governor in a deep-blue state.”

Dems reject a Murphy coronation in New Jersey: Politico: “New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy may have misread the moment. … She hoped to become the prohibitive favorite among Democrats when she formally announced in November. Instead, Murphy is facing resistance, verging on hostility, from the rank and file of her party. … [Last] Saturday, three-term House member [Rep. Andy Kim] notched a key victory showing that his message is breaking through, handily defeating Murphy in her home county in the New Jersey’s first Democratic nominating convention. … Candidates not backed by the party machinery can sometimes find themselves in ‘ballot Siberia.’ … The Monmouth convention is far from the only sign of revolt against the Democratic machine. … The only public poll of the Senate campaign so far showed Kim leading Murphy by 12 points. … Even Murphy supporters acknowledge an enthusiasm gap between the two candidates.”

SUOZZI PREVAILS, BUT BEWARE BIG NOVEMBER TAKEAWAYS

New York Times: “Tom Suozzi, a former Democratic representative, defeated the Republican Mazi Pilip by just under eight points (54 percent to 46 percent) as of this writing. The result is significant in one sense: It puts Democrats one seat closer to retaking the House, and that’s no small matter when Republicans entered the night clinging to a thin majority. But significant does not necessarily mean informative — at least not when it comes to the big questions about the general election. … Special elections are … distinctive low-turnout affairs that draw from an unusual group of engaged voters. Over the last three decades, there has been essentially zero relationship between presidential results and special election outcomes. … The campaign was unusual as well. Millions were spent on campaign advertisements, with Democrats outspending Republicans by a wide margin. … The polling of the race raises another possibility: that Mr. Biden is just that much weaker than Mr. Suozzi.”

BRIEFLY

Rep. Mark Green becomes fourth GOP committee chair to announce retirement—Axios

Rep. Mike Gallagher, too, heads for the exits—Wall Street Journal

‘Are we really still doing this?’: Kushner bridles at questions about Saudi buckraking—CBS News

RNC settles Michigan GOP leadership spat—New York Times

WITHIN EARSHOT: WHIPPERSNAPPED

“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the West. Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these.”—Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota responds to Missouri Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt’s criticism that only GOP senators over age 55 voted for a foreign aid package. 


MAILBAG

“In your most recent (excellent)  [newsletter] you state that special prosecutor Hur found that Biden had not committed a crime. I believe this is inaccurate. I think it is technically accurate that he found the evidence strongly suggested Biden had committed crimes but recommended no charges be pursued because Biden is a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory with whom a jury might sympathize. In other words, ‘prosecutorial discretion’ should be applied.”—Ira Shapiro, Las Vegas, Nevada

You are quite right, Mr. Shapiro! I should have said that Hur concluded that it would be a poor use of resources to try to prosecute Biden for his violations because of the poor chances of conviction, not that the president hadn’t committed a crime. I’ll aim to be more precise. Thank you.

“I repeatedly read and hear the argument that Trump’s various moral and intellectual flaws don’t hurt him because those liabilities are ‘priced in’ by his voters. If Hur did say ‘the quiet part out loud’ by pointing out the fact of Biden’s mental decline, is there any hope that would-be Biden voters have already ‘priced in’ the inevitable decline of age and will be similarly unmoved by Hur’s words come Election Day? And now for my real hope: Is it too late for the ‘none of the above’ option to be added to the presidential ballot? In a battle of Candidate Can’t Think vs. Candidate Doesn’t Think, I think I might buy the campaign button.”—Nick Knopf, Canandaigua, New York

Indeed they do, Mr. Knopf. Of the 70 million or so people who will vote for Biden if he persists as the Democratic nominee and the somewhat smaller number nationally who will vote for Trump, almost all will do so with knowledge of their preferred candidate’s manifest weaknesses. They will have rationalized the choice as being better than the alternative and hope for the best. In Biden’s case, I believe his infirmity has absolutely been “priced in” by the electorate. That’s why the race with Trump is essentially still tied and why Biden would still likely win the national popular vote. But in a close election, we’re talking about the preferences of a few hundred thousand voters spread across a handful of states. If either party could find a way to find a decent candidate, the race might blow wide open, but in a close contest between two badly flawed candidates it would be a battle for that 5 percent of the electorate that is both likely to vote but still unpersuaded by partisanship. Trump is not nearly as popular among Republicans as would befit a strong nominee, with a net favorability rating among members of his own party of just 70 percent in one recent poll. That number should be at least 10 points better in order to get his team fully engaged for a November grudge match. But Biden’s net favorability among Democrats, even before the Hur report, was an abysmal 59 percent. Most of the 18 percent of Democrats who have unfavorable views of Biden would still vote for him … if they vote. And even if they do, will they do so proudly? Will they make the case to their friends and families? It’s one thing for Biden’s infirmity and Trump’s corruption to be “priced in” among likely voters and partisans, but something else entirely to make that case to the undecided or persuadable. We do indeed have a “none of the above” option in presidential politics: staying home. As Neil Peart wrote, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” And right now, it looks like many Americans will do exactly that. The problem for Democrats is that they have to rely almost entirely on negative partisanship to drive a victory, while Trump enjoys a rabid following in a motivated minority. Biden has a 4-point advantage over Trump among voters who have an unfavorable view of both men, but that’s pretty thin, especially for a slice of the electorate with a strong argument for opting out.

“This country is truly in a quandary with both political parties sorely needing to find a candidate who won’t cause a crisis after they are elected.  Having said that, do you have any suggestions for who the Democrats should push as a replacement for Biden?   (I can’t think of anyone who is qualified for the position who will put up with all the BS of running for it).”—Bill Burgess, Houston, Texas

There’s the rub, Mr. Burgess! And it’s not just that they would have to put up with the indignities, it’s that they would probably lose. I don’t mean that just because of the poor taste of voters and the peccadilloes of the political press, both of which are very real, but also because of the odds. Even when our system was more cogent and parties produced much better nominees, most people who sought the presidency failed. Many who did succeed only achieved the office after decades of frustration. Imagine your perfect candidate, the woman or man of public stature and accomplishment who you believe would be a terrific president. If she or he could be given the presidency, they would almost certainly take the job. If you told her or him that they would have to endure the grueling, often humiliating work necessary but was guaranteed to win the office, most public servants would still take the gig. What if it was 50/50? Probably still worth it to most. But the truth is that in the universe of luck, timing, and skill that’s involved, the probability is much, much lower. So while it’s certainly true that we urgently need to repair the way our parties choose their nominees—and not just for the presidency—it’s also true that we need more good people to step forward and be willing to take a beating for an uncertain reward. As Dwight Eisenhower said in his first inaugural address:“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” 


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 knowledgeable Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: HERE’S THE SCOOP 

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)
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)

Cutlines about sad stories are hard to write and hard to judge. In these cases, I try to follow the motto of the Gridiron Club: “Singe, but never burn.” The best way around these problems is to keep it simple, usually with a deadpan joke that doesn’t require too much explanation. And you all delivered handsomely, including our winner, who matched the image perfectly with just three words:

“Wow! Chocolate chip?”—Randall Reese, Bryan, Texas

Winner, By George Division:

“President Joe Biden comments upon the unveiling of his official portrait.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, The Eye(brows) Have It Division:

“Next question is from Sam Donaldson, ABC …”—Richard Basuk, New York, New York

Winner, Bridge to the 21st Century Division:

“I can assure you, my administration is prepared to deal with all Y2K issues on January 1.”—Allan Hardcastle, Lincoln, California

Winner, Laggards Division:

“*Sigh* Restart the WiFi router, the president is buffering again.”—Jonathan Mahlum, Orting, Washington

Winner, ‘No, I Don’t Need You to Cut It’ Division:

“Well I still have a healthy appetite, during the big game I’ll eat a hamburger THIS big!”—Donnie Bishop, New Castle, Virginia

Winner, Chichén Itzá Division:

“Biden gives highlights of his secret trip to tour the Sphinx recently discovered in the Yucatan.”—Jonathan Falk, Rye, New York

Winner, Bobwhite Division:

“Midway through President Biden’s latest speech at the White House, he awed his listeners with a stunning performance of spot on bird calls that challenges the idea of an elderly man with poor memory.”—Kevin Cook, Fort Worth, Texas


A GAME OF CHICKEN 

New York Times: “In 1947, two men, both named Kundan, fled Peshawar during the bloody partition that carved Pakistan out of British India. They landed in Delhi and soon became partners in a restaurant called Moti Mahal serving food from the Punjab region. … The two families both say that it was their own Kundan who invented butter chicken — the creamy, heavenly marriage of tandoori chicken and tomato gravy beloved everywhere north Indian food is served. And one of them has gone to court to try to prove it. … In the case of butter chicken, much is riding on the verdict — money, mostly, but also the legacy of the storied restaurant that the two men began building nearly eight decades ago, a span that covers almost all of India’s modern history as an independent nation. The case is laid out in a heaping 2,752-page document filed in Delhi High Court.”

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.