Skip to content
The Narratives Are Taking Hold
Go to my account

The Narratives Are Taking Hold

Neither side thinks it can lose in 2024.

Former President Donald Trump gestures onstage during a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on April 27, 2023. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

Bread Basket

Does a vice president finally matter? Jeff Greenfield has a brilliant piece in Politico that they tell me I can’t plagiarize and pass off as my own. 

For those of you who have heard me explain to Steve Hayes and others why I was so confident that Biden would run again (over and over), my theory was pretty simple: He doesn’t have a choice. If he doesn’t run, the next question he’d have to answer is whether he’s endorsing his vice president: the person he chose and said was ready to assume the duties of the presidency, but whose performance has been so abysmal that nobody thinks she’d have a real shot of winning the general election. And there was no obvious “Not Harris” choice to fall back on, either, that would justify his betrayal of Kamala Harris. With Trump running, Biden had no choice but to jump back in as well. 

But Greenfield explores a much more interesting question: Is Harris a drag on Biden’s chances to win now? To start, he points out that there’s not much evidence that opponents have ever made any headway attacking a bad veep choice. Dwight Eisenhower—after a heart attack—had Richard Nixon (remember the Checkers speech?), Nixon had Spiro Agnew (and the famous “It would be funny if it weren’t so serious” ad), Bush had Dan Quayle (Potatoe, Potato). Even the more obvious example of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate has mixed academic research behind it. Greenfield cites two studies—one that found she “cost the ticket more than two million votes” but another that found she had “almost no impact on the vote.”

But it’s a little different this time around. 

The answer lies in a single number: 8. It’s the first digit of Biden’s age, and one that carries outsized significance. Biden may be only four years older than Donald Trump, but as much as any verbal glitch on Biden’s part, it defines him as an unequivocal member of the Really Old. It’s one reason why that new Washington Post-ABC poll found that: “Today, 63 percent say he does not have the mental sharpness to serve effectively as president, up from 43 percent in 2020 and 54 percent a year ago. A similar 62 percent say Biden is not in good enough physical health to be effective.” Numbers for the soon-to-be 77-year-old Trump are materially better.

With Biden’s political foes—in the GOP and on Fox News—ready to highlight any sign of physical or mental decline, the focus on Harris as a president-in-waiting will be intense. … But unlike past running mates, Harris is burdened not just by doubts about her, but the doubts about her senior partner. It’s a burden heavier than any of her predecessors had to carry.

It’s different because the attack isn’t on the VP à la Palin, Nixon, et al: It’s on the ticket. The ad goes something like this: Spliced together B-roll of Biden’s most cringeworthy stumbles—literal and figurative. The narrator comes in with, “We all know we’re not electing HIM for four more years.” And then it cuts the awkward laughs and word salad answers that have defined Harris’ vice presidency for the last three years. And the screen fades to black with the word: Yikes. 

Wedge Salad

Are partisans underestimating the other side? Given my place in the ideological spectrum and my past career as a GOP operative, I end up spending my free time with people who are staunch partisans … on both sides. And there’s something jarring I’ve noticed in the past couple weeks: the hardcore Biden voters and the hardcore Trump voters aren’t just confident their guy is going to win, they don’t see how it could possibly come out the other way. That’s not entirely unusual, of course, but what struck me was how well thought out their reasoning was. Let me give you a taste of each: 

Trump can’t win: Every time the election is a referendum on Trump, he loses: 2018, 2020, and 2022. Even in 2016, he lost the popular vote and squeaked out the narrowest of wins against Hillary Clinton, who, by the way, ran a terrible campaign. Trump is wildly unpopular with independents and women … and only getting more so with each passing day. And where’s his path to victory even if he takes back Georgia and Arizona? He still has to win two of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Trump lost Michigan by 150,000 votes in 2020, and he lost Pennsylvania by 80,000 votes. And that was when he ran his campaign on issues that voters might care about. This time around it’s all, “The election was stolen and January 6 was actually a good time.” It didn’t work in 2020, it definitely didn’t work in 2022, and it ain’t gonna work in 2024. 

Given that you’re here, I’ll bet you’ve heard that all before. But what about the other way?

Biden can’t win: Biden has a record now. And it ain’t pretty. COVID was COVID, but remember when everyone said Trump was going to get crushed? Instead 74 million people voted for him because he found millions of voters who hadn’t voted before—even in 2016. They’re out there. And they’re not stupid. They know what Trump was able to do as president and that the economy was roaring with him at the helm. The economy tanked because of COVID. What’s Biden’s excuse? Runaway inflation, an invasion at the southern border, and nobody wants to prosecute rapists and murderers because of progressive notions around policing. These folks also understand that you’re not electing Biden for four years. You’re electing Biden for a few months and then Harris is going to take over, but they can’t put her at the top of the ticket because she’d get crushed by Trump. A majority of Democrats don’t want Biden and a good chunk of them are going to stay home. And then check out what’s happening in cities plagued by crime and black voters who think immigration is out of control? The identity politics thing is failing and Democrats are increasingly reliant on white, rich, college-educated folks who are to the left of Pelosi. And there aren’t nearly enough of them to win a national election. 

The problem that I have with both of these scenarios isn’t that they’re delusional. It’s that they’re right. In that sense, this feels more like 2016 than 2020—both candidates have fatal flaws that would doom them in any other year. But this time around, one of them has to win. 

What I do know to be true is that one of these teams is going to be stunned on Election Night and there lies the path to “we couldn’t have lost, therefore the election was stolen” stuff. We saw it from the left in 2016, with the Russia conspiracy stuff and the violence on Inauguration Day, and, of course, it is now a major plank of the Republican Party after 2020. 

The point is that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Walter Mondale’s supporters didn’t think the election was stolen. The hard part is accepting that the other side has a compelling narrative for why they’re going to win too.

Grilled Fish

What happens when political stunts work? New York City Mayor Eric Adams was dropped from Biden’s 2024 campaign advisory board over his public criticism of the administration over its (lack of) immigration policies. Red states have bused thousands of people who illegally crossed the southern border to New York City, which guarantees services to migrants. After years of being told they were cruel and racist, these red state politicians had had enough. But New York City is still dealing with only a tiny fraction of what border communities have been coping with for more than a decade. 

Adams has warned that migrants are inundating New York City’s public housing, schools, and hospitals. “The president and the White House have failed New York City on this issue,” he said last month, while noting that these few thousand migrants could cost the city’s taxpayers $4 billion to feed and house. One New York Post headline announced that, “Homeless vets are being booted from NY hotels to make room for migrants.”

In Chicago and D.C., which have also received buses of migrants from the border, tempers are flaring as well. D.C. declared a state of emergency. At one recent town hall on the South Shore of Chicago, residents fumed about plans to house migrants in their community. 

As one local report noted, “Chicago has taken in more than 8,000 migrants since August, and more than 200 a day have flooded into the city, overwhelming police station lobbies faster than the city can open shelters.” But this is minuscule compared to what border cities have been dealing with. El Paso is getting 2,500 per day. Laredo just under that. And these cities are tiny compared to Chicago and New York. 

The result has been chaos for the White House and Democrats. The New York Times’ headline summed it up nicely: “Democrats Spar Over the ‘Prickly, Prickly Subject’ of Immigration,” noting that the administration was getting hit both from the right and the left of its own party on the issue. 

But does anyone think the Democratic mayor of New York City would be wading into this issue if Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hadn’t started his voluntary busing program? These so-called sanctuary cities were patting themselves on the back without bearing the brunt of the problem. Now that they’re seeing even just a taste of what it means to be on the front lines of a broken immigration system, there seem to be real discussions about what should be done to fix the problem. And that’s a very good thing.

I don’t like political stunts, but it’s hard to argue that this one hasn’t been wildly effective. And success breeds copy cats. 

Cannoli

There’s a lot of rubes and boobs out there who can bring you down, but when life gives you boobs, just remember the boobies.

Sarah Isgur's Headshot

Sarah Isgur

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.