Joe Biden’s announcement video wasn’t exactly a cutting-edge message.
He associated himself with freedom, democracy, honesty, decency and the soul of America, among other things.
It’s not unusual for a president’s re-election campaign to be based on gauzy sentiments — think of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning Again in America” reelect in 1984. There was a deeper undercurrent to the Biden video, though. Without using Donald Trump’s name, it was all about drawing a contrast with Trump as a threat to, or as the opposite of, conventional institutions and pieties.
The video, in other words, was another shot in an ongoing war over which party will define itself as more normal in 2024. Republicans thrilled to the line in newly elected Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ GOP response to the State of the Union address that “the choice is between normal or crazy.” That’s a great framing — as long as Republicans aren’t the ones that come off as crazy, which is exactly what Joe Biden and the Democrats are counting on.
The two sides, naturally, portray their respective positions in different places on the normal-crazy spectrum.
For Democrats, their support for trans rights is the logical next step in the expansion of civil rights and is all about inclusion; for Republicans, it is an irrational fad that is trampling on parents’ rights and threatening women’s sports.
For Democrats, the increased focus on race in education is simply teaching the country’s history on racism; for Republicans, it represents an ideologically driven agenda that doesn’t belong in the schools.
For Democrats, efforts in Florida and elsewhere to remove books with offensive content from public schools is book banning; for Republicans, it is ensuring that children aren’t exposed to inappropriate material in schools whose approach should be resolutely down the middle.
And so on. The parties will continue to war on these issues, but the top of the tickets in 2024 will have an outsized role in establishing which party gets to claim the mantle of normal.
Biden and his team figure that in a rematch with Trump, it’s not a contest, and for good reason.
Trump inveighs against the “crazies” on the other side and portrays himself as a defender of common sense. He’s still fundamentally a disrupter, though. He has no interest in politics as usual, when he believes politics as unusual is what’s needed (and is much more compelling and entertaining).
For MAGA, normal politics is corrupt. Normal is useless. Normal is a sham. Normal is for suckers. Only their man sees through it all, tells the truth, and will bring the hammer against the establishment like the woman in the famous “1984” Apple ad.
In 2016, Trump broke all the rules to shake up politics and brought to the fore new positions on immigration, trade and China; now, he wants to break all the rules to wreak vengeance on all the people who supposedly stole the election victory that was rightfully his.
This all suits Biden just fine. In fact, he couldn’t script a better opponent with a better message and better affect for his purposes.
Now, with inflation having eroded real wages in recent years and perhaps a recession looming, Biden can’t be complacent. He could lose to anyone.
Still, Trump’s attempt to get his vice president to subvert the counting of the electoral votes in 2020, his defense of the Jan. 6 rioters, his call for the Constitution to be suspended, his bodyguard of strange loyalists led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, his erratic statements and positions (attacking the state of Florida and threatening not to participate in the Republican debates in just the last couple of days), all make Biden normal by default.
If Biden’s theory of the case against Trump is correct (circumstances and execution will, of course, matter), it falls apart if someone else is the Republican nominee.
First of all, a matchup against Trump effectively takes age off the table. Some other Republican makes it front and center.
Trying to march an 80-year-old man through a national election and another term in office is not normal. Indeed, it’s unprecedented and deeply discomfiting, which is why so many voters think that Biden shouldn’t run again. By contrast, running a 44-year-old (Ron DeSantis) or 57-year-old (Tim Scott) is what you expect.
The Biden team believes if DeSantis is the GOP nominee, he, too, like Trump, can be branded as a MAGA extremist. In that scenario, though, DeSantis will have taken down Trump in an insanely brutal primary campaign. Trump will presumably be denouncing him as a liar and a cheat for the offense of winning against him. It’s going to be hard to portray DeSantis as a tool of the man who tried to destroy him, and failed, and is likely still trying.
Then, there’s the substance. With some exceptions (perhaps the fight with Disney most prominently), the DeSantis record is firmly within the range of normal Republican politics. Sure, there will be targets for Democrats to shoot at, but they’re also defenses that DeSantis is well-prepared to make.
People describe DeSantis as representing Trumpism without Trump, but the last part of that formulation is very important. DeSantis is more combative with the media and has leaned into the culture war more than he might have pre-Trump, but, at the end of the day, he’s nothing like the former president.
He gives conventional political speeches, not rollicking, digressive off-the-cuff rants to adoring fans. He lives, as far as anyone knows, the life of a good family man, with no affairs with porn stars or Playboy Playmates that need covering up. He’s not getting indicted for anything. He hasn’t given a vitriolic speech to a crowd that’s gone on to bust into the U.S. Capitol or any other government building while he watches from the sidelines doing nothing to stop it.
The main personal charge against DeSantis is that he’s standoffish, made few friends in Congress and may have once eaten pudding with his fingers, an allegation he denies.
This is not much material to work with. Even if DeSantis isn’t a backslapper and strikes people as overly earnest, as a general election candidate he’d be a recognizable type — a young, ambitious governor looking to make the step up to the White House like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter before him. These are all different men, with different politics and strengths and weakness, but there’s nothing unprecedented about going from the state house to the White House.
DeSantis or another Republican who isn’t Trump would be well-positioned to make the race about the incumbent rather than themselves. For all that Biden promised to bring normality back to the White House, his Afghan withdrawal and neglect at the border have shattered whatever reputation he had for competence; the levels of spending have been off the charts; he’s accommodated his party’s left flank, striking out positions that would have been considered wildly radical several years ago; and he’s increasingly governed through legally dubious executive fiat.
In short, Biden can make the case that Trump isn’t normal, whereas another Republican can see and raise him, and hold out the prospect of moving on from the drama and weirdness of the Trump-Biden years.