It’s been a long, hot summer for Democrats.
A New York Times/Siena College poll points the way to the party’s current malaise: Nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters – 64% – say they want someone other than President Biden to be the party’s nominee in two years, and barely a third say they approve of his job performance.
Yet when they were asked whether they’d vote for Biden if forced to choose between him and the insurrectionist ex-president, 92% of Democrats said they’d stick with the incumbent. The poll also gave Biden a narrow edge over former President Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head rematch.
That divide should send shivers up the spine of party leaders and activists alike, who seem poised to repeat the grievous miscalculation of 2016, when 12% of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters voted for Trump, effectively helping to deny Hillary Clinton the White House.
Except this time, any protest vote will have implications beyond the intramural debates of which grassroots Democrats are so destructively enamored.
As both the Jan. 6 insurrection and last month’s catastrophic U.S. Supreme Court decisions made abundantly clear, nothing less than the future of the Republic is on the line. A win by Republicans this fall will end any chance of codifying reproductive rights. A win in 2024 could well spell the end of American democracy.
Yes, things aren’t going well for Biden: Gas prices (which he doesn’t control) are still high; despite healthy job growth, inflation continues to rage; the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us; and there’s ongoing global instability.
Americans, frankly, are exhausted from the roller-coaster ride of the last three years. And Biden, who was elected, in large part, as an antidote to the chaos of the Trump era, has not been able to provide as much reassurance as the public would like.
That’s not to set aside Biden’s significant wins in the form of both the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure law. Both were historic and transformative pieces of legislation — and Democrats have spent months traveling the country reminding voters of their respective benefits.
Whatever his failings, Biden is still far preferable to Trump or any of his would-be successors, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose actual malevolence outstrips Trump’s buffoonish fascism.
The poll lays bare the increasing generation gap between the Democratic establishment and younger activists who believe it’s time for older party leaders to step aside.
Indeed, Biden would be 82 were he to run again in 2024.
There also are concerns that party leaders aren’t being aggressive enough in the face of the GOP’s pugilistic tactics.
Progressives have, for instance, justifiably complained that Biden did not move swiftly enough after the nation’s highest court toppled Roe v. Wade last month – a misstep that Biden has attempted to correct.
Still, the latter is a concern that I share. Republicans, who do not hold majorities in either house of Congress, effectively act as if they do – and Democrats too willingly acquiesce.
It also doesn’t help that two Democratic members of the Senate, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are de facto members of the GOP.
But the question again becomes one of not only political survival, but of national survival. There is a deep and promising Democratic bench, but there is not a candidate who is ready to step into Biden’s shoes.
And some prominent congressional progressives also appear to realize that, as well.
“I plan to support [Biden] because of the danger Donald Trump poses,” California Rep. Rho Khanna told CNN. “I would certainly not do anything to weaken him, and I hope no one else will do anything to weaken him.”
Nor, does it seem, that neither California Gov. Gavin Newsom, nor Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both of whom also have been mentioned as a possible candidates, harbor similar West Wing ambitions.
“We need to unify the Democratic Party, not destroy ourselves from within,” Newsom said, according to CNN. “We need to have our president’s back. But we also have to get back on the field. He needs troops. He has to govern. Our job is to organize, and it’s to have his back.”
As in 2016, Democrats are going to have to decide whether it’s more important to prove a point or to win. The difference this time is not merely academic – it’s existential.
John L. Micek is editor-in-chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at email@example.com.