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Escaping the Trap of a “Groundhog Day” Election

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An edgy, angry mood afflicts Americans of every political perspective, stemming from a prevailing sense of helplessness in the face of implacable perils. We feel powerless to roll back a devastating pandemic, to slow the rise of rampaging inflation and violent crime, to calm the bloodshed and horror in Ukraine, or to rebuild trust in a dysfunctional, sclerotic political system that frustrates both the left and the right. 

Worst of all, it’s difficult to imagine any imminent deliverance from these multiple miseries when the next presidential election promises a dreary rematch between two of the least imposing contenders in recent memory. Neither the bumbling, visibly aging incumbent, Joe Biden, nor the glowering, vengeful, former president, Donald J. Trump, display any inclination to step back for the sake of the country from the ongoing battle for power. 

Political media might relish the resulting bitter battle, but polls show the American people want none of it. For either candidate to succeed, he would need overwhelming enthusiasm from his own partisan base, but recent surveys show both Trump and Biden as divisive figures within their own parties. A late February CNN poll reported a nearly even split on a Biden second term among Democrats and Democrat leaners, with just 45% welcoming the president’s renomination and 51% preferring a new choice as standard-bearer. Among Republicans and Republican leaners, 50% want to give Trump his third shot at the big prize, while some 49% would prefer that he concentrate on managing his burgeoning social media empire and embracing the splendors of a Mar-a-Lago retirement. 

This bi-partisan yearning for a pair of fresh faces may motivate the masses to shop around for appealing newcomer candidates, but pundits and party leaders have yet to coalesce around plausible replacements for the two battered battlers of the last cycle. When it comes to fresh presidential prospects, it’s much easier to rule contenders out than to count them in.

If the Biden administration continues to struggle with negative approval ratings, for instance, it’s hard to imagine either Vice President Harris or members of the cabinet gaining momentum in a race that would require separation from the dismal disappointments of their boss. On the GOP side, the array of “promising prospects” who fiercely fought Trump for the nomination in 2016 (Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and more) can’t erase memories of that nasty campaign, or ignore their own self-serving alacrity in boarding the Trump train, with dubious displays of arrant opportunism.

Meanwhile, the 535 members of the closely divided 117th Congress carry the taint of guilt by association with publicity-hungry bomb-throwers like AOC and Marjorie Taylor Greene, while compiling an embarrassing legislative record of gridlock, grandstanding, and gamesmanship. 

That leaves popular governors, well-heeled outsiders, and, potentially, newcomers to Capitol Hill as yet unsullied by the unsavory aromas associated with the place. Of course, we’ll always enjoy far-fetched fantasies about celebrity “dream candidates” (like Condoleezza Rice or Michele Obama) who, for better or worse, display no indication whatever that they’re willing to risk their present popularity to make a difficult, long-shot race for the top job. 

So which public figures could conceivably rearrange the national political furniture to break up the dour, dire duopoly of Biden and Trump?

The answers to that question will begin to emerge by midnight of November 3 of this year when, in their breathless midterm coverage of the state-by-state returns of gubernatorial, Senate and other battles, the TV pundits will anoint their nominees as the night’s “biggest winners” –thereby transforming regional personalities with no national profiles, into suddenly relevant, headline-grabbing stars and real presidential possibilities. 

Consider, for instance, Kathy Hochul, the first-ever female governor of New York state, who ascended to her job just six months ago with the resignation of her disgraced predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. Though many New Yorkers are still learning to pronounce her name (it’s HOE-cull), she’s already earned respect for cheerful activism and first-rate communication skills. There’s also appreciation for the refreshing nature of her approach: after decades of doctrinaire liberalism from the Democrats who controlled Albany (think of any available Cuomo), Hochul, a former Congresswoman from Buffalo, offers a more pragmatic and moderate style. If, as expected, President Biden and his party harvest a cornucopia of calamities on election night this year, but Governor Hochul (as all polls indicate) wins a landslide victory, sealed by conspicuous Independent and Republican support, she’ll find it difficult to dodge presidential speculation. 

On the Republican side, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, reputedly cruising toward decisive success in his own bid for re-election, has already achieved coast-to-coast prominence with his astute pursuit of attention and popular, loathe-to-lockdown leadership during the pandemic. A former star in the Little League World Series (no kidding!) and captain of the Yale baseball team (he batted .336), he also graduated with honors from Harvard Law and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, including decorated service in Iraq. He has also provoked considerable consternation from the Sunshine State’s most celebrated civilian by refusing to rule out a race against Trump for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024.

Would DeSantis become a more suitable leader for the Free World than Trump, or Hochul help Democrats build back better after the defeats of the Biden-Harris era? No one can forecast their White House futures with certainty, but whether or not the possible replacements become better presidents, it’s a sure bet that they’ll be stronger as candidates. 

For one thing, there’s the age factor: on Inauguration Day, 2025, Trump would be 78, compared to DeSantis at 46. On the Democratic side, Biden would take the oath at an utterly unprecedented age of 82, as opposed to potential President Hochul at 66.  If nothing else, younger replacement candidates would provide a jolt of energy to a race that currently anticipates two codger contenders well past the age of normal retirement. 

In our current gloom, the populace should appreciate a match-up with less baggage weighing down both candidates, and far less accumulated bad blood to clog the healthy operations of our national circulatory system. With newer candidates fighting to command center stage, we stand a better chance of debating the nation’s future rather than endlessly revisiting bi-partisan embarrassments of the recent past.

The brutal truth about our current political predicament remains inescapable: many Democrats will now acknowledge the nomination of Biden-Harris as an historic mistake, and even more Republicans, especially after viewing his performance as ex-president, might recognize their double error in twice nominating Trump.

 Why wait till 2028 to correct yesterday’s blunders? 

Despite the prevailing conventional wisdom, there’s still a chance to spare the American people a Groundhog Day Election in 2024, trapped in the pointless repetition of stupidities that actually got old a long time ago.  

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