“What a revoltin’ development this is.” That catch phrase from the 1950s sitcom The Life of Riley succinctly describes America’s political morass today. It sums up Washington’s diddling over the debt ceiling, the administration’s inability to close the southern border and, most of all, the dismal quality of the two presidential frontrunners.
The phrase, “what a revoltin’ development,” was Chester A. Riley’s description of his woeful situation at the end of each episode — sitting on his front steps, bemoaning his fate over the consequences of some bad decision or ill-conceived scheme. Then, we sympathized as viewers. Now, we identify as American citizens, looking at the country’s leadership.
Let’s begin with the sitting president. Joe Biden’s physical and cognitive deficiencies are painfully obvious. The only ones silent about them are the legacy media, imitating the fairytale crowd who pretended to see nothing as the naked emperor walked down the street. Biden’s shortcomings are just as obvious — and just as unspoken. White House correspondents surely know them but won’t say the silent part out loud. Such is journalism today. Partisan commitments outrank honest reporting.
If the media says little, Joe himself says even less. His only public events are carefully scripted. The reason is evident as soon as he veers off script. Last week, for instance, a child asked him about the last country he visited. Joe couldn’t remember. Another child correctly answered, “Ireland.” This was the president’s much-touted trip to his ancestral homeland.
Joe was never the sharpest pencil in the drawer, but that’s not the issue today. The issue now is about the cumulating effects of age on his cognitive capacity. Those problems were already evident in 2020 and helped shape his campaign strategy. They will do so again this time.
Biden’s successful 2020 campaign was based on a shrewd decision. Stay in the basement, shut up, and make the election all about Donald Trump. Smart move. Although Trump had many devotees, and still does, the numbers who revile him are even larger. Those anti-Trump voters are just as motivated as his acolytes. Their votes are why the best description of 2020 is not so much that Biden won but that Trump lost.
Biden’s team thinks that strategy will work again. Granted, it’s harder to stay in the basement as the sitting president, but Joe is doing his best. No press conferences. No impromptu questions as he walks to the helicopter. No questions after speeches, which are made exclusively to friendly, docile audiences like union leaders. No disclosure, obviously, of any cognitive tests. Even information about his annual physical tests is sketchy — brief summaries, not details.
Frankly, this “basement strategy” is the only strategy Biden can pursue this time around. It’s just too risky to hold freewheeling press conferences or answer questions in tough, one-on-one interviews.
If Biden’s campaign is built around voters hating Trump, Trump’s is built around seeking revenge. He doesn’t try to hide his seething anger. He still doesn’t think he lost in 2020 — and he’s fighting mad about it. So are his most avid supporters. Are there enough of them to secure the nomination? We won’t know until the primaries are over, but the early poll numbers are strong. If he does win the Republican nomination, though, he’ll have a very difficult time winning the White House unless there is a major, unexpected shock, such as a deep recession.
How do we know Trump is unpopular with general election voters? Because he didn’t just lose the presidency in 2020, he cost his party the Senate, thanks to the primary candidates he endorsed and his own unpopularity in swing states. He posed the same problems for down-ballot Republicans in 2018 and 2022. Biden’s team knows that — and they are doing everything they can to make the 2024 election another referendum on Trump. That’s harder to do when you are the sitting president, but they’ve got to try.
If Trump does win the nomination, the only way he can regain the White House is the voters’ deep disappointment with the incumbent. That could happen one of three ways. First, there could be a recession that lingers into 2024. Second, the administration’s failures on immigration, crime, education, budget deficits and other issues could sink his approval even further. Third, his own mental and physical issues could grow worse and become more obvious. That would not only hurt Biden’s chances directly; it would hurt them indirectly by raising the profile of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Harris is not just unpopular. She’s really, really unpopular — and it just seems to get worse. She has no achievements to highlight, is ill-prepared for appearances, drives away all her staff and delivers incomprehensible speeches. The public has reached a firm conclusion. She simply isn’t qualified for the top job. But the Democrats cannot drop her from the ticket. They would alienate the African-American votes they need to win.
Vice Presidential candidates seldom matter to voters, but this time could be different. Biden is already the oldest person to sit in the Oval Office. The more doubts grow about his ability to finish a second term, the more voters will evaluate the prospect of Kamala Harris. It is not a happy prospect, according to most polls. Of course, Trump could come to the Democrats rescue once again. He could pick someone even worse for his VP, someone like Kari Lake, who still won’t acknowledge her own defeat in Arizona.
Looking at this bipartisan mess, it’s hard not to feel like we are sitting next to Chester A. Riley on the front steps, echoing his desultory conclusion, “What a revoltin’ mess.”