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The Problem(s) With Joe Biden
Political guru Mike Murphy has some blunt thoughts.
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Mike Murphy: The Psychopath vs The Cynic
On Wednesday, I sat down with campaign guru Mike Murphy to talk 2024. Our conversation ranged over the state of the race; the fallout from the debate; and the clash between a psychopathic Donald Trump and a deeply cynical politician like Nicki Haley. You can listen to the whole lively conversation here.
Near the end, though, we dove into the Democrats’ dilemma: Joe Biden is old and he’s unpopular. And that raises the very real risk of a Trump 2.0 presidency.
The Biden Problem
Here’s an edited transcript of our discussion:
Charlie Sykes: Okay, so let's take a deep breath and dive into this: The Joe Biden Problem. Because I do sense there's a certain amount of denialism or a certain amount of fatalism about all of this. We get a lot of pushback saying, 'Stop talking about Joe Biden’s age.'
Mike Murphy: Make it go away.
Charlie Sykes: My response is: It's not going to go away. Denial is really not a not a sound strategy.
And the reality is, if you talk to any voters in the real worl, — I mean, any voter — every conversation, and I mean, every—every—conversation, will eventually get to the question of Joe Biden's age. Now you went out there and you said that Joe Biden should step aside, not run. That's obviously not going to happen right now.
So, let's just talk about this.
My real fear here is that everything's hanging by a thread. And you only need a couple of Grandpa Joe moments. If something happens to Joe Biden next September or October, like what happened to Mitch McConnell, all bets are off. I mean, it is a terrifying thing.
Do the Democrats have a Plan B? And are you sure that that would actually be a better idea for them? So make your case.
Mike Murphy: Yeah, those are the questions. Joe Biden has what I call a '2 + 2 = 5 problem.' When you're an incumbent running for reelection, historically, the election is a referendum on you: keep him or fire him.
Right now, perception is reality. The perception is he's doing a lousy job on the economy, and that is death for a president running for reelection, politically.
Now, they have time to change that perception. But it's hard to do. People believe what they believe.
Charlie Sykes: Right. Why do they believe that? Because the Democrats will say, 'Well, look, the unemployment rate is at historic lows,
Mike Murphy: It's true.
Charlie Sykes: Inflation is coming down. What is with these people?
Mike Murphy: The numbers are good, but that's not the prism. People look at real wages. What can I buy, for what I earn? And they're only starting to creep up now. They've been stagnant. They feel inflation. They feel it in the car payment, the mortgage, the grandkids can't afford a house because of mortgages; and the last two years have gone way up for the same house.
It's the everyday cash-flow-of -life stuff, where remember a huge number of Americans have essentially no savings—a $5,000 crisis, and they're really in trouble. So, that's what they feel—not some guy with a bow ties saying, 'Seasonally adjusted unemployment has dropped again.'
So, he's got the perception problem there. Then the one thing Trump beats him on in surveys is running the economy, which is a very scary number.
Mike Murphy: The other thing is the age deal. The age problem, if you're president, is like all of a sudden, you wake up one day and you've got antlers.
And you go down to announce the great news that we found a cure for cancer, and all anybody wants to say is 'What are those antlers?' It won't go away. So, when they say, 'Hey, old grandpa is not the guy to fix the economy, which is throwing me' — that's 2 + 2= 5. That is the lock they're in.
And now, what the Democrats are all doing is finding a confirmation bubble: 'We can make the election about Trump and abortion.' They're right: the abortion thing is a huge club for the, Well done, GOP.
But they're forgetting the fundamentals.
You look at their quotes, and they remind me —if you go back, being Jurassic, I do stuff like this— and you look at what Democrats used to say about Jimmy Carter in 1980: 'Well, everybody hates him, but they've nominated a crackpot old actor who used to be in movies with monkeys. No way that nut will win.'
They forget it's fundamentally a referendum on the guy in the chair. So, they’ve got to fix Biden's perception on the economy.
Now they're trying to. They opened the campaign with a big, 60-second television ad, which was what incumbents in trouble always tell the consultants to run. 'Well, why don't we do an ad about all my great accomplishments? I wrote a script.' It's 40 minutes long. And the ad is basically, 'Hey, idiot: Don't you know while you're screwing around, I've been getting up early and I passed the equity and manufacturing bill and blah, blah, blah, listen up.'
And you know, voters don't work that way.
They're like, 'What are you doing for me right now that I can feel and where are we going?'
So, the Biden spot, which is everything's going great, is the wrong spot.
It should be: 'We've done the hard work. We took the punches. We had a plan and now it's starting to turn around. So the question is, as we come back, who's going to win?' And then you do your Republican litany of class hatred, warfare and all that, vs. 'Working folks like you need cheaper prescription drugs, you need to be able to spend more time with your family by getting a better wage for your labor, blah, blah, blah.'
So, they're trying to force feed the good news, which people tend to— like all forced-feedings—gag on. So anyway, they don't fix that because they can't fix age. I dread the day it's so bad they put out the press release for Biden taking a karate lesson or something. I can see how bad that could go. All the 'Biden is fine talk' No, people don't think he's fine.
Mike Murphy: Results can turn age vulnerability into age wisdom. But you’ve got to convince them you're on a path that Biden, the great captain of age and experience, has steered us where to we're starting to see a reaction.
They think 'We'll just beat the hell out of Trump.' And Trump is so bad, campaigning from the Yankton minimum security federal prison, or wherever.
Charlie Sykes: That would help.
Mike Murphy: It could work. But it's risky.
Charlie Sykes: It is very risky. And I'm concerned that because they have created this confirmation bubble: they're telling themselves it's just a messaging problem. There's nothing wrong with the economy. We don't even have to consider the age issue. And if voters do not understand all of these accomplishments, they're just 'stupid.'
If this becomes the culture, 'Why are people so stupid that they still are complaining about inflation? Why are voters so stupid that they're complaining about high interest rates?' …that is not going to be the environment in which you create the message that you need.
Charlie Sykes: And the Joe Biden age problem, I think cognitively he can still do the job—there's no indication he can't
Mike Murphy: Yep.
Charlie Sykes: But, every time he talks and walks, the way he moves around, it is sometimes, as you point out, the antler problem.
He'll walk in and he'll have this litany of great accomplishments, and I'm thinking 'Oh my God, the guy looks like he's 150 years old right now'. And we can pretend that's not a problem, but it is a problem.
Mike Murphy: Yeah, so, you revamp your comms. He's now the chairman of the board of the turnaround. So, you surround him with smart guys. He doesn't walk in and talk alone. You recast the movie, in how you visually communicate things —from scratch. They're thinking, 'Put a blue curtain behind him. He's presidential, Trump's a frothing idiot. That's enough.' No, there are ways to do this. I mean, back in the good old pre- internet days, North Carolina elected a senator —nobody knew he was in a wheelchair for six years.
Mike Murphy: There still are those kinds of tricks that can be done, or controls on presentation. Rather than throw him out there and say, 'See, that wasn't so bad.' Because than he's the Great Wallenda. The whole thing is, well, 'Can Biden get across the rope without falling 15 stories?' And that adds attention to it, and amplifies every hiccup.
I mean, God forbid, the poor guy has to go to Walter Reed for a weekend because he's had a [TIA] or something. A minor bubble. The news media is going to treat it like the Hindenburg explosion because all those expectations are set. 'Will Biden make it til tomorrow? Our panel of doctors, etc... .'
And then you have TV doctors who want to be a little outrageous because they want to be back on TV and meet girls.
Mike Murphy: The whole thing is set up to go bad for them. And they really need to have the meeting.
If I were running that thing, I'd say, 'All right, we're not going to have the easy meeting, which is boy, ‘What did Trump do today? How are we going to hammer him.’
We're going to do the meeting that ‘Tomorrow Trump dies. And all of a sudden Nikki Haley is the nominee. How do we fix Biden and beat her? I want seven smart ideas by the end of the day, or I'm gonna have new people around here.'
I mean, they've got to really understand the peril of their situation, and rethink it, instead of calling up people and yell at 'em for being critical of Joe Biden— like nobody talks about it, like he doesn't appear to be 118.
The stakes are too high to screw around.
1. To Beat Trump, Democrats Need a Whitmer-Warnock Ticket
A new standard-bearer is required to decisively beat Trump next year. It has nothing to do with the president’s record or Joe Biden the man. This is purely strategic, and solely about his chance of winning, as well as Kamala Harris’s. The vice president’s persistently low approval rating, part of the calculation for a second Biden campaign, is comparable to Trump’s when he was in office.
All of this may be unfair—successful first terms for incumbent presidents are usually rewarded by second terms, after all—but a determination made repeatedly by a majority of voters that Biden lacks the capacity to serve as commander in chief on account of his age isn’t going to fade away. If anything, the issue will get worse for the president as he continues to get older. …
If Trump chooses Nikki Haley or Sen. Tim Scott to be his running mate, the race may not even be close. Throw in Cornel West’s third-party candidacy, a No Labels
spoilerunity ticket—and perhaps an independent run from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., backed by Steve Bannon & Friends—and a second term of Trump starts to look like all but a sure thing.
This is not a thought exercise: It's a preview of the end of democracy. Gambling that a man a majority of Americans have already written off for his age will be in stronger shape politically a year from now doesn’t sound reasonable. It sounds incredibly dangerous. …
DEMOCRATS HAVE A DEEPER BENCH than many people appreciate. In particular, there are two leaders from swing states who can provide generational change, a fresh start, and a far more serious threat to Trump than Biden can: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Whitmer, 52, is one of the most experienced, exciting, and winning Democrats in the country. She is as tough a candidate, and leader, as the Democrats can find, and she was vetted as a potential VP pick in 2020. Warnock, who has won pluralities or majorities in five elections in three years, is the cerebral 54-year-old senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. He grew up in public housing, went through a messy divorce—no longer disqualifying in the age of Trump—has small children, and was the top small donor fundraiser from either party in 2022. The dramatic stakes of his election gave him national name recognition: Less than 10 percent of Warnock’s individual donations came from within his state.
Young. Dynamic. Diverse. Competent and experienced. Broadly appealing. Can mobilize core voters. Would deliver two battleground states. Those are seven big boxes already checked.
There are other benefits: Such a ticket would take away the core self-justification of the No Labels project, would seriously dent West’s vanity run, and would circumvent the ever-expanding Hunter Biden issue.
2. Biden’s Destiny Is Linked to Ukraine’s
Whether he wants to or not, as a political issue, Biden owns the war in Ukraine. Even though, as Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller point out, “President Biden has never made the public case for his own policy in a primetime Oval Office address or anything other than on-the-run comments to the media,” he has repeatedly called for supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” (whatever that means). Trump, by contrast, has kept curiously quiet on Ukraine, besides promising to end the war in 24 hours. Biden has come under fire from a small but vocal cohort of Republicans for supposedly having written a “blank check” to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Support for Ukraine has declined faster among Republicans than among Democrats, with almost half of the GOP voters amenable to Russian territorial gains if it means a swift end to the war, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June. Just 19 percent of Democrats agreed. (In a May poll, 82 percent of Ukrainians opposed giving up any of Ukraine’s sovereign territory under any circumstances.)