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Incumbent Presidents Have Faced Vicious Primary Challenges. Why Isn’t Joe Biden?

President , 64% of Democrats listed age, mental acuity or health as their biggest concern about Biden. Whether or not Biden is intensely and actively involved in directing his administration ― and in his recent book, “The Last Politician,” Franklin Foer makes it clear that he is ― he looks old, and Democrats worry that is hurting his reelection chances.

“Biden’s age isn’t just a Fox News trope; it’s been the subject of dinner-table conversations across America this summer,” Ignatius wrote in his Washington Post op-ed calling for Biden to step aside.

The idea, seemingly proposed by pundits, is that a primary challenger will emerge and will, very nicely, without attacking Biden’s age, usher him off the stage, à la Johnson in 1968. This would somehow also push aside Vice President Kamala Harris. But if the question of Biden’s age is the paramount issue, it would be impossible for a challenger to avoid commenting on it — especially if, like Reagan, the Kennedys and to a lesser extent McCarthy, they are running with the intent to win.

This is obviously extremely fraught. What politician who hopes to have a future in their party wants to attack their incumbent president as too old, and then ― based on the history of challenges to incumbents ― probably lose a primary campaign? Attacking Biden as senile didn’t exactly work out for former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro in 2020. He was booed by the debate crowd and denied a speaking spot at the party’s 2020 convention.

The only elected Democrat who has even half-floated a 2024 primary bid, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, has repeatedly denied that Biden’s age is an issue, dodged questions about it and failed to explain exactly how he would win.

Party insiders aren’t just looking out for their own careers when they refuse to attack Biden’s age. They’re also looking back at the general election losses that followed each significant primary challenge in 1968, 1976 and 1980, and even the lesser challenge to Bush in 1992. Whether or not political scientists agree that primary challenges to incumbents damage them in the general, the politicians directly engaged in politics sure think they do.

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September 2023
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