Opinion | Will Biden Face a Democratic Challenger?

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

Joe Biden’s path to renomination by the Democratic Party, a journey reportedly likely to begin officially sometime next week, will represent a triumph of one seeming implausibility over another.

From the beginning of Biden’s presidency, every serious conversation about his re-election has started with the near-impossibility of imagining a man palpably too old for the office putting himself through the rigors of another presidential campaign, selling himself as a steady hand when his unsteadiness is so widely recognized even by his own coalition’s voters.

Yet that impossibility then collides with the impossibility of figuring out how Biden might be eased aside (barring a medical emergency, he clearly can’t be) or discerning how any ambitious Democrat could be induced to challenge him.

The dynamics that made Biden the nominee in the first place, his moderate branding and just-left-enough positioning, still protect him from a consolidated opposition on either flank. The younger rivals who challenged him in 2020, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, have been co-opted into his administration (where their brands aren’t exactly flourishing). Meanwhile the rising generation of Democratic governors — Gavin Newsom, Jared Polis, Gretchen Whitmer and Josh Shapiro — have positioned themselves (Newsom especially) for the post-Biden landscape, ready to step in only if he steps out.

Biden has also avoided the kind of gambits and defeats that might leave a large constituency ready to revolt. (Build Back Better diminished into the Inflation Reduction Act, but it eventually passed; our involvement in Ukraine has satisfied liberal hawks while stopping short of the direct conflict with Russia that might make the antiwar left bestir itself.) And he’s benefited from the way that polarization and anti-Trumpism has delivered a more unified liberalism, suffused by a trust-the-establishment spirit that makes the idea of a primary challenge seem not just dangerous but disreputable.

None of this eliminates the difficulty of imagining his campaign for four more years. But it’s outstripped by the difficulty of seeing how any serious and respectable force inside the Democratic Party could be organized to stop it.

However, as the Trump era has taught us, the serious and the respectable aren’t the only forces in American politics; disreputability has potency as well. Right now there’s no clear opening for a major rival like Newsom to replace Biden as the Democratic nominee. But with the president’s numbers consistently lousy, with a clear plurality of Democrats preferring that the president doesn’t run again, and with Biden scuffling in New Hampshire polling (he trailed Buttigieg in a January survey and led a more recent poll, but with only 34 percent), there is room for somebody with less to lose to try to run the same play as Eugene McCarthy in 1968 or Pat Buchanan in 1992 or for that matter Bernie Sanders in 2016 — to offer themselves as a protest candidate, to either channel hidden grievances or discover, through their campaign, what those grievances might be.

Right now the only major figure auditioning for that role is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the noted anti-vaccine activist who opened his own campaign in Boston earlier this week. He’s an interesting test case, because while he’s way outside the current liberal mainstream, his name trades on a distinctive kind of older-Democrat nostalgia, while his anti-corporate crankishness speaks to a tendency that used to be powerful on the left, before Trumpism absorbed a lot of paranoid energy and conspiracism.

This makes it possible to imagine him discovering a real constituency of Democrats who aren’t fully happy being part of the coalition that valorizes official expertise, who blend holistic views on medicine with doubts about the mainstream narrative on — well, the Kennedy assassinations for a start (though he will have to compete for some of these voters with Marianne Williamson, whose hat is also in the ring again).

At the same time his reputation as a conspiracist makes R.F.K. Jr. a poor vehicle for Democrats who might want to cast an anti-Biden vote without making an anti-vaccine statement. So it should be relatively easy for the party to establish a cordon sanitaire around his candidacy, such that 10 percent of the vote is possible but 30 percent is unimaginable.

It’s that 30 percent threshold, broken by McCarthy and Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary, that would create actual problems for Biden were it breached. I suspect there’s enough discontent based on age and fitness issues alone for such a breach to happen. But is there anyone closer to the mainstream than R.F.K. Jr. who wants to create those problems, raising their profile at the risk of catching blame for a Trump or Ron DeSantis presidency?

Ideally a column like this would end by identifying just that person, in a prophetic flourish. But since I don’t have a candidate ready at hand, maybe Biden can breathe easy — with all the impediments of age overcome, once again, by the absence of any credible alternative.

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