Rage, rage against the octogenarian steel cage match

Why Biden vs. Trump probably won’t happen in 2024

The next presidential election could have us all quoting “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Shapiro writes. Above, Joe Biden and Donald Trump debate in 2020. (Jim Bourg/Pool/Getty Images)
The next presidential election could have us all quoting “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Shapiro writes. Above, Joe Biden and Donald Trump debate in 2020. (Jim Bourg/Pool/Getty Images)
Posted July 12, 2022 at 6:00am

This is the summer of Joe Biden’s discontent. 

Even though gas prices are dropping and the economy remains strong, Biden’s approval ratings resemble Harry Truman’s during the depths of the Korean War. 

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a front-page article with the headline “At 79, Biden Is Testing the Boundaries of Age and the Presidency.” And leading the paper on Monday morning was a poll story with the subhead: “With the country gripped by a pervasive sense of pessimism, the president is hemorrhaging support.”

Biden’s poll numbers may eventually rebound, but barring the discovery of a Fountain of Youth on the South Lawn of the White House, the age issue isn’t going away for a president who will be 80 in November. 

All this brings us to a spring chicken known as Donald J. Trump. 

Only in the 22nd paragraph of the Times story about Biden’s age was the defrocked 76-year-old former president even mentioned. As the Times tartly noted, “Mr. Trump’s diminished vocabulary, tendency to meander, sometimes incoherent remarks, light office schedule and struggles to process information led critics to conclude that he was in decline.”

While prominent Democrats silently pray and softly whisper to reporters the hope that Biden will not run again, another Trump campaign seems as inevitable as a fresh burst of snarling invective about a supposedly “stolen election.” Trump supporters seem untroubled that the avatar of their warped dreams will be 82 in 2028.

The point here is not to lament the double standard of news coverage about Biden’s and Trump’s ages. Rather, it is to stress all the reasons why it is far from certain that Trump will be the 2024 GOP standard-bearer. 

The Trump act has been constantly replayed since the reality TV star and real estate huckster rode down the elevator at Trump Tower in 2015 to throw his meticulously arranged comb-over into the ring. 

And even Republicans are getting bored with the Trumpian pyrotechnics. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only 25 percent of Americans and just 50 percent of Republicans want Trump to run again. And the polling average at FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a deeply underwater 40.7 percent approval rating.

A case can be made that Biden and Trump are locked into a race to the bottom of the polling charts, since the president’s average approval, according to FiveThirtyEight, has drooped to 38.5 percent. 

Scant consolation for Biden is that he bests Trump by a 44-to-41 percent margin in the latest New York Times/Siena College polling matchup for 2024.

For all the talk of prosecuting Trump for his increasingly evident role in instigating the storming of the Capitol, the Jan. 6 committee has been fulfilling a higher obligation. And that is making an ironclad case to the voters that Trump is unfit for any public office, including drain commissioner and county coroner. 

The hearings this week and next may not mark the end of the line for the public phase of the inquiry. In fact, the “smoking gun” evidence continues to accumulate, with former White House counsel Pat Cipollone giving a deposition last Friday and Trumpian firebrand Steve Bannon belatedly claiming to want to testify on the cusp of his trial for contempt of Congress. 

Nothing about the committee schedule is etched in stone. The only inflexible deadline the committee faces is its extinction at the end of this Congress. That’s why it is a reasonable bet that the worst lies ahead for Trump, though it will be hard to top Cassidy Hutchinson’s portrayal of an enraged and deranged president tossing his lunch against a White House wall. 

Trump’s age gives timorous Republicans an out. It may soon be safe for them to say in public, “Donald Trump was a great president and we must search for a younger candidate to continue his glorious legacy.” 

None of these words, of course, are remotely true. But they may help nudge Trump offstage even as he rants and raves to the end. 

The most telling sign of Trump’s vulnerability: all the top Republicans who are making pilgrimages to Iowa, home of the opening-gun 2024 caucuses. The list includes Mike Pence, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. 

Something tells me that they are not coming to Iowa for the waters.  

In a weird sense, Trump and Biden need each other to justify their ambitions for another term in the White House. Back in March, Biden even said at a news conference in Brussels, “In the next election, I’d be very fortunate if I had that same man running against me.”

Trump, writing over the weekend on Truth Social, his flailing right-wing substitute for Twitter, claimed, “There are many people in their 80s, and even 90s, that are as good and sharp as ever. Biden is not one of them, but it has little to do with his age. In actuality, life begins at 80!”

By Trump’s reckoning, 2024 would be shaping up as a “rage, rage against the dying of the light” election. Or, in less elevated terms, an octogenarian-level steel-cage match.

I would bet against Trump becoming the third man in U.S. history to be nominated for president in three successive elections. The last was Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. And comparing Trump to FDR is akin to Boris Johnson likening himself to Winston Churchill.