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Betting On The Future

Stuart Stevens writes: "The Biden-Trump rematch can be about many things...If the race is about the past, Donald Trump wins. If it’s about the future, Joe Biden wins."
Published:March 5, 2024
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Campaigns have been called a billion-dollar business that is only open for one day. With early voting, that has shifted to more like two weeks, but the point remains the same: there is only a very short window of time that really matters. It may feel like the Biden vs. Trump campaign started four years ago when Biden secured the nomination after the South Carolina primary, but the political reality is that the race is very fluid and unformed.

How is that possible with two candidates as well-known as Joe Biden and Donald Trump? What conceivable new information could enter the national dialogue to sway the election one way or the other?

The answer is that we don’t know what the 2024 election is going to be about. Elections come down to what is the most pressing question the majority of voters are asking when casting their ballots and which candidate is the best answer to that question. The 1992 election is a classic example. Bush vs. Clinton could have been about many things – foreign policy, experience, gravitas – which would have propelled Bush into an easy re-election. It’s become a truism that the race was about “the economy, stupid,” but I’ve never seen it that way. The extent of Bill Clinton’s economic plan was “to focus on the economy like a laser,” hardly the most compelling message. The race was really about change. Bush’s election in 1988 was a third term of Reagan, and by 1992, George Bush had been on a presidential ballot since 1980. Only FDR was given four terms, and Americans were ready to try something new. Ironically, the Reagan-Bush era's success allowed the race to become one an obscure governor from Arkansas could win. The Cold War had been won, Iraq defeated in Desert Storm and there were no looming threats to America. Why not take a chance on a new face?

The Biden-Trump rematch can be about many things. The battle to determine the race's dominant issue(s) is what we call agenda control in campaigns. It’s really not very complicated. If the race is about the United States southern border, odds are that Donald Trump wins. If the race is about decency and normalcy, Joe Biden wins. If the race is about the past, Donald Trump wins. If it’s about the future, Joe Biden wins.

My bet is the race will hinge on the past vs. future contrast. More than any presidential nominee in modern history, Donald Trump is running to turn back the clock. His latest attack on vaccines, promising to end mandatory vaccines in public schools, is an extraordinary attack on public health. It’s unimaginable that a candidate in 2024 is promising to return Americans to a time when polio, whooping cough, measles, and diphtheria killed and maimed millions. It’s tempting to dismiss it as campaign hyperbole, but that mistake was made when Trump promised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Joe Biden’s Administration has been focused on the future. His Cabinet is filled with next-generation leaders focused on the future. That’s what the Biden infrastructure bill, the largest public works project in US history, is building: An America that works better and where better work is available. Trump talked about a return of manufacturing jobs. Biden is making it happen.

But more than any one single bill or policy, Trump represents a Republican
Party at war with the future, uncomfortable with change. We are headed to a minority-majority country, and all of the Stephen Millers in the world can’t stop that. Most Americans have grown tired of sexual identity wars, while the Republicans are still obsessed with bathrooms and bedrooms.

Both Trump and Biden will be the last president born in the shadow of World War Two. Each would be the oldest president in our history. The challenge for the Biden campaign is to make the race about who can best pass the torch and will the torch be passed backward or forward. This is a race that is more likely to be about “who can do more for the next four years” than “are you better off today than four years ago.”

Trump will secure the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday. The race begins. It will be a race not only for the future but about the future. Despite some negative general election numbers in recent polls, I like Biden’s chances. I’m betting on the future.

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