The ghost of Eugene McCarthy could haunt Biden’s path to renomination

Fifty-five years ago, pundits scoffed when a Democratic senator announced that he was running against incumbent Lyndon Johnson for their party’s presidential nomination.

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These days, conventional media wisdom says that President Biden will have a smooth path to renomination if he wants it.

Don’t be so sure.

Fifty-five years ago, pundits scoffed when a Democratic senator announced that he was running against incumbent Lyndon Johnson for their party’s presidential nomination. Eugene McCarthy launched his campaign to challenge Johnson’s continual escalation of the war in Vietnam.

Joe Biden’s public approval rating is now at 42 percent, virtually identical to what it was for President Johnson when the McCarthy campaign began in November 1967. A few months later, on March 12, 1968, McCarthy received 42 percent of the votes—a stunning result, just 7 percent behind Johnson—in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Senator Robert Kennedy jumped into the race four days later. And two weeks after that, Johnson shocked the country by declaring that he would not seek re-election.

It would be nice to hear from Biden the kind of statement that Johnson made: “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the presidency of your country.” But Biden has said in recent weeks that he intends to run again.

Spinners aligned with the White House are careful to detour around the notable shortage of enthusiasm for Biden among the Democratic electorate. New polling found that 57 percent of Democrats don’t want him to be the party’s nominee.

So far, no Democrat in Congress has shown any interest in entering primaries against Biden. Yet a progressive challenger could launch a principled campaign to constructively give Biden a run for his corporate money in early primary states—raising vital questions about crucial policies along the way.

Skeptics might point out that, unlike when McCarthy received strong support from antiwar citizens, now there is no single overriding issue like the Vietnam War. But there is a class war (by any other name) going on with great intensity in the United States—and a wide range of Americans are feeling the countless dire consequences of inordinate corporate power and worsening economic inequality.

Of course, Biden does not want to face a primary rival who could clearly illuminate such issues. In the absence of a credible opponent, the president would be able to skate through primaries without needing to face cogent critiques of his administration’s record on an array of chronic problems—including corporate price-gouging, skyrocketing costs of housing, voter suppression, and a bloated military budget that soaks up roughly half of all federal discretionary spending.

Given the enormity of the crises facing the United States and the world, measures that Biden has proposed are often akin to calling for garden hoses to put out roaring wildfires. Being far better than Republicans in Congress is a high jump over very low standards, while simply blaming Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema is more like scapegoating than explaining.

Whether in the realms of the predatory healthcare system or the exploitative treatment of workers by huge corporations or the ever-increasing stranglehold of big tech companies or many other ills, Biden has often accepted or worsened destructive priorities while rejecting remedies that would improve people’s lives instead of boost corporate profits.

“Our ideas are way more popular than Joe Biden is,” a progressive Democratic member of the New Hampshire legislature says in a T.V. ad that will begin to air throughout the state this week. A young voter says “Joe Biden representing the status quo in 2024 simply won’t cut it.” Another New Hampshire voter warns in the ad (which was produced by our colleagues in the Don’t Run Joe campaign), “We can’t afford to risk the White House for a Republican who could defeat status-quo Joe.”

But where is a prominent progressive Democrat willing to challenge status-quo Joe in the primaries? Political courage appears to be in short supply among self-identified progressives on Capitol Hill, who so far have done nothing to help get Biden out of the way and clear a path for bolder leadership. It will be up to grassroots activists to get the job done.

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