Columnist David Shribman: Is President Biden the future of the Democratic Party?

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Maybe now is the moment to buck every indicator in American politics. Maybe, as the presidential campaign moves into South Carolina, which four years ago upended every assumption of every political professional, it is time to reconsider the conventional wisdom. Maybe all the loud voices are not necessarily the smart voices.

Maybe sleepy Joe Biden is the future of the Democratic Party after all.

Not that future Democrats need to find a tottering 81-year-old to be their standard-bearer. Not that the Biden philosophy, rooted as it is in issues and outlooks that were built to be a counterweight to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is a sound basis for a party slouching toward the second third of the 21st century. Not that a handsy old-time pol moving to the soundtrack of a 1950s sock hop is a credible model for a future where gender roles, and gender itself, are going to be even more fluid than they are today.

But maybe what the early weeks of the 2024 presidential election are telling us is that a political profile that leans and sometimes lurches left but has a gyroscope that continually moves back toward a safe center might be just the thing for a party that is going to be facing for the next decade variations on the MAGA theme that courts chaos and demands conformity.

Isn’t that the formula that John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used to win elections over a span of more than a half-century? If that worked for Democrats who, at election time, were an average age of 45 over a period of 52 years, might that work for Democrats from now to (hold your breath!) the country’s tricentennial in 2076? Or at least to 2028, when presumably Donald Trump will be out to post-presidential pasture?

The line from Ecclesiastes that best describes Biden isn’t only verse 3:3, that there is “a time to break down, and a time to build up.” It also may be verse 10:2, which tells us in the timeless rhythms of the King James Version, “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.” Back up a bit, and consider that Biden might have understood, or maybe just stumbled upon by instinct and inclination, a political philosophy for “every purpose under the heaven,” or at least in the cloudy landscape of American politics.

Not that Biden is the 100% perfect person to run again in 2024. Nearly every political poll shows his weaknesses. Too old, for a start. Too infirm, probably. Too unpopular, for sure. Too unable to convince voters that he deserves credit for a strong economy and a stock market that is on fire. And most important, too something — maybe simply too old-fashioned, too out of touch with contemporary life, too white-guy folksy for the minorities who are essential elements of the party’s coalition — to appeal to the young people who have been the rock upon which the Democratic Party always has built its campaigns.

It wasn’t until former Vice President Walter F. Mondale appeared before an audience at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in the very late days of the 1984 campaign and was booed in his native state that he realized his lifelong White House dream was doomed. He went back to his jetliner and ruminated on how he’d always had the young people, he and his mentor, Hubert Humphrey, in Minnesota. Mondale lost 49 states to a candidate, Reagan, who was 73 and in retrospect probably had early signs of Alzheimer’s.

But it’s arguable that if The Squad of leftist women and the Bernie Sanders vanguard of white quasi-socialists are wrong and the Democratic Party’s future could be in shades of gradation — not quite flaming liberal, not quite middle of the road — its next leader can’t have the gray head of Biden (even if, in the president’s case, it is a result of hair plugs — that’s never been fully resolved).

Don’t rule out the wisdom that comes with experience, however. The party’s Next New Thing might not be an ingenue covered with star dust, but it probably won’t be someone from left field to counter 2016’s intruder from right field, either. And it probably won’t be Taylor Swift, though she has the advantage of driving conservatives batty, apparently living rent-free in their heads.

Biden’s evolution on immigration is instructive. He is not so far from his Irish roots that he — like President Kennedy, who in 1963 visited his ancestral home in County Wexford — was drawn last year to visit Ballina, which one of his great-great-grandfathers left in 1850 to immigrate here. He, like Kennedy, has a soft spot for immigration. (JFK actually wrote a book, “A Nation of Immigrants,” celebrating the country’s heritage as a refuge for the oppressed and a beacon of opportunity for the striving.)

But now that the number of migrants crossing the southern border is more than double the number under Trump, and now that the Democrats realize the gravity of the situation, the president is asking Congress to provide him the power to shut down the border. Is it a coincidence that that effort came in the same week in which the Quinnipiac University National Poll showed Biden at 50%, holding a 6-percentage-point lead among likely November voters over Trump — a huge improvement over the December poll that gave him a 1-point advantage (well under the margin of error) over the former president?

Walt Whitman once described American elections as “your powerfullest scene and show,” and 2024 is living up to that characterization. But that scene is showing us that the Biden profile shorn of Biden himself is one of the powerfullest forces in American life. Biden might well defeat Trump.

But polls also show he would lose to former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina by 5 percentage points.

Haley, 52 years old, is telling donors that before 2029, the president will be a woman: Haley herself or Vice President Kamala Harris. Might the Democrats — to be sure they retain the White House for the next four years — look for a woman with the Biden sensibility? Might that take them to Michigan, and to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer? She, by the way, is 52.