In the bottom of the tenth inning of game six of the 1986 World Series, with the Boston Red Sox leading the New York Mets 5-3, first-team manager John McNamara sent in Bill Buckner—a great hitter dealing with terrible problems. on the legs that left him limping around first base—back to playing defense instead of fielding Dave Stapleton, his replacement. A half-dozen hits later, a low play by Mookie Wilson sailed past Buckner’s shaking legs, sending the World Series into a seventh game and a certain 6-year-old Red Sox fan to bed in tears.
Those tears were my first encounter with the hard truth of a baseball aphorism: the ball will always find you. If you put a player where he shouldn’t be, try to disguise his inability by moving him away from the likely action, or give him the chance to stay on the field too long for sentimental reasons, the risk you take will probably catch up with you eventually. at the worst possible time.
Obviously, this is a column about President Joe Biden’s age. But not just about Biden, because the United States has been carrying out many experiments like Buckner’s lately.
Consider the terrible outcome of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career for progressives.
No one could tell a lifelong Supreme Court justice who had survived cancer that it was time to step aside, and Democrats were left talking hopefully about her exercise routine as she tried to resist Donald Trump. And she almost succeeded — but, in the end, her legacy was reshaped and even undone by her decision to remain in the political field for too long.
Consider Trump’s own presidency, in which voters entrusted a manifestly unsuitable leader with the powers of the presidency. Throughout his tenure, various Republicans tried to manage him, frame him, and keep him out of trouble, while Dave Stapleton — I mean, Mike Pence — warmed the bench.
This effort was successful enough that, in early 2020, Trump appeared potentially headed for re-election. But with a series of plays by an amateur slugger, the final year of his term left him relentlessly exposed — by the pandemic (whether you think he was too libertarian or too Faucian, Trump was obviously dominated); for a progressive cultural revolution (which he opposed but was powerless to stop); for Biden’s presidential campaign; and, finally, by his own vices, which resulted in January 6th.
Naturally, Republicans are ready to put him on the field again.
These experiences have shaped my expectations about what is happening with the Democrats and Biden now. Growing anxiety over Biden’s dismal poll numbers has prompted a defensive response from his supporters. The argument is that the president’s decline is being exaggerated; that his administration is going well and he deserves more credit than he is getting; and that, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser suggests, the press is repeating its mistake with the Hillary Clinton email scandal and making the age issue seem terrible when it’s just, well, “suboptimal.”
I don’t think Biden’s decline is being exaggerated by the media — perhaps by some Republicans, but the press in general is, at the very least, treading carefully around the evident reality. But I think Biden’s defenders are correct that the effect of his age on the Presidency has been only slightly negative, at most. He limited his use of the pulpit and hurt his poll numbers, but his administration passed important legislation, managed a foreign policy crisis and had more dexterity than Trump’s.
My criticisms of Bidenism are those that a conservative would normally have of any progressive president, not associated with the chaos or incompetence created by cognitive decline.
But by risking re-election, Democrats are making a fatal bet that this successful management can simply continue running two risks: the high stakes of the next election, in which a health crisis or just further decline could put Trump back in power. White House; and the different but also substantial challenges of another four-year term.
“The ball will always find you” is, of course, not an invariable truth. It’s entirely possible that Biden could limp to another victory; that his second term will have no worse consequences than, say, Ronald Reagan’s; that, having managed things thus far, his advisors, spouse and cabinet can take the next five years forward.
But the Trump era was one of those periods when providence or fate took its revenge more quickly than usual. That’s when the long-standing freedom to work around foibles and errors that American parties and leaders enjoy by virtue of our power and pre-eminence was substantially curtailed.
Even Millhiser’s proposed analogy for Biden’s age fixation, the Clinton email scandal, fits this pattern.
In the end, they hurt Clinton because they briefly connected with the Anthony Weiner sex scandal. This was substantially unfair, as nothing came of Clinton’s messages found on Weiner’s laptop. But it was dramatically appropriate — an almost Shakespearean twist. After surviving all of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, the dynasty would be undone in its moment of near-triumph by a different, pathetic predator.
Therefore, whether it is right or not, I cannot help but expect an equally dramatic punishment for the attempt to keep Biden in the White House despite his decline.
The fact that I also expect some form of punishment for Republicans for renominating Trump, despite his inadequacy, does not make me inconsistent, because presidential politics is not quite the same thing as baseball. Unlike the World Series, there doesn’t need to be a simple winner: everyone can be punished; we can all lose.
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