What if Biden weren’t running? Democrats have a bench that’s deeper than you think

FILE - Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Jan. 25, 2023, at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich. Michigan companies will be prohibited from firing or otherwise retaliating against workers for receiving an abortion under a bill signed Wednesday, May 17, 2023, by Whitmer, that amends the state's civil rights law. (AP Photo/Al Goldis, File)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is on the list of next-generation Democratic politicians cooling their heels while President Biden runs for a second term. (Al Goldis / Associated Press)

The focus is fixed on Republicans when it comes to 2024 presidential primary politics: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reportedly will announce their bids for the party’s nomination next week, making it a six-pack of competitors so far against the damaged but still dominant Donald Trump.

By contrast, there’s relative calm on the Democratic side, where President Biden has no major rivals for reelection. Yet the placidity belies simmering anxiety. Nearly a month after the president released the three-minute video confirming he is seeking a second term, he hasn’t quieted doubts about his candidacy among party leaders and voters. If anything, the worries are mounting, flowing from his consistently low poll ratings and the fact of his advanced age.

Media surveys just before and after Biden’s announcement, for NBC News and for the Washington Post/ABC News, respectively, showed that more Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters opposed his running again than favored it. Democratic operatives still speculate, in private conversations, about younger, more vibrant alternatives and “what if” scenarios. Biden’s less-than-apparent heir, Vice President Kamala Harris, is excluded from the handicapping because she is even less popular in polls than he is.

The president, in his recorded announcement, confidently proclaimed, “This is our moment …. Let’s finish this job.” He’s given no sign since of flagging.

But let’s take a moment to consider some of the up-and-coming Democrats who are perhaps missing their moment given Biden’s quest for four more years.

I continue to think that as long as Biden believes he can do the job for another five and a half years — until he’s 86! — then he’s earned his 2024 run. And yet, the fact is, the Democrats have a deeper bench of potentially presidential-caliber politicians than is generally appreciated. A handful are ready for prime time now. A few could use a bit more experience (though the same was often said in 2007-08 of then-Sen. Barack Obama).

Tops among the up-and-comers are two new governors, Wes Moore and Josh Shapiro, who demolished Trump-backed Republicans in November. Moore, an Army veteran of Afghanistan, former Rhodes Scholar, author and investment banker, is the first Black governor of Maryland. Shapiro, former Pennsylvania attorney general, won in his swing state on the strength of his reputation as a consensus-builder and on his prominence in fighting Republican efforts to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results.

Their time could well come. But among those Democrats seasoned enough now for the presidential arena are more experienced governors, including Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, both of whom impressively won reelection in their battleground states and have since gained national attention for their fights for abortion rights in their states. Second-term blue-state leaders J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a billionaire whose family owns the Hyatt chain, and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, similarly have raised their profiles, speaking out against Trump and Republican extremism.

There’s also Andy Beshear, the popular Democratic governor in very red-state Kentucky, who’s running for reelection this year against a MAGA Republican, and Gavin Newsom, who has directly baited Trump and, more recently, DeSantis. (Latest round: Newsom needled DeSantis on Twitter Thursday for the Florida governor’s “bigoted policies” that provoked Disney to pull the plug on a Florida project: “That’s 2,000+ jobs that will be welcomed back with open arms to the Golden State.”)

Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, all ran in 2020 and remain viable, though it’s unclear how ambitious for the top job they remain. Another possibility: Mitch Landrieu, former lieutenant governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans, widely respected for his work on race issues and now overseeing implementation of Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure initiative.

Democrats’ private talk of such alternatives will probably persist at least through Labor Day, when it will become all but too late to mount a serious presidential campaign. Even then their hand-wringing will likely continue, revived with each presidential stumble, malaprop or other reminder of Biden’s age.

That’s what Democrats do best, as even they’ll tell you: wring their hands. But with a presidential candidate who’s testing the actuarial tables, they have reason to fret. They can console themselves by thinking of future elections and their impressive contenders-in-waiting. But it’s a shame that they have to wait. And it could be worse than a shame come November 2024.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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