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HomeCommunitiesPoliticsA 2024 Trump-Biden Rematch: Not Dull, but a Fresh Experience.

A 2024 Trump-Biden Rematch: Not Dull, but a Fresh Experience.

At this point in the 2024 race, it looks like President Joe Biden is set for a rematch with his predecessor Donald Trump. It’s a matchup that nobody wants to see, at least according to the polls and the pundits.

About 70% of the public says they don’t want either Biden or Trump to run for president, according to one August poll. That is consistent with multiple surveys taken throughout 2023. National and local newspaper columnists, meanwhile, bemoan another “awful” matchup and the sense of “impending doom” that is sending voters “through the famous five stages of grief.”

The majority of the complaints about this rematch are personal in nature. Age is a preeminent concern. Biden, 80, or Trump, 77, would be the oldest president ever elected if successful in the 2024 race. That would make it the third straight election to set such a record. Trump is a twice-impeached, four-times-indicted lout who threatens the fundaments of American democracy. Biden, on the other hand, is perceived as dull and doddering. He won’t send a thrill up your leg or make you see starbursts.

At its heart, as Vanity Fair’s Brian Stelter argued in July, the problem is that the rematch would be a “rerun.” We’ve seen it all before — or have we?

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The likely 2024 Biden-Trump contest should be viewed less as a rerun and more as the rare reboot that actually ups the stakes: Compared with each man’s first successful run for the presidency, both are taking positions that repudiate past governing commitments of the American state in ways that we probably haven’t seen before.

In pursuit of a national hand in economic policymaking, Biden is rhetorically attacking the neoliberal paradigm that has dominated American domestic and foreign policy for the past 40 years. His Democratic predecessors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did so too at times, but Biden is also enacting actual policies that turn the page on this era.Biden is betting his presidency on efforts to move past economic policies that have dominated the U.S. since Ronald Reagan's tenure.

Trump, on the other hand, is running to turn the presidency into something akin to a monarchy. He has deemphasized the old conservative “tax and spend” discourse in favor of an all-out attack on government depth. Yes, he still embraces cutting taxes for the rich and slashing government spending. But the policy that he and his allies are emphasizing most in pursuit of conservative aims is placing the administrative state and its 2 million-plus workers, including law enforcement and investigatory bodies, under his direct control by gutting civil service protections and the independence of agencies. If you can’t cut the size of government, you can at least make it bend to your wishes, or so the thinking goes.

Candidates from both major parties basically always run on opposing platforms, but true challenges to existing commitments of the governing regime are rare.

For example, when George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush ran for office, they sought to extend the political and policy changes of the system put in place when Ronald Reagan won office in 1980. Their successors, whether Clinton or Obama, opposed these changes at times, but they were either not able to move past the commitments made under Reagan or acceded to them.

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In the current case, neither candidate is playing the role of a Bush, Clinton or Obama. They are instead both running as though they were Reagan, looking to reject what exists and start something new.

This way of thinking about candidates and political regimes derives from the work of presidential historian Stephen Skowronek and his book “The Politics Presidents Make,” originally published in the ’90s.

Skowronek proposes that the presidency, with its intense executive powers and direct connection to the national electorate, is inherently destabilizing to political orders. The establishment of political orders and their destabilization occur in cycles, which are represented through a typology of presidents.

There are reconstructive presidents, who repudiate the past with calls for a return to original principles to redefine the modes of management (governmental commitments) and mobilization (the organization of politics and the electorate). Think Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, all of whom fundamentally changed the fabric of the constitutional order by altering the way that government is managed and parties are mobilized.

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“In the past, reconstructive leaders have been able to dislodge old commitments, to reorient the government for political action along a different course, and to move the nation beyond the old problems toward a different set of possibilities altogether,” Skowronek writes.

Trump, who in August was arrested for a fourth time, aims to alter American politics by turning the entire executive branch into an extension of his personal aims.

In Skowronek’s typology, reconstructive presidencies are preceded by disjunctive presidents. These are solo operators who are often outsiders to politics or their parties. Think Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter. They often sell themselves as managerial experts and propose great changes to their parties’ commitments, but are incapable of squaring the circle and founder under the contradictions they helped create.

This latter type quite clearly sounds like Trump in his first term. As with Hoover and Carter, Trump was an outsider who propelled himself into office with promises of managerial expertise. “I alone can fix it,” he famously said. He broke from existing Republican Party commitments, but saw many of his goals — constructing a border wall, repealing Obamacare, passing an infrastructure bill — languish as he could not disentangle the knots that his presidency created in his party’s governing coalition.

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Even worse, he was unable to bring to heel a federal bureaucracy in revolt against his policies. In the end, Trump was an extremely weak president who oversaw his party’s loss of both chambers of Congress and the White House in a single term — the first president to do so since Hoover.

At the same time, Trump was unique. In breaking norms and attempting to change electoral and governing arrangements, with his 2021 coup attempt being the most extreme example, Trump at times acted more like a reconstructive president. His emerging legacy was heavily debated by political theorists at the time. But in his third run for the White House, Trump is now clearly aiming to construct a new regime on the ashes of Reagan’s.

“We cannot treat Trump simply as a disjunctive president,” Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin, the author of two books that build on Skowronek’s typology, wrote in a recent blog post.

“He is like no previous disjunctive leader,” Balkin said. “He is currently bidding to become a reconstructive president and he has already completed one task we generally associate with such presidents, namely, transforming his party and its commitments of ideology and interest.”

What makes the 2024 election so unique is that Biden, too, is leading a reconstructive effort.

“Joe Biden’s strategy for forming a new regime has been the opposite of Trump’s,” Balkin wrote. “Where Trump presents himself as a revolutionary, Biden presents himself as the apostle of sane, stable government, as the protector of democracy, and as the restorer of a sense of political unity and common purpose.”

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Balkin mostly focuses on the limitations of Biden’s attempted reconstruction, drawing attention to his decisions not to break norms by, say, invoking the 14th Amendment to end this year’s debt limit standoff, changing filibuster rules in the Senate to push through new voting rights laws, or admitting Washington, D.C., as the 51st state. These can be partly chalked up to Biden’s slim governing margins in Congress’ upper chamber. They also align with Skowronek’s argument that warrants for presidential reconstruction have narrowed over time, as the government and economy have become more complex.

However, not everyone agrees that both candidates are taking a reconstructive posture.

“Disjunctive leaders typically open the door to reconstructive leaders, and Biden has not played the part of a reconstructive leader,” Skowronek said in an email. “Reconstructive leaders build new parties, and reconstructive leaders take on the courts. Biden seems to have ducked both of those challenges.”

Reagan was the last president to have constructed a new governing order.

“Despite his disgrace, Trump did build a new party, and he is now poised to come back,” Skowronek added. “I think he will be the reconstructive leader in the Trump-Biden matchup. Biden has put himself in the position of defender of the establishment.”

Skowronek places less emphasis on policy and more on the ability of the reconstructive leader to effect changes in the management of government and the mobilization of a new party. Meanwhile, Balkin spends little time examining Biden’s seemingly reconstructive posture on political economy.

In touting “Bidenomics” as central to his reelection campaign, Biden is flatly repudiating the Reagan era’s defining policy commitments.

In a June 28 speech in Chicago, Biden declared that his “vision is a fundamental break from the economic theory that has failed America’s middle class for decades now.”

And, like reconstructive presidents before him, Biden claimed that his new economic paradigm would restore the country to its principles.

“Bidenomics is just another way of saying: Restore the American Dream because it worked before,” Biden said.

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The Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the bipartisan infrastructure law are all emblematic of this new vision, which places the federal government in a position to direct the national economy — a huge break from the Reagan-era commitment to laissez-faire, free-market ideology. So too is Biden’s focus on wage growth and labor market strength while rejecting theories proposing the need to increase unemployment to whip inflation. His administration has also ended Reagan-era policies on antitrust, regulatory review and prevailing wages while working to cement the fight against climate change into the workings of every federal agency.

When I asked Skowronek about Biden’s repudiative positions on national economy policy, he noted that he doesn’t “put too much stock in policy as an indicator of reconstructive leadership.”

“Before I credit Biden’s policy innovations with reconstructive politics, I would need to see some clear relationship to a larger political project, something that anchors policy changes in … [a] durable political and institutional infrastructure,” he noted.

Whether one takes Balkin’s view or Skowronek’s, the likely 2024 rematch is unique. In Balkin’s estimation, we have two candidates each proposing a wholly new direction for the country. In Skowronek’s, we see a president who oversaw the erosion of the old order seeking to return by imposing a new one.

When you look at the rematch this way, instead of through the personalities of two gerontocrats, the race seems far less like a rerun and far more like one of the most important inflection points in U.S. history.

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