(CNN)If America’s angry politics were not jumbled enough, President Joe Biden just injected new uncertainty into a head-spinning midterm election ride.
His comment, in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on Sunday night, that it was “much too early” to consider a 2024 reelection bid that had previously seemed a given added to a swirling sense of turmoil ahead of November’s critical vote.
The midterm campaign had once seemed certain to turn on Biden’s low approval ratings. But Democrats have some momentum after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion and the President’s approval ratings began ticking up amid falling gas prices.
After earlier predictions that the midterm election curse that haunts first-term presidents would bring a Republican wave, the GOP now seems to be burying its most effective message — tied to raging inflation under Biden — by reigniting the culture wars.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis caused uproar — but likely boosted his potential Republican presidential primary campaign — by transporting a group of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last week. A day earlier, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina shocked colleagues trying to walk a fine line on abortion by proposing a bill that would impose a nationwide ban on the procedure after 15 weeks.
Add to all this the extraordinary spectacle of former President Donald Trump still falsely claiming he won the last election and dropping into mob speak to make dark allusions of possible violence if he is charged for mishandling highly classified documents.
Seven weeks from Election Day, unpredictable and possibly dangerous political forces are swelling and it’s hard to get a fix on the issues that will decide whether Democrats hang on to both chambers of Congress or lose one or both.
It is into that destabilized political stew that Biden’s comments, broadcast as he was in London for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, arrived.
Of course, this could just be Biden being Biden. His off-the-cuff remarks often get walked back by his staff. But his statement, and a similar one by first lady Jill Biden last week that they had not discussed a reelection race, will be certain to stir speculation.
“Look, my intention, as I said to begin with, is that I would run again. But it’s just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen,” Biden told CBS’ Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes.”
Biden, who has a tragedy-scarred life, has often said he’s a “great respecter of fate.” He would be over 80 if he runs again, and a lot could happen before the 2024 election in which Trump is already indicating he’s likely to run.
But Biden’s remarks were striking given that he left himself an out. They’ll likely renew questions about who, other than him, might be a Democratic candidate in 2024 — a tide of speculation that had quieted following the President’s recent run of legislative success.
DeSantis seems to have 2024 in his sights
DeSantis is one possible Republican candidate whether Trump runs or not. He’s already used his platform to establish a formidable conservative power base on transgender issues and Covid-19 precautions, which would look impressive in a Republican presidential primary.
He got a standing ovation far from Florida, in Kansas, on Sunday for sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, basking in praise for a move that critics branded un-American and inhumane.
In some ways, the attempts by DeSantis and Graham to appeal to the populist base hint at political malpractice in the party since the highest year-on-year jump in food prices since 1979 would seem to give Republicans a winning campaign theme.
But while a searing focus on the economy is the stated preference of GOP leaders, base voters are often drawn to the kind of stunt politics pioneered by Trump and DeSantis. It can sometimes look like the GOP is locked in a perpetual primary cycle to appeal to its most fervent voters while ignoring the wider general electorate, which could prove problematic for some of the Trump-backed candidates who won this year’s primaries.
It’s far too early to call November’s elections, which see Republicans still well positioned to take the House and in striking distance of capturing the Senate. History suggests that Democrats are in for a drubbing, but earlier predictions of a Republican wave look shakier, as a new NBC News poll shows Democrats moving into a tie with the GOP on the generic ballot and Biden’s approval ratings at their highest point since October. Democratic momentum has grown as the GOP returns to its culture war playbook, especially following the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in June.
The unexpected twists with Election Day less than two months away are scrambling the 2022 campaign, and making it far harder to predict what will be the winning issue set for the victorious party in an internally estranged nation.
All of this is also taking place against the backdrop of Trump’s effort to turn the midterms into an arena for revenge for the 2020 election, which he refuses to accept he lost, and his deepening legal problems following the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. His darkening and inciteful rhetoric was on show at a rally in Ohio on Saturday night. But the ubiquity of the ex-President, who has not been charged with a crime, risks reminding many more moderate voters why they turned against him.
The risk of going too far
Democrats rushed to capitalize on openings offered by DeSantis and Graham.
“The migrants are human beings and we got to treat them like human beings. They’re being used as political pawns to get publicity,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“This is a blight on our entire country,” he added.
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, compared the latest immigration stunts by Republican governors — including Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who had migrants dropped off outside the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris last week — to the hardline anti-migrant policies of the Trump administration.
“Why is it when the Republicans want to enforce their immigration theories, It’s always the kids that end up being the victims,” Durbin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “We saw it with kids in cages. We saw it with a forcible removal of children from their parents, some who’ve never been reunited with their families. And now, once again, it’s the kids and families that are put on these buses and transported for political purposes across the United States.”
DeSantis argued that liberal states like Massachusetts, where the migrants were flown, are to blame for encouraging the influx across the border, and he was defiant during his appearance in deep-red Kansas. “This is a crisis. It’s now getting a little bit more attention,” DeSantis said.
While Republican approaches to the border often seem extreme, there could be some fertile political ground for the party on the issue considering the Biden administration has failed to come up with a convincing strategy to combat border crossings. Earlier this month, Harris said on NBC that the border was “secure” — a statement that seemed to fly in the face of reality.
The Republican approach to immigration is a textbook example of how the two parties are appealing to entirely different electorates in a fractured nation. A Pew Research poll this month, for instance, found that overwhelming majorities of conservatives wanted stronger border security and more deportations of undocumented migrants. Democrats, while viewing border security as important, were most concerned with finding a path for them to stay.
Still, majorities of both sets of voters back providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing war and violence. This is one reason why DeSantis’ use of Venezuelan migrants, who may be fleeing a repressive socialist dictatorship, might prove to be a risky move among the broader electorate.
It remains unclear whether this scorched earth Republicanism, which parallels Trump’s populist rhetoric, is a good recipe for winning general elections.
Former Democratic President Bill Clinton suggested in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria Sunday that this brand of relentless attack politics was designed to “scare” people. Democrats, he argued, were trying to solve people’s problems — but that’s a goal with its own significant challenges.
“It’s harder to build a barn than it is to kick one down. And then when you build it, you’ve got to explain what you built and why it’s a good thing to put your animals in your barn,” Clinton said. “It’s harder, but it’s really worth doing.”
Graham frustrates his colleagues
While DeSantis appears to eye a future presidential bid by deliberately adopting policies that provoke anger among Democrats, Graham is more curious.
Some Washington Republicans have barely contained their frustration at him for saddling the GOP with a new position to defend just as they are trying to contain the political damage from the Supreme Court’s decision. But Graham was unrepentant in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”
“Here’s what I would tell the Republican Party: Be not afraid. Stand up for the baby,” Graham said. “When you’re asked about abortion, the answer can’t be ‘I’d like to lower inflation.’ Give a logical answer.”
In a sign of the political sensitivity of the issue, South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds wouldn’t endorse his colleague’s proposal on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“I think the states are in a better shape to explore and to find the right direction on a state-by-state basis.”
Rounds, however, didn’t break with DeSantis and Abbott on the other top issue on the right this week — immigration. The unity on that topic proves how, just as it was for Trump in 2016, it looks to be a mobilizing force for the GOP base in 2022 and beyond.