LOS ANGELES — Memo to Democrats: It’s not Nancy Jacobson who’s disrupting President Joe Biden’s speeches most every time he appears in public and it’s also not Nancy Jacobson floating Robert F. Kennedy Jr. $15 million to help him get on general election ballots.
I don’t write this to downplay the threat that Jacobson’s group, No Labels, poses to Biden’s reelection. A center-right candidate able to secure ballot access could claim thousands of voters Biden needs, namely those Americans who grudgingly voted for him to oust Donald Trump in 2020 and are dreading doing so once more.
Yet the collective Democratic fixation on No Labels increasingly looks misplaced — or at least disproportionate given how the 2024 political landscape is taking shape.
Jacobson seems to chase most every name that bubbles up in the news cycle (just ask them). Yet she’ll be hard pressed to find the sort of well-known figure she needs to be viable because they want either to retain future prospects in their own party (Nikki Haley) or they don’t want to don the scarlet T in their future obituaries for having enabled Trump’s return. (Most every anti-Trump Republican plus Joe Manchin.)
Meanwhile, how many more polls do there have to be of Kennedy near double-digit votes in swing states before he’s taken seriously? And: how many Biden speeches must be shouted down until Democrats realize that a hot war in Gaza this fall may mean 30,000 fewer votes apiece in Madison, Dearborn and Ann Arbor and therefore the presidency?
It’s the left that presents the most acute peril to the president.
If Kennedy claims the Libertarian Party line, which he’s warming to, Jill Stein is the Green Party nominee and Cornel West gets on any battleground state ballots, they would combine to drain far more votes from Biden than from Trump. You wouldn’t think Democrats need much reminding of this scenario, given how many in their professional ranks lived through two campaigns, 2000 and 2016, in which they lost the electoral vote in part because of leftist spoilers.
In these early days of the 2024 campaign, though, it’s the No Labels push to draft a centrist which has drawn more scorn, alarm and opposition research among Democrats. Yes, that’s partly because the party can try to shame Jacobson, who’s married to longtime Democratic strategist and liberal bete noire Mark Penn. They have considerably less leverage with a certified vaccine skeptic, Kennedy, to say nothing of the patchouli caucus, Stein and West.
But it’s also because Democrats are still catching up to the possibility of their coalition unraveling over Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Are the well-organized hecklers bird-dogging Biden at nearly every speech going to turn to a candidate who once proposed a Muslim ban? Of course not. Yet this White House race, like the last two, is bound to be won on the margins, and Biden is at risk of losing critical younger and left-wing voters to third-party candidates or apathy.
“People don’t understand how few votes [the third-party candidates] would need to take away,” said Lis Smith, the hard-charging Democratic operative who has recently signed on with the DNC, in part to grab voters by the lapels about the threat at hand. “It’s the whole election.”
Few in the administration sense the danger more than Vice President Kamala Harris. From holiday parties to a dinner at her residence last month for a group of prominent Black men, Harris has been telling sympathetic Democrats outside the White House that she recognizes the political challenge posed by Biden’s unwavering public support for Israel, I’m told by officials familiar with her comments at the events. Harris told people she’s making the case privately for the administration to show more empathy for the plight of innocent Gazans, an internal push that my colleague Eugene Daniels reported in December.
The vice president, too, has been heckled by pro-Palestinian protesters. And it’s no coincidence that her abortion rights tour has not yet taken her to activist-filled college towns such as, well, Ann Arbor and Madison that would otherwise be obvious stops to motivate core Democrats. (Even going to comparatively conservative San Jose this week, however, didn’t spare her from protesters.)
Biden himself is a different case. Like everyone in the administration and any Democrat with a pulse, he’s deeply suspicious of Benjamin Netanyahu, and privately has called the Israeli prime minister a “bad fucking guy,” according to people who’ve talked to the president. (Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said, “the president did not say that, nor would he,” adding that the two leaders have “a decades-long relationship that is respectful in public and in private.”)
Biden’s deep-seated fear: that Netanyahu is eager to drag the U.S. into a wider war in the Middle East, a conflict that would ensure American weapons keep flowing to the region, troops soon follow and, in the maelstrom, international pressure on him to agree to a Gaza cease-fire and his domestic political difficulties both dissipate.
Not that the president would ever say such things in public. However, he’s starting to take steps demonstrating to pro-Palestinian activists that he hears their complaints.
White House officials told me it was purposeful Thursday, before Biden made his first trip to Michigan this year, that the president used his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast to decry hate against Arab Americans and offer prayers for those “held hostage or under bombardment or displaced,” while simultaneously releasing an executive order levying sanctions on Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have committed acts of violence on Palestinians.
Biden aides have clearly absorbed the blowback they got from even friendly Democratic lawmakers for making no mention of Palestinian suffering in official statements they issued marking 100 days since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how contemptuous even staunchly pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers have become of Netanyahu.
One House Democrat told me of a dinner last month with about eight other colleagues, a cross-section of the caucus ideologically and generationally. “It was unanimous that this Israel-Gaza war needed to end now and that Biden needed to stand up to Bibi,” this lawmaker told me, before offering his own view.
“This is a disaster politically,” said this House Democrat, who rarely criticizes Israel. “The base is really pissed — and it’s not just the leftists. I have never seen such a depth of anguish as I’ve seen over this Gaza issue. Bibi is toxic among many Democratic voters and Biden must distance himself from him — yesterday.”
Jumping off the page: A recent YouGov poll found 50 percent of self-described Biden voters called Israel’s attacks on Gaza “a genocide.”
Part of the president’s challenge, particularly with younger Democrats deriving their news almost entirely from social media, is they don’t hear of Biden pushing Netanyahu behind the scenes.
“You create political challenges for yourself when your public and private messaging aren’t aligned,” said Tommy Vietor, a former Obama White House aide who now co-hosts Pod Save America and praised Biden for his efforts to free hostages and establish a cease-fire. “People don’t see Joe Biden chewing out Bibi on the phone.”
The White House, in a reflection of their public confidence (hubris?) regarding the politics of Biden’s positioning on Israel, arranged a call with Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.).
Fetterman, who has delighted in trolling left-wing critics by resolutely standing with Israel since Oct. 7, told me young voters should consider the implications of enabling a candidate who would likely given Netanyahu even more of a free hand.
“If you sit this out, or throw your vote away, you now are effectively empowering Bibi, and you’re definitely going to be empowering Trump,” he said.
And, Fetterman added, don’t forget the lessons of Hillary Clinton: “I said the same thing in 2016 to voters, I said: ‘Hey, you know what, you don’t like Clinton, you know what fuck around and find out what Trump is going to be about and, hey guess what, how’d you like it?’”
There is a hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner element to Biden’s approach to Israel that some in Gen Z can’t fully grasp. His politics are that of a Cold War Democrat, and a Northeastern one at that. Support for Israel is part of his liberal DNA, no matter the prime minister. Jewish voters, Irish ones, Italian, too — that’s the coalition. It’s a matter of principle, sure, but also domestic politics. But they’ve not heard of the “Three Is” on TikTok.
For now, Biden is hoping his spy chief, William Burns, can negotiate a cease-fire-for-hostages deal that would bring a two-month peace to Gaza.
If that agreement can be struck, then look for Biden to use the moment to make a public appeal, aimed at American voters and Middle Easterners alike, for a broader framework for the region. It would effectively be Biden’s attempt at a geopolitical grand bargain, combining a path toward a two-state solution with a new U.S.-Saudi Arabia security arrangement and normalization of ties between the Saudis and Israelis.
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, who’s sourced in all the right places in this White House, described it as “the Biden Doctrine.”
Such a moonshot would pay enormous political dividends. Yet Biden’s campaign can’t count on it — they must begin restoring the president’s standing on the left now.
There are gentle ways to do that — Biden’s actions on Thursday — and more aggressive steps.
The latter will, I’m told, include a multi-pronged offensive against Kennedy, Stein and West, some of which will come from the campaign and some from outside entities.
“We can set this up very directly: it’s us versus them — and us is just voting for us, and them means voting for a third-party or Trump,” as one Biden official put it to me.
In the short term, that means seizing on any chance to complicate the ballot access of the third-party candidates and attempting to discredit their motives or at least highlight the less savory aspects of their character.
Democratic operative Smith, for her part, is particularly animated by Kennedy’s extended game of footsie with pro-Trump figures. “It’s clear Trump world understands what Kennedy could do, which is why all this money is getting pumped into him,” she said, citing the $15 million in super PAC contributions Trump donor Tim Mellon has given to Kennedy.
Later this year, Biden officials hope to dispatch trusted progressive surrogates to warn against a third-party flirtation — hope you like the Midwest in fall, Senator Sanders! — and plan to bombard the internet with the same message on digital ads even sooner. One idea: Enlist a series of younger voters who admit to being tempted by a third-party hopeful but explain they’re backing Biden because any other choice ensures Trump’s election.
Beyond paid advertising, the president’s aides are still weighing him joining TikTok and, regardless, intend to leverage the platform by pushing their digital native supporters to make the Biden case on the app.
They probably shouldn’t wait much longer.
I got a taste of what’s brewing at a conference this week convened by the University of Southern California’s Center for the Political Future. It was a mostly decorous forum in the chandeliered Town & Gown Club, where a portrait of Pat Nixon still hangs prominently.
Then a student took the microphone and confronted longtime Biden adviser John Anzalone with a question. Well, it was more of a statement.
Michigan voters, the student warned, are “not going to vote for Genocide Joe.”
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