2024’s Field of Nightmares

In the bottom of the 10th inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, with the Boston Red Sox leading the New York Mets 5-3, Red Sox manager John McNamara sent Bill Buckner — a great hitter dealing with terrible leg problems that made him gimp his way around first base — back out to play the infield instead of putting in Dave Stapleton, Buckner’s defensive replacement. A half-dozen at-bats later, a Mookie Wilson ground ball went through Buckner’s wobbly legs, sending the World Series to Game 7 and a certain 6-year-old Red Sox fan to bed in desperate tears.

Those tears were my first acquaintance with the harsh truth of a baseball aphorism: The ball will always find you. Meaning that if you place a player where he shouldn’t be, or try to disguise a player’s incapacity by shifting him away from the likely action, or give a player you love a chance to stay on the field too long for sentimental reasons, the risk you take will eventually catch up to you, probably at the worst possible moment.

Obviously, this is a column about President Biden’s age. But not only about Biden, because America has been running a lot of Buckner experiments of late. Consider the dreadful-for-liberals denouement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, where nobody could tell a lifetime-tenured Supreme Court justice who had survived cancer that it was time to step aside and Democrats were left to talk hopefully about her workout regimen as she tried to outlast Donald Trump. And she almost did — but in the end, her legacy was reshaped and even unmade by a decision to stay too long on the political field.

Or consider the Trump presidency itself, in which voters handed a manifestly unfit leader the powers of the presidency and for his entire term, various Republicans tried to manage him and position him and keep him out of trouble, while Dave Stapleton — I mean, Mike Pence — warmed the bench.

This managerial effort met with enough success that by the start of 2020, Trump seemed potentially headed for re-election. But like a series of line drives at an amateur third baseman, the final year of his presidency left him ruthlessly exposed — by the pandemic (whether you think he was too libertarian or too Faucian, he was obviously overmastered), by a progressive cultural revolution (which he opposed but was helpless to impede), by Biden’s presidential campaign and finally by his own vices, which yielded Jan. 6.

Naturally, Republicans are ready to put him on the field again.

These experiences set my expectations for what’s happening with Democrats and Biden now. The increasing anxiety over Biden’s lousy poll numbers, which I discussed in last weekend’s column, has yielded a defensive response from Biden partisans. Their argument is that the president’s decline is overstated, that his administration is going well and he deserves more credit than he’s getting and that, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser suggests, the press is repeating its mistake with Hillary Clinton’s email scandal and making the age issue seem awful when it’s merely, well, “suboptimal.”

I do not think Biden’s decline is overstated by the media; by some Republicans, maybe, but the mainstream press is, if anything, treading gingerly around the evident reality. But I do think Biden’s defenders are correct that the effect of his age on his presidency has been, at most, only mildly negative. It’s limited his use of the bully pulpit and hurt his poll numbers, but his administration has passed major legislation, managed a foreign policy crisis and run a tighter ship than Trump.

Where I have criticisms of Bidenism, they’re mostly the normal ones a conservative would have of any liberal president, not special ones associated with chaos or incompetence created by cognitive decline.

But in running Biden for re-election, Democrats are making a fateful bet that this successful management can simply continue through two sets of risks: the high stakes of the next election, in which a health crisis or just more slippage might be the thing that puts Trump back in the White House, and the different but also substantial stakes of another four-year term.

“The ball will always find you” is not, of course, an invariable truth. It’s entirely possible that Biden can limp to another victory, that his second term will yield no worse consequences than, say, Ronald Reagan’s did, that having managed things thus far, his aides, spouse and cabinet can see the next five years through.

But the Trump era has been one of those periods when providence or fate revenges itself more swiftly than usual on hubris — when the longstanding freedom that American parties and leaders have enjoyed, by virtue of our power and pre-eminence, to skate around our weak spots and mistakes has been substantially curtailed.

Even Millhiser’s proposed analogy for the fixation on Biden’s age, the Clinton email scandal, fits this pattern. “Her emails” hurt Clinton at the last because they became briefly entangled with the Anthony Weiner sex scandal. This was substantively unfair, since nothing came of the Clinton emails found on Weiner’s laptop. But it was dramatically fitting, a near-Shakespearean twist, that after surviving all of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals the Clinton dynasty would be unmade at its hour of near triumph by a different, more pathetic predator.

So whether it’s certain or not, I can’t help expecting a similarly dramatic punishment for trying to keep Biden in the White House notwithstanding his decline.

That I also expect some kind of punishment from the Republicans renominating Trump notwithstanding his unfitness doesn’t make me inconsistent, because presidential politics isn’t quite the same as baseball. Unlike in a World Series, there need not be a simple victor: All can be punished; all of us can lose.

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