From the Center
The President of the United States is 80 years old. His predecessor and strongest opponent is 77. The Republican leader in the U.S. Senate is 81 years old, and his Democratic counterpart is a mere child of 72.
Such is the geriatric nature of American politics that the two most recent newcomers to the national political landscape, both in their early 50s, are widely dismissed as youthful interlopers. But Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and newly-minted presidential contender Dean Phillips may play an outsized role in the 2024 election season. So keep an eye on these kids.
Johnson, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2016, is the least experienced and possibly the most conservative speaker in modern history. Phillips, who was elected two years later, last week announced himself as the most plausible alternative and generational successor to Biden. They have served a combined eleven years in the House, which is less than one-third the amount of time that Nancy Pelosi has been a member of that body. When Pelosi was first elected in 1987, Phillips was a senior in high school. Johnson was a freshman.
Johnson’s age is incidental to his ascension, while Phillip’s is the core rationale for his candidacy. The odds are considerably against either of these sprites succeeding over the next twelve months. It’s more than likely that by early November of next year, Phillips will be a former presidential candidate, and Johnson will be preparing to hand his gavel to the incoming Democratic speaker. But both still deserve our attention.
Phillips is running for president because Biden is too old. While the Minnesota congressman has not framed his candidacy in precisely those words, the sentiment is shared by more than three-quarters of American voters, including 69 percent of Democrats. No incumbent president has been defeated for his own party’s nomination since the mid-19th century. But presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush could all have told you about the dangers of facing a credible primary opponent. All three survived their intra-party challenges and went on to the general election. But all three were defeated in November, largely due to a fractured and unmotivated party base that never came together after a divisive primary campaign.
Phillips has little chance of winning the Democratic nomination. But the longer he stays in the race, the more frequently voters will be exposed to criticisms about Biden’s advanced age. Last week’s Gallup poll showed that the president’s approval numbers are now at an all-time low of 37 percent. Biden’s favorability among Democrats has fallen 11 points in the last month, down to 75 percent. That doesn’t mean that Phillips will draw one-quarter of the primary vote, but it does illustrate the challenge Biden faces in turning out disaffected progressives in the fall.
Johnson is an avowed social conservative who has ardently opposed both legal abortions and same-sex marriage throughout his career, often with incendiary language, and led the fight in the House to overturn the 2020 election. But in his first interview after winning this office, the new speaker made it clear that social issues would not be his priorities in office, instead emphasizing the federal budget and the nation’s various international flashpoints in Ukraine, China and the Middle East.
Johnson indicated that he would push for a short-term budget resolution, which will almost certainly require Democratic votes. He made it clear that he would like to separate Biden’s funding requests for Ukraine and Israel but suggested that he might support more money for Ukraine as a stand-alone measure. Both of these positions are at odds with the majority of the GOP caucus that just elected him. These conservative members never trusted Kevin McCarthy enough to give him leeway on disagreements like these. We’ll find out soon whether Johnson’s ideological credentials give him any more credibility than his predecessor.
If he can pull this off, Johnson will demonstrate that House Republicans actually are willing to govern. If not, he may not even make it through the election year before being voted out. And all through 2024, he will have to balance the demands of his party’s hardliners while still finding a way to protect the 18 GOP members representing districts that Biden carried four years earlier.
How do Republicans feel about compromise? What do Democrats think about old age? These two youngsters—and the rest of the country—are about to find out.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).