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A closer look at the events that have led to the likely Biden-Trump rematch

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last week in Manchester, N.H., Dennis Kelly (ph), aged 71, cast his vote in the primary and braced himself for a likely rematch this fall of the 2020 election, Joe Biden versus Donald Trump.

DENNIS KELLY: There's a lack of choice. The two parties have broken the system, and that's my feeling. I'm 71, I've been voting since my first opportunity to vote, and this is the worst choices that I've seen in my lifetime.

INSKEEP: So let's get a little history of how some of the parties tried for different choices over the past couple of years and then seemed to be settling for the same. Jonathan Martin is a senior political columnist at Politico and I've followed his writing for years. Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to begin by playing some tape from President Biden during his first campaign. This is the spring of 2020. Here's how he described himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else. There's an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.

INSKEEP: When he said a bridge, I think there were people who vaguely assumed Biden meant he would serve only one term because of his age.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Steve, I was there the night he made that comment. That was in Detroit, Mich., the night before the Michigan primary and shortly before COVID. He was standing in front of Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer and Cory Booker, three rising stars, three people who want to be president themselves one day. And I can assure you, all three of them took the word bridge the same way you did. And here we are in 2024 and Biden is not passing the baton. He's trying to run for four more years into his mid-80s.

INSKEEP: How hard did Democrats try to find a replacement over the last couple of years?

MARTIN: I think when we look back, one of the great moments in this period of modern political history will turn out to be the aftermath of the 2022 midterms. Because of the Democrats' unexpected success, Joe Biden effectively got a grace period from Democrats. I think a lot of Democrats, Steve, were lined up ready to hand him a gold watch. But the red wave never came, Democrats had a better midterm than expected, and collectively, a lot of the leadership of the party - the governors, the senators, the donors - basically went mute. And then you're in 2023 and guess what? If not pushed, Joe Biden was never going to voluntarily step down and not run again. And Biden effectively is running unchallenged in '24 with really dismal approval numbers.

INSKEEP: There was a period where we would read sometimes of private meetings where Democrats talked about...

MARTIN: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Finding some other person, maybe a red state governor. There were various names floated.

MARTIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: All that's passed, obviously. So how are Democrats talking now about minimizing the vulnerabilities of their candidate if they can?

MARTIN: Well, it's going to be a rose garden campaign like we've never seen before in which, you know, I think he's going to be selective in his travel. I think he will deploy a battalion of surrogates. And, Steve, I'd be very surprised if there are any general election debates this fall. I just have a hard time seeing the Biden campaign wanting to expose him to that kind of uncertainty and spontaneity.

INSKEEP: You did some reporting last year in which you quoted some Democrats saying, we want to present ourselves not just as a guy, but as a team. Try to think of it as a team.

MARTIN: That's right. No, no, I think that's the hope, that Democrats can say, look, you're voting for somebody who's got a team of people around him who are competent, who are capable, who are getting significant things done for the country. This is not just a vote for Biden. And by the way, here's the alternative team. But, Steve, that's tough because most Americans think that they're voting for the name on the ballot, pure and simple.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the other team, because after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, when Donald Trump was still president, there were a lot of Republicans who fiercely criticized him. And let's listen to two of them, Kevin McCarthy, then the Republican leader in the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters.

MITCH MCCONNELL: The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.

INSKEEP: How long did it take them to come around?

MARTIN: Well, in the case of McCarthy, it was a matter of days. He was back at Mar-A-Lago before January 21 was over. McConnell's a more complicated story because he detests Trump. He hasn't talked to Trump since Trump was in the White House. But obviously, McConnell's a partisan through and through and is going to do whatever it takes to try to take back control of the Senate, even if that means supporting a former president that he detests.

But there's no question that for a period of days after January 6, it did look like Trump was vulnerable and he could be sort of excised from the Republican, namely through impeachment and conviction. And, of course, he was impeached. But then when it went to the Senate, there were enough Senate Republicans who said that you can't convict a president who's now out of office. And I think that's a seminal moment in which Trump effectively slips the noose. If they find the, you know, 17 Republican votes needed to get the two-thirds for conviction, you know, Steve, Trump can't run for office again, and that's effectively the end of his career. But I think the story there is the story of our times. The elected Republican leadership class was not willing to cross their voters. And their voters like Trump, they don't care about Trump's transgressions, and the leaders defer to the voters.

INSKEEP: There was an impression over the last year or two that people with money on the Republican side would have liked someone else.

MARTIN: Yeah. Look, I just don't think it matters that much, at least in the Trump era, who the donors like because that doesn't translate to votes. Nikki Haley is going to have plenty of money for the final weeks of the campaign in South Carolina. I just don't think it matters that much because there is a locked in voter preference for Trump.

INSKEEP: How seriously do you take the various scenarios of a third party run?

MARTIN: I take it very seriously. In fact, Steve, I think Joe Biden's bigger challenge than Donald Trump is the threat of a third party. I think Biden could beat Trump head-to-head for the same reasons that he won in 2020. I think Biden's challenge is it's not a head-to-head race. And so whether it's on Biden's left flank in the form of Jill Stein and Cornel West, or on his right flank in the form of whoever the No Labels folks put out there, I think Biden's biggest challenge is losing a thousand votes here, a thousand votes there. And that's the margin of victory in a place like Michigan or Wisconsin.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Martin of Politico, thanks very much.

MARTIN: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLANCE'S "MELATONIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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