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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

About Hugh Hewitt’s Biden-LBJ Fable

As an old guy with a pretty good memory of political events, I am alert to misuses of history to make a contemporary point, like the one I tried to expose this week at New York.

The same day that Donald Trump, the GOP’s front-running candidate for president, got assessed millions of dollars for defamation and sexual abuse, a leading conservative media maven, Hugh Hewitt, adjudged Joe Biden as so absolutely doomed that he won’t even make it to the 2024 starting gate. RealClearPolitics relays Hewitt’s tall tale of a prediction:

“Hugh Hewitt on Monday told Special Report host Bret Baier he expects President Joe Biden to exit the presidential race like President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968. LBJ announced in March of 1968 that he would not seek another term …

“’Gallup came in at 38 percent approval. So the ABC/Washington Post poll at 36 does not sound like an outlier … I think the American people coming to the recognition he really can’t do this,’ Hewitt said.

“’I’m expecting an LBJ ’68 exit sometime next year,’ Hewitt said.”

What Hewitt was referring to was the surprise announcement by President Lyndon Johnson on March 31, 1968, in conjunction with a bombing halt in Vietnam, that he was withdrawing from the Democratic presidential contest. But the idea that Biden will face anything like the circumstances that led LBJ to that decision is ridiculous, even for a spinmeister like Hewitt.

First, to get one dubious data point out of the way, Hewitt suggests that Biden is currently in the same doldrums as LBJ was in March 1968, when his Gallup rating (the only generally available poll at that time) was 36 percent. Nowadays we have lots of polls, so whereas Biden’s approval is at 38 percent at Gallup and 36 percent at ABC-WaPo, he’s also at 43 percent at IBD/TIPP48 percent at Rasmussen46 percent at Economist/YouGov, and 44 percent at Fox News. So Hewitt is cherry-picking negative polls to make his shaky case.

More to the point, Biden is being backed by the entire Democratic Party and faces only two nuisance opponents in the 2024 primaries. When LBJ withdrew from the 1968 race, he had already grossly underperformed expectations in an actual New Hampshire primary against U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy and trailed McCarthy in polls in the next primary in Wisconsin (which McCarthy would subsequently win 56-35 right after LBJ’s withdrawal). More importantly, Johnson’s poor showing in New Hampshire (along with a failure to reach a deal with antiwar Democrats on Vietnam policy) had drawn the very formidable U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy (father of one of today’s nuisance candidates) into the race.

But according to those closest to him, LBJ did not withdraw from the 1968 contest because he was sure to lose his party’s nomination; after all, in those days before ubiquitous primaries, LBJ’s designated successor, Hubert Humphrey, won the nomination without entering a single primary. Johnson called it quits after he decided to announce a major peace initiative (the bombing halt was part of it) in Vietnam and did not want it to be perceived as a mere candidate maneuver. Additionally, LBJ, who nearly died of a heart attack over a decade earlier, had a family history of short life spans and did not feel up to another four years in office, unlike Biden. (Johnson actually died just two days after the next presidential term ended, even without the pressures of the Oval Office.)

Yes, Biden is an aging incumbent Democrat with less than ideal popularity, and you never know what pitfalls his presidency might encounter between now and November 2024. But having decided to run for a second term, there’s no particular reason to think he’ll change his mind, and no reason at all to think his party will push him away from its nomination. So Hugh Hewitt needs a different scenario to imagine in his service to the GOP.

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