‘People want a different choice’: US faces tough decision

By Farrah Tomazin

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Washington: Ron Filipkowski describes himself as an “escapee” of the Republican Party.

Not long ago, he was a card-carrying member of the GOP, twice elected as the president of the Republican Club of South Sarasota County and so proudly conservative that he named his first son Ronald Reagan.

Next year’s election looks set to be Biden vs Trump round two.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

The pandemic changed everything.

Outraged by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ lax handling of COVID-19 in his home state, and angered by the incendiary presidency of Donald Trump, Filipkowski quit the Republicans in 2020 and voted for Joe Biden.

“Joe Biden was the first Democrat I ever voted for in my life and I did it because I never expected he would run for re-election,” he tells me.

“I thought that he was a transitional figure who was going to get us out of MAGA Trump world and bring us back into a normal era before passing the baton to someone else. But that hasn’t happened. And if anything, the right has gotten worse.”

With one year until the 2024 presidential election, Filipkowski and millions of other Americans are now faced with a difficult choice between an uninspiring octogenarian incumbent and the twice-impeached, four times-indicted former president, who will be 78 by then.

Despite facing 91 charges and four criminal trials across four jurisdictions, polls have consistently shown that Trump remains the undisputed frontrunner to win the Republican nomination to run against Biden again.

And Biden, who turns 81 this month, has so far resisted calls to do the very thing he suggested in 2020 that he would do after one term: step aside for a new generation of political leaders.

The last few days, however, have presented a moment of reckoning for both parties.

About 1000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators rallies near a fundraising event attended by US President Joe Biden in Chicago on Thursday.Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

For Democrats, tensions escalated last Saturday when hundreds of thousands of people took to American streets to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and attack the Biden administration for its full-throated support of Israel.

In Washington, one man wore an orange prison jumpsuit emblazoned with the words: “Inmate: Genocide Joe”.

Others held up glossy signs featuring bloodied bodies of children killed in Gaza and bombed-out buildings turned to rubble, accusing Biden of having “blood on his hands”.

Dismayed by Trump, Republican Ron Filipkowski voted for Joe Biden in 2020.Credit: Screengrab

Then came a video posted on social media by Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib with an ominous warning for both the president and her party: “Joe Biden supported the genocide of the Palestinian people. The American people won’t forget”.

If that wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells among Democratic strategists, a New York Times/Siena College poll published on Sunday certainly did.

According to the poll, Trump is now ahead of Biden in five key battleground states that could decide who wins next November: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

Each of those states was narrowly won by Biden in 2020 – at a time when one of his greatest strengths was that he wasn’t Trump, and COVID lockdowns gave him the scope to campaign from his home in Delaware.

But much has changed since then, and there are growing concerns from some quarters about his ability to do the job for another four years. The same polls found the number of voters who think Biden does not have the mental sharpness required to lead the country increased from 45 per cent in 2020 to 62 per cent this year. Trump’s result for the same measure actually improved, from 48 per cent to 44 per cent.

What’s more, Biden seems to be losing the backing of the Democrats’ traditional support base: Hispanics, the black community and young people. The latter includes many of the youth voters who have turned up in droves at pro-Palestinian protests across the country, threatening to punish Biden at the ballot box if he doesn’t do more to end the bloodshed.

David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to Barack Obama when Biden was vice president, posted on Sunday that if Biden continued to run, he would most almost certainly be the Democratic nominee.

But in a question that became the talk of the town in Washington this week – partly because of Axelrod’s kingmaker reputation within his party – he added: “What he needs to decide is whether that is wise; whether it’s in his best interest or the country’s?”

“The stakes of miscalculation here are too dramatic to ignore.”

It would be easy to dismiss the New York Times/Siena poll if it were the only one showing Biden’s weakness.

But other polls released this week by CBS News, ABC/Ipsos and CNN had similar warning signs, prompting some Democrats to go further than Axelrod and demand that the president drop out of the race.

Biden speaks about ‘Bidenomics’ in September.Credit: Bloomberg

Former Bernie Sanders adviser Tezlyn Figaro argues that much of the problem does not lie with Trump, but with the Democratic Party establishment, which had made it clear to anyone else considering running that they would not be supported.

Robert F. Kennedy Jnr, for example, announced he would run for Democratic presidential nomination in April, then switched in frustration to run as an independent.

US congressman Dean Phillips recently threw his hat into the ring, but has since reportedly been asked by a few of his previous financial backers to return their donations or vow that he won’t use those funds for a presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson says the party is not keen on other potential candidates..Credit: AP

Self-help author Marianne Williamson, another longshot candidate, has lashed out at the party’s refusal to allow anyone to debate Biden, while potential future contenders – such as California Governor Gavin Newsom or Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer – insist they are backing the incumbent.

“People want a different choice,” a fired-up Figaro told Fox News this week, pointing out she was on the right-wing cable network because the left-wing channels wouldn’t hear what she had to say.

“Get away from the ego and off the high horse and give people a better choice, as opposed to telling people they shouldn’t run!”

But this week turned out to be a wake-up call for the Republican Party, too.

Just as the shock of Biden’s dismal poll numbers were starting to weigh on Democrats, a series of hard-fought state elections on Tuesday night provided the party with a glimmer of hope.

In the Republican-led state of Ohio, about 57 per cent of voters agreed to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.

In Kentucky, the incumbent Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, was re-elected over his anti-abortion Republican opponent.

And in Virginia, the Democrats won control of the state legislature after popular Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned for a “sensible limit” to abortion that would have meant most terminations were banned after 15 weeks.

The results were a resounding victory for the Democrats, and a sign that the issue is a stronger galvanising force than the drag of Biden’s sagging approval ratings.

Shell-shocked Republicans, on the other hand, were left grappling with how they should tackle the abortion issue, one year after the Supreme Court repealed the 1979 landmark ruling Roe V Wade, which gave women a constitutional federal right to access abortion services.

Ohio Senator J.D. Vance described the result in his state as a “gut punch” for pro-life advocates and warned that Republicans “have to recognise how much voters mistrust us on this issue”.

Others, such as Trump’s Republican rival Nikki Haley, tried to find a middle ground, saying that while she was “unapologetically pro-life”, she “doesn’t judge anyone from being pro-choice”.

“So let’s find a consensus,” she said during the Republican debate on Wednesday night.

Biden, meanwhile, was quick to assert the told-you-so point he has consistently made: polls don’t determine elections; people do.

“Americans once again voted to protect their fundamental freedoms – and democracy won,” he said.

Maybe so – or perhaps the validation will only provide a brief respite in what will ultimately be a hard rematch set against the backdrop of foreign wars, a fickle economy and threats to democracy.

The challenge for both parties will be to galvanise a disengaged and dissatisfied electorate that has little appetite for either of the two men who currently lead the race.

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