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Stephen Boyd: A reversal of fortunes turns the presidential race upside down

Stephen Boyd’s Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.

On the morning of June 1, former President Donald Trump was a newly convicted felon, having just been found guilty on 34 criminal charges in New York stemming from a “hush money” scheme to influence the 2016 election by silencing a porn actress with whom he allegedly had an affair. That’s not a good look for anyone running for office and surely a low point, even for Trump. For most, a criminal conviction marks the end of the campaign—one way or another. 

But Trump is not “most”, and that which is not truly the end is just another beginning. The turn of events in the five weeks since the verdict is remarkable:

  • In June, the Trump campaign erased its longstanding fundraising deficit to President Biden, made possible in part by the $52 million in contributions received in the 24 hours after the verdict. 
  • On July 1, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a former President is entitled to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his preclusive constitutional authority and presumptive immunity for other official actions. The opinion is not the get-out-of-jail-free card that many Republicans claim—the Court also ruled that there is no immunity for unofficial acts—but it was undoubtedly a win for Trump.
  • In the wake of the Court’s ruling, the trial in the Special Counsel’s federal January 6 prosecution will now certainly be delayed until after the election. Icing on the cake: the judge in the New York “hush money” trial also delayed sentencing until at least September. 
  • Team Biden pushed for a debate early in the election calendar and negotiated outrageously favorable terms engineered to stamp out lingering concerns about the president’s age and mental acuity—and then Biden proceeded to do exactly the opposite. His gasp-inducing performance may go down as the second most consequential debate in modern history after the televised Nixon-Kennedy contest that forever changed media and politics. 
  • The New York Times poll that immediately followed created the deep impression in Washington that the Biden candidacy is damaged beyond repair. The poll’s impact is driven more by perception than data—Biden was slightly behind before the debate and was behind by slightly more after—but perception matters, and the polling quantified what everyone saw.  
  • Democratic officials (including Biden himself) botched crisis communications after the debate—moving slowly and first pretending like ‘last night didn’t happen’ on a conference call with party leaders. Then they claimed that the President was sick. Then they blamed fatigue on international travel, despite a week of preparatory downtime. Then they bungled the story about a doctor’s visit. And, finally, they settled on a rehabilitation interview with George Stephanopoulos that appears to have actually done little to tamp down concerns about Biden’s fitness for the job.  

That run of good fortune for Trump leaves him in the driver’s seat and some Democrats scrambling for “Plan B” just 120 days before the 2024 elections. 


What to Watch This Week

The lens through which most Democrats and many others view the Biden candidacy is that a 2024 loss to Trump would usher in a dramatic remaking of American life, a revenge tour that would upend civil liberties and institutional norms, and—in the eyes of some—a deconstruction of American democracy. For those that see it that way, the stakes are high. They are on pins and needles for any sign of Biden’s intent to step aside for Vice President Kamala Harris—surely the backup pick for risk of dividing the democratic coalition further.  

Biden’s decision to quit the campaign won’t come quickly or easily. Other than, say, George Washington, you’ll be hard pressed to recall many politicians who have voluntarily walked away from a top office and been happy about it. My firsthand observation is that this stubbornness is less about consciously seeking to maintain raw power and more about subconsciously fearing a loss of personal identity. It’s hard to give up a title when a disproportionate share of your adult life has been devoted to obtaining it, your every waking moment is invested in it, and you’re primarily known on Earth because of it.   

When your family and top advisors are all inclined to tell you only good news, the echo chamber is self-reinforcing. So, it’s much more likely that Biden moves through a period of escalating his commitment to his current course of action. “I don’t think anybody’s more qualified to be president or win this race than me,” he said Friday. That will be the public position until the right combination of people and circumstances conspire to convince him that dropping out is in his best interest. 

What does that look like? Here’s what to watch and what to ignore:

  • Watch the actions of big-money Democratic donors. With his money advantage gone, Biden needs the traditional pillars of Democratic financing down the home stretch of the campaign. Reportedly, some of those allies are balking. “I intend to stop any contributions to the [Democratic] party unless and until they replace Biden at the top of the ticket.  This is realism, not disrespect.” wrote Abigail Disney, heiress to the Disney fortune. 
  • Watch the on-the-record words of Democrats in Congress. Talk in politics is usually pretty cheap, but it’s no small thing for a rank-and-file Member of Congress to speak against the President and leader of the party. When Members do, it’s because the political incentive structure significantly justifies it— particularly true of down ballot candidates with political fortunes tied to Biden in November. The list of Democrats calling for Biden to step aside got longer on a Sunday call when four senior Members, including Reps. Adam Smith (WA) and Jerry Nadler (NY), the top democrats on the armed services and judiciary committees, respectively, spoke up. Those are pretty large cracks in the dam. As Congress returns today, you can bet Democrats will huddle in groups big and small to compare notes. Expect the list to grow. 
  • Watch events surrounding the NATO summit in Washington, which kicks off tomorrow. Pay particular attention to how Biden navigates the unpredictable environment of a summit with 40 heads of state, large entourages, a diverse set of complex issues that includes support for Ukraine, and many of the unscripted moments that the White House fears most. A strong showing would help Biden, but an embarrassing misstep on the world stage could amplify calls to quit.  
  • Watch for behind-the-scenes organizational efforts to move Harris to the top of the ticket. A wild DNC convention in Chicago is unlikely, in part because of an Ohio law that requires presidential candidates to be certified 90 days before the general election in order to be on the ballot. (Alabama had a similar law that the state legislature correctly amended.) The work-around was to hold a virtual roll call vote for Biden before August 7. Presumably that would need to happen for a Harris-led ticket as well, and that would require internal organizing to quickly begin.  
  • But ignore… statements from self-interested world leaders, anonymous quotes from elected democrats and party activists, polls that show Biden losing but within the margin of error, and commentary from media pundits. Biden has been around too long to be swayed by run-of-the-mill political chatter. 


Impact on Capitol Hill 

Congress has been on the July 4th holiday recess since the debate, a break for Biden because it’s more difficult for Members to politic when spread across the country. But that changes when both chambers return to action today. Just 12 voting days are scheduled before the August break. 

Expect some House Republicans, more confident now of Trump’s chances in the Fall, to push for legislative strategies that position Trump to have a formal say. The most obvious play would be to push for the stopgap Continuing Resolution (CR) to extend deep into the 2025 Fiscal Year so that Trump may immediately impact discretionary spending. A consequence of that move would be delaying billions in FY25 appropriations for universities, state and local governments, and federal contractors until next March or later. (House leaders are seeking to bring all of the FY25 appropriations bills to the floor prior to the August break, but a CR remain a near certainty.)

In the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is likely to force votes on messaging bills—abortion being at the top of the list—to help vulnerable Democratic candidates win, and will also prioritize approval of lifetime judicial appointments to extend the Biden Administration’s legacy in the event Democratic campaigns falter. Most other major legislation that needs to pass before the end of the year—the annual defense bill, notably—is likely to be put on the back burner until after the election.   


Alabama’s Second Congressional District 

Does Biden’s decision impact Alabama’s Second Congressional District race? It might. If Biden is on the ticket, Democratic turnout could be depressed while Trump turnout will be strong regardless. That helps Caroleene Dobson, the Republican running in a district that too many in the GOP have written off as having been designed for a Democratic pickup but in actuality was very close in the primary—only 161 more Democrats votes than Republicans. If, however, Harris rises to the top of the ticket, that would seem likely to energize local Democratic voters eager to cast a ballot for potentially the first black woman President of the United States, a boost for Shomari Figures in what will probably be a close race that impacts control of the House in the 119th Congress.  


The Schedule…

As noted above, Congress returns to legislative action this week following the July 4th holiday. . . Voting will pause next week for the GOP National Convention in Milwaukee that kicks off July 15. . . . Congress is back in session for the last two weeks of July before the August break from August 3 to September 8. In that period, the Democratic National Convention starts August 19 in Chicago, IL. 


Stephen E. Boyd is a Partner at Horizons Global Solutions. Previously, he served as a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of Staff for Alabama members in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a Communications Director of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Opinions expressed herein are his own. Contact Stephen at [email protected] or via X at @SEBOYD79 or via LinkedIn.  


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