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November 30, 2022

Welcome to Byron York's Daily Memo newsletter.

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FORECAST: TWO HARD YEARS. You know those people who tell you a devastating recession, or maybe a depression, is on the way or that this or that investment is guaranteed to skyrocket or collapse in the next few months? The ones who confidently predict coming doom or prosperity? Why should you listen to them? After all, who knows what will happen with the economy?

Politics is different. Yes, surprises happen, but now, we are beginning to see the shape of the next two years in American politics, and it is not a happy subject.

The recent midterm elections have revealed fundamental problems for both parties in Congress, and there are growing signs the 2024 presidential race, now underway even though just one candidate has announced, will be unlike any other in American history — and not in a good way. In other words, 2023 and 2024 could be very difficult years in the country's political life.

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First, Democrats and the midterm elections. There have been some analyses suggesting President Joe Biden came out a "winner" in the House and Senate elections. In the Hill's summation of "winners and losers of the 2022 midterm elections," the president was at the top of the "winner" list. The New York Times reported that Biden "celebrates beating the odds" in the election. The Washington Post reported that "midterm results could give Biden a political boost." CNN analyzed "how Joe Biden and the Democratic Party defied midterm history."

But Biden, and Democrats, lost control of the House of Representatives. That is a huge defeat. Sure, one can argue, and many in the media do, that losing by a smaller margin than predicted is a big deal. But losing is losing. Up until now, Biden has had a House controlled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and his Democratic allies. Starting in January, he will have a House likely controlled by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the opposition party. And that means the president's legislative agenda going into a possible reelection campaign is dead, dead, dead. That is a big defeat. There's no other accurate way to describe it.

In the Senate, Biden "won" by not losing control. But without the House, the president can forget passing the sort of big legislation he brags about from the first two years of his term. Those days are over. Yes, a Democratic-controlled Senate will be valuable for Biden when it comes to confirming his nominees, especially to the judiciary. But the Senate won't be passing any bills that Republicans in the House oppose. That is how things work.

On the other side, Republicans will have to learn how to run the House with a four-seat majority, the way Pelosi learned to run the House with a five-seat majority. Yes, it is hard to govern with such a small majority, but it can be done.

First, though, will McCarthy win the speakership when the House election is held on Jan. 3? He has to win 218 votes, which means he can only afford to lose the support of four of the House's estimated 222 Republicans. That gives a lot of influence to Republicans who say they won't vote for McCarthy. Not surprisingly, five such Republicans have gone public, suggesting that McCarthy's fate is in their hands.

But no viable alternative to McCarthy has emerged. And Republicans who say they oppose him are likely to come under intense pressure in the days before Jan. 3. Do they really want to destroy the GOP's hold on the House? Already, the pressure to get in line has begun. On Tuesday, Mark Levin, the radio and Fox News host highly respected among House conservatives, attacked the five declared anti-McCarthy Republicans — Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Bob Good (R-VA), Ralph Norman (R-SC), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT) — as the "five boneheads" and "gang of five saboteurs" who are "playing right into the hands of the Democrats." Noting that the group has not come up with a candidate to replace McCarthy, Levin continued: "How can they be so stupid? ... They have nobody. They know they have no plan B. They know they have no plan at all."

That kind of pressure, multiplied as Jan. 3 approaches, will be very hard for Republican objectors to withstand. It seems likely that after all the talk and speculation, McCarthy will become speaker of the House in a little more than a month.

But governing will be a chore. The drama that is going on around the election for speaker can be repeated endlessly as GOP leaders try to pass legislation on a partisan basis, which is how a lot of legislation is passed these days. They will have 222 possible votes and must win 218 of them. That won't be easy. On the other hand, Pelosi passed a lot of legislation having just 222 Democrats to work with. McCarthy will have to show that he can, too.

In the end, the fact remains: Congress will be divided and contentious. The president's agenda will be frustrated by the Republican leadership of the House, and the Republican agenda will be frustrated by the Democratic leadership of the Senate. Very little will get done, which, after two years of massive, overreaching legislation passed by Democrats, is probably what the voters wanted when they chose divided government.

At some point, the struggles on Capitol Hill will become a sideshow to the unprecedented presidential election. The simple way to describe the presidential dynamic is that Democrats must deal with their Biden problem and Republicans must deal with their Trump problem.

The Biden problem can be described with one number: 86. That is the age Biden will be if he is reelected and serves to the end of a second term. Biden, who turned 80 a few days ago, is already the oldest president in U.S. history. He is slowing down before the public's eyes. He walks more slowly and with more hesitation than before. He responds to questions more slowly than before. He appears confused more often than before. This situation will not improve as Biden turns 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, and 86.

Biden is pushing the limits of age in the presidency right now, much less in a second term. Democratic leaders know that. And some Democrats, plus all Republicans and a great many independents, are greatly concerned about the possibility of Vice President Kamala Harris, who has turned in an underwhelming performance in office, ascending to the presidency should Biden suffer a health crisis or simply decline beyond the ability to do his job.

Biden has long said he intends to run for a second term, and at his recent Thanksgiving getaway at a billionaire Democratic donor's compound on Nantucket, he and his family were said to be discussing what to do.

The Democratic dilemma is this: If he runs, Biden will be too old for a second term. But if Biden does not run, Harris, who is the president's natural successor, will likely divide the Democratic Party. There has never been a situation like this before, with a first-term president too old to serve a second term but without a clear successor. The next two years could be very difficult for Democrats seeking to choose a presidential candidate in 2024.

Finally, there is the Republican Trump problem, which, given the extraordinary amount of attention paid to it in the press, probably needs the least discussion. For the GOP, the recent brouhaha over the former president's dinner with antisemites, provocateurs, and self-promoters Kanye West, Nick Fuentes, and Milo Yiannopoulos was a preview, and a reprise, of the kind of undisciplined behavior that former President Donald Trump can display. Yes, Trump achieved solid policy accomplishments in his four years in office. Republicans appreciate them. But there are signs that even many GOP voters have tired of the accompanying drama and are reluctant to want a second Trump term.

Trump's influence over the Republican Party appears to be waning. For more than three years, NBC pollsters have asked Republicans, "Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?" In April 2020, 54% said they were more of a supporter of Trump, while just 35% said they were more of a supporter of the Republican Party. Now, those numbers have nearly flipped. In the most recent poll, conducted in early November, 62% of Republicans said they considered themselves more of a supporter of the GOP, while 30% said they were more of a supporter of Trump. The results were the highest-ever number for the Republican Party and the lowest-ever number for Trump. That's an enormous change — and not in Trump's favor.

And by the way, if he is on the Republican ticket in 2024, Trump will be 78 years old — the same age Biden was when he started his current term. Although a President Trump would be limited to just one more term, he would still serve until age 82, with all the risks that would involve.

But the bottom line is still unclear. On the one hand, if he were the Republican Party's choice, it is hard to see Trump winning in his third attempt at the presidency. There are simply too many people who will not vote for him again. On the other hand, it could be that the Democratic nominee — either an increasingly diminished Biden or an unpopular Harris or another alternative with limited appeal to independent voters — could give Trump a chance at a triumphant return. These are problems that will have to be resolved in the next two years. It will not be easy.

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found. You can use this link to subscribe.