Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
In one of the best scenes thus far from season four of HBO’s “Succession,” Logan Roy, the conservative media tycoon played by Brian Cox, unexpectedly joins his four adult children in a karaoke bar to try to salvage a business deal that three of them are subverting. He also says he is there to offer them an apology. (HBO, like CNN, is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.)
But when the ensuing conversation doesn’t go his way, he unleashes on them, declaring, “You are not serious figures. I love you, but you are not serious people.”
The line is powerful — and may just capture the way President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are approaching the declared and expected GOP candidates ahead of the 2024 campaign.
By choosing to lie low while Republicans are gearing up for 2024, Biden is employing his version of what has become known as the “Rose Garden strategy” whereby the incumbent campaigns by focusing on the business of being president and shows voters that he is the responsible figure in the race.
The president’s understated strategy makes room for Republicans to stoke chaos, tear each other apart and make unforced errors while he remains above the fray for as long as possible. This strategy makes the GOP the focus of the election, allowing Biden to reinforce his message from 2020: do voters want someone who will govern and act in a serious manner or do they want a circus?
Among the GOP candidates, former President Donald Trump was the first to announce his campaign five months ago. But Trump has dominated the media airwaves in recent weeks — and not for the reasons many Republican voters might be hoping for. The indictment in New York on charges of falsifying business records has raised more questions about his commitment, or lack thereof, to the rule of law. And this legal case is one of many. From a civil suit centering on allegations of rape and defamation to the case in Georgia centering on his effort to overturn the presidential election, Trump might just be claiming the title of presidential candidate in the greatest legal peril — ever. (Trump has denied wrongdoing in all cases.)
Given the way that Trump loves to pit himself against his opponents and use conflict to his advantage, he is embracing his outlaw image rather than trying to move away from it. Recently, he said that he would refuse to drop out, even if he is criminally convicted.
Meanwhile, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina are both trying to claim the non-Trump lane as Republicans are watching and waiting for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to make his move.
While DeSantis has the best chance of challenging Trump in the primaries at this point, he is also fueling the image of a party that is more focused on stoking outrage by taking radical positions in the culture wars than on the big issues of the day. And by recently signing Florida’s six-week abortion ban into law, DeSantis, along with so many other Republicans, is taking an extreme position on reproductive rights that could spark a huge electoral backlash.
Biden and Harris seem to be betting that in the coming months, the Republicans can do much more damage to themselves than Democrats could ever do by railing against them. Let Republicans be Republicans and show, to borrow Roy’s words, that they are “not serious people.”
Doing so has the potential, in their minds, to create room for a campaign that shows Biden and Harris as the adults in the room. And should the nation be rocked by uncertainty — whether that comes in the form of rising geopolitical tensions, economic turmoil or a natural disaster — a majority of voters could choose to back Biden, thinking it’s best not to change ships mid-stream, especially when the other ship looks like it might not be able to sail for very long. While Trump is fighting legal case after legal case, Biden is working on policies such as boosting the sale of electric cars and Harris is strengthening ties with countries across Africa.
To be sure, the “Rose Garden strategy” has failed before — Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, a Republican and a Democrat, used this tactic in 1976 and 1980 and both lost their respective reelection campaigns.
But these are different times and this is a different Republican Party. The more the GOP chaos remains front and center, the more independent and moderate voters will be left wondering if the party can be trusted to regain the reins of power in the West Wing.
Biden might be boring and fly under the radar much of the time, but that is the image of normality that helped him win in 2020. It’s the image that helped Democrats do unusually well in the 2022 midterm elections, and it’s the image that might very well help him secure a second term in 2024.