After Democrats suffered an electoral setback in the 2002 midterms — in which then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen lost her U.S. Senate bid — former President Bill Clinton offered his party this advice.
“When people are feeling insecure, they’d rather have someone who is strong and wrong rather than somebody who is weak and right.”
Political insiders in both parties tell NHJournal they believe American politics is in a similar moment. With the economy, the border, and now the Middle East in turmoil — not to mention a spike in violent crime and mobs robbing stores in broad daylight — voters are looking for strength.
Dr. Wayne Lesperance of New England College believes events in Israel will force candidates on the First in the Nation primary stump to talk more about foreign policy and not just Ukraine funding.
“The Hamas attacks and Israel’s response will dominate the campaign trail for the foreseeable future,” Lesperance said. “Candidates will get the questions and will be expected to provide compelling responses. That will be an opportunity for some (Haley, DeSantis) and a real challenge for others (Ramaswamy).”
But with 14 U.S. citizens dead, 20 missing, and some being held hostage, policy may not be a substitute for passion — or projecting strength. When progressive U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) made the milquetoast suggestion that Israel should engage in “de-escalation” at a rally on Sunday, the Bay State crowd booed him. It was left to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to toss out the red meat.
“Standing in solidarity means action,” Warren said. “It means shouldering the obligations of a strong and faithful ally. When our allies face threats from those who would destroy them, we need a military command that is at full strength.”
And if the 2024 election cycle becomes a referendum on which candidate is viewed as the strong leader, that is good news for Donald Trump, both in the GOP primary and the general election. He made projecting strength his fundamental brand. And it is bad news for President Joe Biden, whose age and public persona raise questions about whether he is physically and mentally strong enough for the job.
Polls show most Americans don’t believe he is. A June 2023 survey found 62 percent said they viewed Biden as “a weak leader,” with 41 percent calling him “very weak.” Only 12 percent called Biden a “very strong” leader.
That is a disaster for Biden, who is already struggling in the polls in head-to-head matchups with Trump and whose age and infirmity issues aren’t going to improve over the next year. Biden already looked weak in the wake of the botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on his watch.
All of which may explain the campaign email touting “President Biden’s ‘Strong’ Leadership” his campaign sent out Tuesday night.
“You don’t want to look weak heading into an election,” said GOP strategist Pat Griffin. “Ask Jimmy Carter how that worked out.”
On the GOP side, some of Trump’s challengers have stepped up their campaign rhetoric, making it more forceful and sometimes threatening.
For example, in response to the Hamas invasion, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some very direct advice. “Finish them. Finish them. Hamas did this. You know Iran’s behind it, finish them. They should have hell to pay for what they’ve just done.”
On WFEA radio Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis called out Biden’s decision to “call a lid” — ending any public or press appearances — around 11:45 a.m. on Monday, as news of American casualties and hostages was breaking. Instead, Biden’s staff sent out a press release.
“This is a guy who’s missing in action,” DeSantis said. “You can’t govern by press release,” DeSantis said.
Also, on Tuesday, DeSantis announced Florida is taking action to sanction Iran at the state level. Florida has the country’s third-largest Jewish population, behind New York and California.
DeSantis’ proposals expand existing bans on Iranian-owned businesses from operating in Florida. He has already signed laws prohibiting individual Iranians, affiliated businesses, or government entities from buying agricultural land in the state or land near a military base. Companies affiliated with Iran that want to do more than $100,000 worth of business must report those connections to the state.
And U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) gave a speech at the Hudson Institute accusing Biden of having “blood on his hands” for his weakness and incompetence.
“The President of the United States has a moral duty to lead with strength and clarity,” Scott said.
“His weakness invited the attack. His cash giveaways to Iran helped fund terrorism. And after the attack his Administration suggested Israel should stand down. It’s a disgrace.
“We need a President who is loyal to our allies and lethal to our adversaries,” Scott added, “because weakness never buys you peace.”
Meanwhile, candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy, who have been talking about pulling back America’s influence around the globe, are now on their back foot dealing with the Israel issue.
If Trump continues to dominate the GOP primary and expand his lead on Biden, it would be a reminder that Bill Clinton was right. Americans will forgive a president for being wrong, but they will never forgive him for being weak.