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July 20, 2023

2024 Presidential Election, in Extremis

This is our once-in-four-years chance to right the ship; it’s time to get serious about it.

Watching the 2024 electoral process lurching toward disaster — a forced choice between two deeply flawed candidates — calls to mind an eerily parallel lesson I learned as a naval officer years ago.

In the International Rules of the Road that govern safe navigation of ships at sea, the archaic Latin phrase in extremis (“near death”) is used to define the point at which the ONLY way to avert disaster (i.e., a collision of two ships at sea) is for both ships to maneuver immediately. Action at that point is mandatory, not optional.

It occurs to me that the term describes precisely the situation our nation faces with the 2024 presidential election dead ahead. There can be no winners in a race between Trump and Biden. Regardless of the election outcome, the country loses.

Both Trump and Biden supporters will no doubt disagree vehemently with that grim prognosis, but I believe the truth of the matter is clear.

One glance at today’s domestic and international chaos tells us that this is no time for another chaotic Trump presidency. What happened in the 2020 election, fair or not to Trump, is irrelevant — what does matter is that Trump’s actions since then have been disastrous for the GOP, and his 2024 candidacy seems driven solely by his personal thirst for revenge. That’s hardly a basis for the constructive leadership our nation needs in dangerous times.

On the other side, imagining a second Biden term requires little conjecture. We see him in action (such as it is) daily; Biden’s newfound political ideology is hard left, his execution erratic, and his physical ability and mental acuity are on a steady decline — six full years before the end of what would be his second term. Joe Biden is an old man, well past his prime — and his prime was never very prime.

Both candidates are quite content with the current lineup — Biden wants Trump to be his opponent, and vice versa. Both are pulling in major contributions from big money supporters; neither is planning to engage in primary debates. Meanwhile, the rest of America watches helplessly. We continue to plow ahead with this ill-considered competition, headed for catastrophe like two ships at sea on autopilot with no one bold enough to grab the helm.

In the seagoing case, the tricky part of in extremis situations is recognizing that it’s almost too late to avert disaster before it actually is too late. Unfortunately, 20/20 hindsight will be no help.

The same is true here. Despite warm assurances from both sides, both Trump and Biden’s presidential candidacies are in trouble, albeit for very different reasons. Either or both may have to drop out. But if and when they do, will there be sufficient time for the replacement candidate(s) to campaign effectively? Will the electorate be able to make an informed choice?

While it is impossible to predict the point of no return, the nation would be well served if strong alternative candidates step up on both sides and stake credible claims for presidential candidacy, with or without their political party’s formal nomination.

There are substantial financial barriers but no legal reasons why one or more credible candidates could break out of the primary circuit and launch alternative candidacies. Facing the currently anticipated Republican and Democrat candidates, I believe that it will be the individual candidate’s credentials and not the red or blue banner that will carry the day with the voters.

As a rule, the American electorate has not been enthusiastic about third-party or independent candidacies. In simpler times, our two-party system has managed to present viable candidates to compete for the U.S. presidency; third-party entries are usually seen as spoilers, with near-zero chances of winning the election, and to be more likely to weaken the prospects of one side or the other than to upset either.

But what would happen if the alternative entrants were not just likable, unthreatening vanilla candidates but persons who are well known, accomplished, and ready to lead — dead-serious candidates whom voters can actually visualize taking the helm on Inauguration Day in 2025?

Experts will surely leap up to explain patiently why such an initiative has never succeeded before and would have no chance today. But I’m not buying it. The 2024 electorate is keenly aware of the massive challenges facing our nation in the years ahead, they know Donald Trump and Joe Biden only too well, and they seem more eager than ever before to make a presidential choice in the nation’s (and not either party’s) best interest.

The critical dimension in an in extremis circumstance is its implicit urgency. With the 2024 election bearing right down on us, that is the situation we face right now. It’s time for the electorate to grab the helm.

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