Jon Stewart for president? Last-ditch campaign hopes to escape Biden-Trump nightmare

Progressive activists and bad polls haven't convinced Joe Biden to stand down — now it's time for the Hail Mary

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 3, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Joe Biden and John Stewart (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and John Stewart (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Democrats are worried about the polls, to put it mildly. But let's look past "Democrats," an increasingly incoherent political grouping almost entirely defined by who and what they're not. People around the world who were traumatized by Donald Trump's presidency — and who expected or hoped that Joe Biden's victory in 2020 represented a return to some version of political sanity and normalcy — now regard the American electoral landscape with deepening dread, like dreamers unable to escape a recurring nightmare. 

It turns out that normalcy and sanity are not among the menu options at the moment, and we don't possess a time machine that would allow us to return to some stable version of reality that never existed in the first place. All of that should have become obvious by now, no doubt, but hope has a way of springing eternal. So here we are, facing a nightmarish rerun of the 2020 campaign between the two oldest major-party nominees in American history, one of them the massively (and, sure, unfairly) unpopular incumbent and the other his immediate predecessor, who is more like a symptom or a hallucination than a conventional political figure or a human being. Throw in a couple of major wars (and several smaller ones), a rapidly overheating planet and a level of global division and uncertainty not seen since the end of the Cold War, and it's marvelous that any of us can sleep at night.

Biden is trailing Trump in nearly all national polls, and there are days when that seems like an incredible detail from an impossible fictional universe, along with other days where it's more like, sure, because that's where we are in this profoundly delusional country. There's plenty of disagreement about what those polls mean and how seriously to take them 11 months out from Election Day, and we'll get to that below. But the trepidation and anxiety are real, and are not improved by the unassailable fact that we cannot possibly know how this will turn out. At some point, won't Americans simply become exhausted by the endless tape-loop claim that "this election will decide the future of democracy," which is basically never true, and just watch the catastrophe unfold, something like Jean-Paul Marat in the bathtub except with subscriptions to all the major streaming services?

I digress. For at least the last year, faced with mounting evidence that most voters would prefer to avoid Biden-Trump 2.0 and that most Democrats don't want Biden to run again, a handful of progressive activists have tried to engineer or enable alternative possibilities. One such activist is Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watchdog FAIR and a former journalism professor at Ithaca College, who helped launch the notably unsuccessful "Step Aside Joe!" campaign (along with author and activist Norman Solomon, a frequent Salon contributor). 

Cohen emailed me last week with a proposed op-ed that drove the stop-Biden wishcasting into uncharted and perhaps entirely fanciful territory, and if you're reading this, you already get the idea. Although no one is likely to mistake Salon for a politically "neutral" outlet — we don't believe that's possible, let alone useful — we do not endorse political candidates (or un-endorse them). Rather than publishing Jeff's article as a sort of elaborate troll on increasingly anguished reality-based Americans, I offered him the opportunity to explain the idea in an email exchange.

Jon Stewart for president! Well, on one level I get it, and on another level not at all. Everyone reading this will be aware of Joe Biden’s unfavorable poll numbers at the moment, and there is considerable anxiety among liberals and progressives that he may not be able to defeat Donald Trump. Is that primarily, or perhaps entirely, what’s driving this idea?  

Yes, the imperative to defeat Trump is the primary driver of this idea. Poll after poll shows increasing voter disenchantment with Biden among Democrats, Democratic-leaners and former Biden voters. But more important than these polls is disenchantment with Biden among dedicated Democratic activists who are needed to get out the vote for Biden. I’m talking about activists who devoted weeks or months of their lives in 2020 to defeat Trump on behalf of Biden.  

"It's increasingly clear that many activists will not do the same crucial work for Biden that they did last time. Arguing that Trump is much worse than Biden on the issues they care about — which is clearly true — doesn’t convince many younger activists to work their asses off for Biden like they did in 2020."

From racial justice activists to climate organizers to peace activists, it’s increasingly clear that many of these much-needed activists will not do the same crucial work for Biden that they did last time. And arguing that Trump is much worse than Biden on the issues they care about — which is clearly true — doesn’t convince many of these activists, especially young ones, to work their asses off for Biden like they did in 2020. Climate activists have grown disenchanted. For weeks during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza civilians, Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan and other swing states have announced at rallies: “No ceasefire, no votes from us.” 

What about the counterargument offered by the 2012 election? I'm sure you've heard this one: Coming out of the 2010 midterms, Barack Obama's poll numbers were terrible and there was a widespread media consensus that he was in big trouble. Republicans went into that cycle confident they could beat him, and in the end the outcome wasn't even close.

I think I've already answered that by turning away from polls to activists. There wasn't so much activist alienation, frustration or even fury with Obama in 2012. There was some, but nothing even close to what we see today. 

That's a valid point, but to me this feels like a Hail Mary. Efforts to convince Biden to step aside have failed — including your efforts — and no major figure within the Democratic Party is going to run against him. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. apparently concluded the Democratic primaries were hopeless, and now plans to run a third-party campaign. So this is a last-ditch effort to stop Biden, who you fear is likely to lose to Trump. That’s a negative argument. What’s the positive argument for Jon Stewart? 

The positive argument for Jon Stewart should be obvious: He’s a unique and widely popular figure on the U.S. political scene. He’s much more than a comedian. He’s a moral voice. For years, we’ve seen him demonstrate the kind of intelligence, compassion and leadership skills that the presidency requires.   

He’s been an articulate and effective advocate on Capitol Hill. Millions of people watched his dogged and successful battles in the halls of Congress on behalf of heroic 9/11 responders and military veterans exposed to toxins. (If you missed that, take a few minutes to watch this powerful video clip of Stewart in action. Or this one.) Politicians would kill for his advocacy skills and his connection to working-class people. Imagine what Stewart could do with his hands on the presidential “bully pulpit.” In Joe Biden’s hands, it’s more like a “wooly pulpit.”  

Is it a bit of a Hail Mary to try to draft him to run for president? Yes. But these are desperate times. 

And since we've mentioned RFK Jr.: From your "step aside Joe" POV, what's his likely effect on the election? 

Polling suggests that RFK Jr. might win votes somewhat equally from both Trump and Biden. But it brings up a broader problem if Biden is the Democratic nominee. Young people are a Democratic-leaning constituency, and people who cast third-party votes are disproportionately young, especially when they’re unhappy with the Democratic candidate. That's what happened with Hillary Clinton in 2016, when an estimated 8 percent of voters under 30 voted for a third-party candidate, and NPR reported that “in some battleground states that number was much, much higher.” Third-party votes helped Trump into the White House and could do so again. 

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One of the most stunning poll numbers I’ve ever seen in years of scrutinizing polls was reported by the New York Times in July of last year — 94% of Democratic-leaning voters under 30 wanted a nominee other than Biden. 

I’m not worried that lots of young voters would jump from Biden to Trump, nor that many Arab and Muslim voters would jump to Trump. But they could vote third-party, or not vote at all.   

To be clear, Jon Stewart hasn’t asked you to do this and you haven’t contacted him in any way, correct? Do you have any indication that he might be interested? 

You are correct: There’s been no contact with Stewart. He’s been urged to run by others in the last couple years, and it’s easy to find “Jon Stewart for President” T-shirts online. In March of this year, Howard Stern made news in the political press when he urged Stewart to “run for president on the Democratic side” because he’d “win in a slam-dunk.” When Politico ran an opinion article pushing Stewart for president in July 2022, Stewart immediately tweeted: “Ummm ... No thank you.”  

"Stewart has seen the metaphorically drunken senators and national leaders up close. We know he cares deeply about issues, about justice, about democracy. These are serious times. And strange times."

But in an interview early last year, Stewart gave an interesting response to Kara Swisher when she asked if he’d thought about running for office. He said: “It’s sort of like when you get in a car and the one driver’s drunk, and you’re like, ‘Did you ever think about taking the wheel?’ You’re like: ‘Yeah, I did!’”  

It's his professional instinct to laugh off the question of running for office. But he’s seen the metaphorically drunken senators and national leaders up close. We know he cares deeply about issues, about justice, about democracy. These are serious times. And strange times, when voters — for good and bad — have elected celebrities to national leadership, from our country to Ukraine and beyond.   

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I know your career and your track record, and of course I also know Norman Solomon, who has frequently been published in Salon. I’d be willing to bet that in terms of ideology and policy, both of you are somewhere to the left of Jon Stewart, who has taken pains to present himself as not overly partisan — as “progressive” on some issues but more “moderate” or “liberal” on others. Is that fair? 

I’ve watched Jon Stewart’s career closely for decades now. He’s plenty progressive on the issues I care about, especially racial justice — and he’s addressed most of these issues on the national stage with great humor as well as great seriousness. More importantly, he has broad appeal. He comes across as a moral individual. He exudes integrity.  

I trust Jon Stewart, and I suspect millions of people could say the same. How many of us can say that about the politicians who currently lead our nation?   

I’m known as a media critic, having founded the media watch group FAIR back in 1986. I see him as one of our country’s sharp media critics. We share a critique of the media system that’s too often dominated by commercialism, hype and petty divisiveness. 

"If Stewart were to surprise us all by announcing a run for the presidency, I think it would unleash an outpouring of support, grassroots donations and impressive poll numbers."

If Stewart were to surprise us all by announcing a Democratic run for the presidency, I think it would unleash an outpouring of support, grassroots donations and impressive poll numbers. It would spur seasoned activists from various movements to become enthusiastic about a presidential race that many had planned to ignore with Biden as the nominee. And if we’re lucky, it could spur Joe Biden to announce he’s not seeking re-election. That would totally open up the primary process. 

Do you see Stewart as a figure who could unite progressives and moderates? In terms of the infamous 2016 split, could he bring together the Bernie and Hillary factions of the Democratic coalition?

I can’t think of anyone who could better bring Democratic Party factions together — and, just as important, expand the Democratic coalition. 

You don’t seriously think this is likely to happen, do you? Is this just a thought experiment to get people to consider that even at this late date there are alternatives, and that a Biden-Trump rematch is not inevitable? 

Call it a thought experiment. Call it a holiday wish. We need an alternative to Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee to prevent the return of an even more whacked-out and vengeful Trump in January 2025. Jon Stewart is a patriotic individual who doesn’t need you or me to convince him of the threat Trump represents to our nation and our world.   

And let’s not forget that he’s currently under-employed. He just separated from Apple TV, reportedly because Apple was anxious about Stewart addressing issues like China and artificial intelligence. On the presidential campaign trail, he could address those issues and dozens more. And in the White House, he might even be able to fix a few of them.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Democrats Elections Interview Jeff Cohen Joe Biden Jon Stewart Media Norman Solomon