There is one clear moment that changed the moral arc of Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin and launched a once fairly obscure member of Congress into a new orbit, leading the fight for the future of American democracy. It wasn’t the tragic death of his 25-year-old son, Tommy, a brilliant law student who lost his fight against depression and died by suicide on New Year’s Eve at the end of 2020, but what came soon after.
On the day after the funeral for Tommy Raskin, the congressman didn’t want to be alone so he brought one of his daughters and his son-in-law to the Capitol for what was to be the largely ceremonial certification of President Biden’s election victory. But then Raskin suddenly found himself sheltering from the January 6 insurrectionists, who were banging loudly on the doors of the House chamber and chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”
As Capitol Police officers and harried staffers hustled Raskin and some colleagues into the hoped-for safety of the Capitol basement, the then-58-year-old Democrat was suddenly struck by what he was not experiencing at that fraught moment: fear.
“I feel no fear,” Raskin writes in his new book, Unthinkable. “I have felt no fear today at all, for we have lost our Tommy Raskin, and the very worst thing that ever could have happened to us has already happened. But I am still in the land of the living, and Tommy is with me somehow every step of the way. He is occupying my heart and filling my chest with oxygen. He is showing me the way to some kind of safety.”
Since that moment, Raskin has displayed a trait rarely seen in the wastelands of 21st century American politics: unflinching courage. Rather than retreat into grief, Raskin within a few days was leading the House effort to impeach and try Donald Trump for his role in fomenting the violent mob on January 6. Since then, as a key member of the House Select Committee investigating the pro-Trump coup efforts, the onetime constitutional law professor is fast becoming the face of the early 2020s’ defining issue: beating back the threats to democracy from the kind of fascism that pounded on the Capitol doors and continues to knock.
Just 13 months ago, Raskin was unknown to voters outside of his suburban Maryland congressional district that stretches from D.C. to the Pennsylvania border. But in the first half of 2022, the three-term congressman will be everywhere. His book is currently No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and an admiring documentary is slated to air next month on MSNBC. In March, Raskin is all but certain to shine when the curtain raises on nationally televised, prime-time hearings into the January 6 plot — in a moment with historic echoes of the Watergate scandal.
Biden at one year
All of this is happening right as Raskin’s Democratic Party feels somewhat lost in the wilderness. I’m writing this column on the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration — a day of hope that calm and decency in the Oval Office could extinguish the national hellfires of the Trump years. Wasn’t it pretty to think so? Instead, Biden hits the one-year mark with a disappointing 40% approval rating in the gold-standard Gallup Poll (and even worse in some others).
This opinion columnist is one of the 40%. Although I’ve been disappointed with some broken promises around student loans and immigration, I more broadly respect Biden’s moral vision — an 180-degree change from Trump — and his focus on a middle-class agenda, even if much of it has been stymied by the cynical obstruction of do-nothing Republicans aided by a couple of Democrats with Trumpian levels of narcissism.
But the veteran political observer in me sees the average, not-super-political, not-on-Twitter voter looking for something from the White House that — in a moment when COVID-19 and related tremors have thwarted any real sense of normalcy — Biden isn’t well-equipped to deliver. That something would be a sense, at age 79, of commanding leadership. At least since the sunny confidence of ex-actor Ronald Reagan, Americans have rewarded presidents for their style. I think Biden is getting penalized for a halting manner and the occasional gaffe.
It’s not surprising, in hindsight, that Biden’s drop in approval coincided with the chaos of the Taliban takeover in Kabul, which, to some fearful voters, was the manifestation of their uncertainty about Biden projected onto a real-world canvas. The Washington Post recently reported on a focus group of suburban swing voters. Say what you will about the accuracy of focus groups, but the words these women uttered to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake — that he seems “old” or “incoherent” or “weak” or loses his train of thought — are similar to things I hear from regular folks in the Philly suburbs, a key battleground for 2024.
A leap of faith
I still think the most likely outcome for the Democrats two years from now is that Biden — who showed some real stamina at a Wednesday news conference — runs at age 82 with Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate. But what if another Biden run is not in the cards, and if rank-and-file Democrats prefer a clean slate over replacing him with Harris. There’s not much of a Plan C, with a field that’s either dull (cough, cough, Gavin Newsom) or has failed in past White House bids. (That’s putting aside the insane bipartisan fever dreams of centrist Beltway pundits pushing a Biden-Liz Cheney ticket, having apparently never met an actual Democratic voter.)
But there are two people who could electrify the Democratic base and unite the party’s warring factions for a 2024 presidential run. One of these is the fierce Georgia voting-rights-fighter Stacey Abrams, but Abrams is running for governor this fall, and — for completely different reasons — either a win or a loss would make it impossible to turn around and run for president, at least in this cycle. The other would call for a huge leap of faith at a moment when radical, outside-the-box thinking is needed, and that is Rep. Jamie Raskin.
The obstacles would be many — including the belief that it’s all but impossible to jump from the House of Representatives to the White House (only ever achieved by an ill-fated James Garfield in 1880). The veteran observer of presidential politics, University of Virginia historian Larry Sabato, mentioned the Garfield thing when I reached out to him, although he also acknowledged that Raskin’s high-profile role in the Jan. 6 probe means “there might be enough there to sustain a national candidacy,” especially with the popularity of his book and his backstory.
Raskin’s X factor
“My ambition is not to be in the political center, but in the moral center,” Raskin said in winning a Democratic House primary in 2016. With his history of early advocacy on issues such as same-sex marriage and marijuana reform, Raskin is a rare Democrat who could unite the progressive wing — Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution endorsed him in 2016 — with the kind of suburbanites who resisted Trump. Running as a white man amid the Democrats’ swift currents of identity politics could pose a problem for a Raskin candidacy, but striving to become the first Jewish president is still a compelling storyline — as is the notion that a brainy constitutional scholar with absent-minded-professor hair could lead the fight for constitutional government.
The X-factor is Raskin’s quest for meaning in the wake of his son’s suicide. The reality is that millions of Americans are well-acquainted with the mental-health struggles of this country’s younger generations, as well as the rise in so-called “deaths of despair” from causes such as suicide and drug overdoses. In pledging to devote the rest of his life to fighting for the values of his son — whom Raskin said feared rising fascism and “wanted far more from our democracy, not far less” — he could also be a powerful voice around a uniquely American struggle.
As President Biden’s difficult first year has shown, any commander-in-chief has to deal with a ridiculous array of issues — and take the blame for things that are largely out of their control. In such a world, the one thing that voters should demand is the one thing that Jamie Raskin promised voters: a moral center. He writes in Unthinkable that as “someone who reveres liberal democracy and hates fascism and racism, I have the motivation to fight.” With America looking out over a dark abyss, I don’t know what more we could ask from a leader.
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