Why Dumping Biden is Unlikely

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In the wake of Joe Biden’s befuddled debate performance, what are Democrats to do? That debate’s first 10 minutes changed the political world. And it is likely that this weekend will produce a decision by the Biden inner circle about staying the perilous course. 

The delicate problem for the Biden team is convincing a proud and stubborn Biden to step aside. There is another key dilemma: Vice President Kamala Harris. If Biden decides to forgo a race for a second term, it is almost certain that Vice President Harris will be the shaky nominee, given that there is no way to defy her ascent without splitting the party. (The Harris scenario, in turn, is probably what convinced the Biden team to go for a new term.)

In short, to topple Biden and hold the White House, the party pooh-bahs must somehow create a unified plan for the Democratic national convention in late August. That means a consensus candidate emerging early. (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer paired with Sen. Raphael Warnock is the dream ticket.) Plus a dignified Harris outplacement such as being the governor of California or on the Supreme Court. A wide-open convention is not a plan.

Executing that double plan is unlikely. Two earlier precedents — Lyndon Johnson’s March 1964 decision not to seek a new term, and Harry Truman’s decision to withdraw in March 1952 — each resulted in Democratic presidential losses to Nixon and Eisenhower. Nor does the party have the kind of elder leaders who could override the tight Biden circle of family and longtime loyalists.

Meantime, the media and the intelligentsia (two important Democratic allies) will mount pressure to withdraw, further weakening Biden. Republicans who cite the 25th amendment (removal for incapacity) will run into its stipulation that the vice president then serves — a non-starter for both parties. Nor is it likely that the factions of the party would nominate a moderate appealing to the broad center of voters.

Two arguments for withdrawal will have salience with Biden. He is a patriot, so arguments about the national interest count for him. The second argument is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg analogy. Justice Ginsburg proudly refused to resign during the Obama presidency, thus opening the way to the Trumpian Supreme Court. Does Biden want to risk the legacy of re-electing Trump? Meanwhile, further working against the case to Dump Joe is the unlikely Congressional victories in 2022, when the Democrats fended off a Republican surge and validated the Biden bubble. That surprise may have led to Biden’s decision to seek a second term.

If Biden stays the course, there is also the Gene McCarthy analogy where a plausible candidate (Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Josh Shapiro) defies the elders and makes the case for an open convention and a modern agenda. It is hard to see such a candidate scooping up delegates (too late for that) or rallying mobs of antiwar young people as Clean Gene did. And it defies the odds to imagine a plausible candidate who would risk permanent party ostracization. 

Is there a plan B in case Biden persists and loses? Control of Congress as an insurance policy against Trump is one path, with money flowing from long-shot Biden to the down-ballot races. Another emergency strategy would be a regency of elder advisers who would gather around a faltering Biden, as happened when Woodrow Wilson was enfeebled by a stroke in October 1919 (that didn’t work).

Adding up these factors, I doubt the Democratic Party (or its key donors) can rouse itself to this difficult challenge, despite the fate of the world depending on the outcome. The likely prediction is sticking with Biden, who somehow rallies his campaign by retreating to a more protected mode (daytime only and with a teleprompter), but still loses. Then, in the Trump Wilderness, new leaders and new agendas emerge, or a new party is born. Very high risk.

Biden has always been a patched-together and nostalgic consensus, mobilized by a fear of Trump. That politics is about to fade. Populist winds will sweep the country and the world, though eventually Trumpian populism is a wave doomed by extremism.

Meanwhile, we face what Time calls The Dread Election. Seat-belts, please!

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

18 COMMENTS

  1. “There is another key dilemma: Vice President Kamala Harris. If Biden decides to forgo a race for a second term, it is almost certain that Vice President Harris will be the shaky nominee, given that there is no way to defy her ascent without splitting the party. (The Harris scenario, in turn, is probably what convinced the Biden team to go for a new term.)” What no one seems to grasp is that whether or not Biden runs, Harris is in effect running for President – either as the actual candidate or as the VP for a frail and failing 80-something who has little chance of surviving out a four year term. Better that Biden should resign now (he should have done so back in March) and install her in the Oval office. Give her a few months as President so people can actually see how she does. How is that any worse than the current situation?

  2. I am not ready to dump Biden because of one shaky debate performance. The time to get behind another candidate was long ago. Too late now.

  3. The Biden campaign cash, not an inconsiderable amount, would be at Harris’ disposal because she’s part of the campaign.

    If neither of them run, there are mechanisms to distribute the money, but not directly to the anointed candidate, it would have to go through unaffiliated committees etc. From an article in Forbes if you want the ungarbled version.

    I think there’s a tendency to think Harris isn’t really so bad, but is damaged goods that can’t win. Well, give the Trump backers a few weeks on your favorite candidate. His or her image will be soiled irreparably, no matter who it is. Remember Hillary Clinton, US senator and Secretary of State, influential lawyer? They did a number on her, and they’ve gotten better at what they do since then. Love Whitmer? After it’s over, you’ll wish you’d kept your mouth shut.

  4. I strongly suspect the “it will split the party” argument re: picking someone other than Harris is way overblown. It’s not like she has some massively loyal constituency in communities of color, either Black or Asian. She didn’t rise up through the ranks that way in SF/CA politics, as a community leader. She rose by forging establishment ties to powerful Democratic pols like Willie Brown. Her presidential run completely flopped with Black voters, ironically because she ran a disastrously bad campaign that was way too fakey fake and Twitter (i.e., white progressive) Left on everything including race.

    While she has no natural base or deep ties in those communities, the optics of bypassing her would not be great, now that she’s VP, particularly if it was Biden who anointed someone else (one of the ironies here is that while he picked her, Team Biden doesn’t like her very much and she doesn’t seem to have much of a personal relationship with the president). But if there was a process leading up to the delegates picking the nominee at the convention – she would start in such a process as a strong favorite – where leading candidates for the nomination competed, and someone else (Whitmer, Shapiro) ended up getting it (yes, please!), then I would expect the party would unify quickly behind that nominee. The stakes are too high, and personal loyalty to Harris from the base too low, for the party to fracture over that scenario.

  5. • An excellent summary of the difficulties and uncertainties attending a late switch. I still think they’re less discouraging than the grim certainties of sticking with Biden.
    • “Two earlier precedents — Lyndon Johnson’s March [1968] decision not to seek a new term, and Harry Truman’s decision to withdraw in March 1952 — each resulted in Democratic presidential losses to Nixon and Eisenhower.” These widely noted precedents seem overstated. The Dems were on their way to losing anyway. Truman and, especially, Johnson were saddled with unpopular wars. Johnson was weakened by McCarthy’s and RFK’s challenges, just as another Kennedy challenge would weaken Jimmy Carter 12 years later. Eisenhower and, in the chaotic context of 1968, Nixon had more crossover appeal than Trump. Truman faced a much stronger opponent in Eisenhower than he had in 1948, when he won a narrow upset.
    • “Republicans who cite the 25th amendment (removal for incapacity) will run into its stipulation that the vice president then serves — a non-starter for both parties.” Remember when VP Spiro Agnew was “Richard Nixon’s impeachment insurance”?
    • As long as we’re playing fantasy football, how about Whitman-Shapiro, or Shapiro-Whitman?

  6. Here’s another long-shot scenario. Biden appoints Kamala Harris to a vacant Supreme Court seat, than names Gov. Whitmer as his Veep and running mate, thus assuring voters of a strong presidential successor and adding a long-lived Black to the Supreme Court. That would also effectively change the media narrative from the bad debate.

    • Brewster,
      Great idea about Harris to Court — 3 years ago!

      I really do like and respect Biden, but his judgment was flawed as to the whole DEI, gender thing etc

      Much of our immediate political problem is based on identity before merit: Dems are scared to get rid of Harris.

  7. Your thought that a Trump presidency offset by a Democratic Congress is a good one and to be hoped for. The American people in their wisdom have often and usually split the Executive and Legislative branches by political party, which pleases neither, leads to gridlock, but frustrates the more unhappy notions of both. However, over the decades, the power of the Presidency has been enhanced drop by drop, through the inaction of Congress, subtle usurpation of non-executive powers (looking at you, Executive Actions and Directives), delegation of foreign and domestic security, and the ceding of all this by the America people who are busy with their own lives, to the point where it outstrips that of the Congress, and results in real problems when someone gains that power and is willing to use it without restraint, morally or ethically. A benevolent dictator as President is great, but the Founders knew that there would eventually arise a not-so-benevolent one, and thus devised our famous checks and balances. The unbalancing of that system is now becoming obvious.

    • There is a problem with that overly-optimistic scenario of President Trump offset by a Democratic Congress: it’s just not going to happen. We’ve already seen how Republicans, even the most reasonable among them, will not do anything to curtail Trump’s powers, and this time around, he would have the tailwinds of an infamous Supreme Court decision behind him. As to the notion that Gov. Whitmer could win: she is a fine, intelligent, and principled governor….and she’s not nearly well known enough to clinch the nomination, and beat Donald Trump in the general. The only way to defeat Trump is to get behind Joe Biden, which is what I am going to do.

  8. “Biden has always been a patched-together and nostalgic consensus.” Nostalgia? Oh, come on…that’s a well-crafted sentence but extremely glib. I see Biden not with rosy clouds of nostalgia, but with the hardheaded certainty that he’s all we’ve got.

  9. I lived through the Vietnam era, LBJ and then Nixon and I thought I’d seen a lot.
    But what’s happening now is just a whole greater order of magnitude of craziness.
    I’m glad that I’m not the only one feeling that way and I appreciate the comments here.

    People have been talking for decades, I think, about a realignment & split of the parties and maybe that might happen. And I’m not sure if that actually is a positive.

    In any case, keep it together and stay healthy.

  10. Joel Connelly says Canada is welcoming immigrants. Mark Hinshaw could write something up about moving to Italy; I could say a couple words about Portugal.

    There are some larger questions here. Like, what is wrong with America? I mean clearly there is some systematic problem, from the ground up, and I don’t think it’s really a recent phenomenon. As the society crumbles, will it be able to take the rest of the world with it, or will it just turn in on itself and become irrelevant? Is it more or less unique to America, or will the flower of democracy bear rotten fruit all over the west?

    I was there, too, to see the country torn up over Vietnam, race, etc., and it feels like that was a rehearsal for this. Then, we had real things to pretend we were arguing over. Now we’re getting down to the root of it.

    Who knows, maybe young people, who back then in large part rather enthusiastically bought into the conflicts of their elders, will this time turn away and work out some better society.

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