Should Joe Biden Step Down?

<span class="copyright">Kyle Mazza/Anadolu via Getty Images</span>

Kyle Mazza/Anadolu via Getty Images

We all know what happened last week, and we all know the conversation that has happened since. Given that debate performance, should Joe Biden step down and let a different Democrat run for president against Donald Trump?

First, at the risk of engaging in some Sturm und Drang blame-storming, I’d like to get a few things off my chest. I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. The debate was a disaster for Joe Biden. It was equally disastrous for the moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. Worse, I would say.

“The microphones were muted,” wrote Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times. “So were the moderators.”

They might as well have not been there. CNN could have just as easily provided a list of questions rather than have moderators ask them. They could have been posted by a producer in a control room and spoken by an AI voice. This is a major reason I hate the way we do debates. Moderators ask the same boring questions and allow candidates to ramble on with tired talking points, hyperboles, overstatements, ad hominem attacks and outright falsehoods. They do a complete disservice to the viewers, voters and the nation.

Before the telecast, CNN chair Mark Thompson said the moderators would act as facilitators, not participants. If I were sitting in on one of those preproduction meetings, I’d have told Thompson this: If we don’t change the way we do debates in here, we will fail the voters out there. You don’t need moderators. You don’t need facilitators. Or even need journalists. You need referees to throw the flag every time a candidate utters a lie.

There were no real-time fact-checks of Trump’s baseless assertions. There were plenty afterward when no one cared because they were more obsessed with Biden’s performance and what Democrats should do next. The sad fact is, for most Americans, politics is not about the art of compromise, it’s about the art of perception. Over 50 million people saw what they saw without ever questioning what they heard. Politifact reviewed the debate. On 15 fact-checks, Trump’s statements received 12 “false” and three “mostly false” ratings. Biden got three “false” and one “mostly false” on 11 fact-checks. One rating was because Biden said $15 for insulin instead of $35.

But viewers didn’t hear that. One candidate lied nearly every time he opened his mouth. The other never came close to matching that. But he also couldn’t match the liar’s bravado, and that’s all voters saw. They now seem likely to decide that an entertaining autocrat is a better choice than a decent old man. The cult, of course, saw what they hoped to see. They weren’t listening to what Biden said either, nor to Trump’s falsehoods. They didn’t care about the falsehoods. To them, the libs were owned. That’s everything to them.

So now what? Debates — real ones — are raging among Democrats and political analysts alike. Biden’s excruciatingly painful performance has raised concerns about his electability against a blustering showman. But if Biden should step down, how does that happen, and who replaces him?

There are no good options. Every path is fraught with challenges, and right now, they all seem to lead to electoral disaster and a Trump victory. Party rules make it almost impossible to replace nominees unless they willingly step down. Biden, who controls 99% of the pledged Democratic delegates, has said he will not. He could only open the door to another candidate by ending his candidacy and then releasing his delegates. But to whom?

At that point, you’d have a free-for-all among Democrats, a feeding frenzy in the media (they’re still having one about Biden stepping down), and you’d create a salacious talking point for Republicans: Democrats are in chaos! How could they possibly govern when they can’t even pick a candidate?

As vice president, Kamala Harris is next in line for the presidency, but that doesn’t mean she automatically becomes the Democratic candidate should Biden step down. Nor can Biden make that decision. It’s up to the delegates, and many in the party have doubts about her electability.

Her approval numbers are lower than Biden’s, and her disapproval rating is nearly as high. She ran a poor campaign in 2020, has been unremarkable as vice president, and “faces pessimism about her future role in the party from a bloc of Democrats and a far larger share of independents.”

“I am afraid Democrats have internalized the Hillary Clinton lesson,” one insider told Politico. “That a woman can’t win.”

President Joe Biden walks off with first lady Jill Biden following the CNN Presidential Debate on June 27 in Atlanta, Georgia. President Joe Biden walks off with first lady Jill Biden following the CNN Presidential Debate on June 27 in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Joe Biden walks off with first lady Jill Biden following the CNN Presidential Debate on June 27 in Atlanta, Georgia. Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Yet, there’s a bigger risk: the possibility of denying the nomination to a woman of color who is also the first woman to serve as vice president. That could tear the party apart, especially in a potentially chaotic convention process. It will give rise to cries of racism and misogyny, not only within the party and potentially souring a key voting bloc for Democrats, but, ironically, it would be a perfect stew of red meat Republicans can feed to voters well beyond their base. It fits perfectly into a common Trump ploy that the party has learned to emulate: Every accusation is a confession, the math to which the public never seems able to compute.

Other names being mentioned include several governors: Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Jared Polis of Colorado, Andy Beshear of Kentucky, and Gavin Newsom of California. Political wonks may know those names well, but most people would look at that list and, outside of Newsom, they’d say, “Who?”

Ramping up an effective campaign four months before the election would be a daunting task, at best. Democrats would have to reconfigure the entire convention process for a task they have not tackled since 1968 (a terrible year for the party). Divisions within the Democratic coalition could follow. The best potential candidates might simply stay away. After all, if you’re the nominee, you’ll not only be vulnerable to the same attacks leveled at Biden, but you’ll likely have to deal with internal backbiting and party division.

If you are a Democrat with presidential ambitions, do you enter a race fraught with enormous challenges and perceptions of chaos, or do you wait until 2028 for a better, cleaner opportunity? Given that potential peril, the candidate Democrats might end up with is one with no chance of winning, even under normal circumstances.

Then there are the potential lawsuits. If Biden suddenly bails on the race, conservative groups have threatened to file lawsuits around the country to challenge the legal eligibility of any replacement Democrat on the ballot. On what grounds? Does it matter? Litigation is now so much a part of the election process that each party has created its own state-by-state litigation trackers: Democracy Docket on the left and Protect the Vote on the right. (Republicans have filed far more lawsuits.) Over 300 election-related lawsuits have already been filed this year in dozens of states, and both parties are laying the groundwork for post-election night litigation.

But this is the specter of a development that began brewing even before 2020. Manyanalystspointedoutthepotentialchallenges of nominating an older candidate in an election that required energetic campaigning, fresh perspectives, and guiding the party and the nation into the future amidst a rapidly evolving political landscape.

Those concerns continued after 2020. After winning, the question came year after year after year whether he was too old to run for reelection ― in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Were there candidates better suited to running in 2020? Wrong question. Was there a better candidate in 2020 with better long-term prospects for the party?

Given Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency and voters hyper-motivated against Republicans over the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade, many strong Democratic candidates could have won and done a solid job in office.

Biden’s extensive experience and calming “we need an adult in office” electability ultimately led to his nomination. But in going with that narrative, Democrats sacrificed the long-term future for a short-term gain. Maybe the party felt it owed it to Joe Biden for his life-long career of public service and apparent willingness to step aside in 2016 because it was “Hillary’s turn.”

Don’t get me wrong. Biden has had a successful run, and his age never seemed a barrier to his effectiveness as chief executive. In the end, though, he was too old to begin with, but Democrats rolled the dice and now the worst-case scenario has come back to bite them. And the media pile-on has been brutal.

Biden was more energized at a Friday campaign rally where he acknowledged his poor performance the previous night: “I know I’m not a young man,” he told the appreciative crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t talk as smoothly as I used to…but I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job, I know how to get things done.”

The difference was night and day, but 50 million people didn’t see that rally. Most only know what they saw the night before, leaving an enduring mark that may prove difficult, if not impossible, to overcome, particularly for undecided voters.

Kyle Mazza/Anadolu via Getty Images” data-src=–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0Mg–/>

“Democrats must change the minds of voters who think Biden’s age is an issue equal to a psychopath who could usher in the end of America.” Kyle Mazza/Anadolu via Getty Images

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes that Biden’s age is a campaign problem, not a governing one. A salient point, but in today’s world, politics is largely performance art. The Biden who walks with a slow, careful gait, who doesn’t move with vigor, that’s the Biden the public responds to. Our world of the five-second sound bite has morphed into the three-second video stream. A stumble, a stammer, a gaffe becomes viral and defines reality to millions of voters. What’s policy got to do with it? Not much.

People often say that Trump is strong. Again, more performance art. Insulting people isn’t strength. Cozying up to dictators isn’t strength. Abandoning allies isn’t strength. And certainly, lying in such an over-the-top manner is anything but strength.

But Trump has turned his campaign into something right out of professional wrestling. It has worked brilliantly for him, which sadly may say more about the electorate than it does about him.

Campaigns aren’t designed to make you think, question, ponder or fact-check. Campaigning is all about choosing people who make you feel good about yourself, not the nation. People mistakenly think Trump is strong, and that comforts them and makes them feel good. Biden does not. He is too busy trying to govern to engage in play-acting ― and he is being out-acted.

Are we just more impelled by visuals and optics than substance? Certainly cable networks think so. Why do you think they present everything in colorful graphics and sound effects like swooshes, sweepers and buzzes?

Americans are a reactive, shallow-thinking, viscerally driven body politic. How many who watched that debate were equally disturbed by the countless false statements Trump made? How ironic that they would concern themselves with Biden’s mental acuity while never bothering to exercise their own mental acumen to dissect the lies coming out of Trump’s mouth.

Biden makes occasional mistakes that even tired people in their 20s and 30s make. Trump is completely detached from reality. For any reasonable person, the choice this fall is an easy, if unexciting, one.

The path forward for Democrats requires a delicate balance of pragmatism and unity. If Biden remains the candidate, the campaign must address the concerns raised by his debate performance. This includes smart debate preparation, strategic messaging, and leveraging his policy successes against a radically different and dangerous alternative.

If Biden steps down, he and the party must handle it with careful coordination, honesty and maturity.

He might address the nation this way: “I love this country and care about nothing more than saving our democracy from Donald Trump. I did it in 2020 and was confident I could do it again. But recently, I see what you see, that I’ve lost something — an edge, energy, but worst of all, your confidence. Unlike my opponent, I know this election isn’t all about me…”

That would be a powerful statement, embodying candor and humility that could move voters, including the independents, the undecided, even the so-called “double haters,” to at least appreciate a quality not only entirely within Joe Biden’s wheelhouse and completely beyond Trump’s capacity as a human being, but rare among most elected officials.

It’s fine to think Biden isn’t the greatest candidate. But nothing about the debate changes the fact Trump is the most dishonest, extremist, authoritarian major party candidate for president in American history. To stick with the incumbent, Democrats must change the minds of voters who think Biden’s age is an issue equal to a psychopath who could usher in the end of America and the democratic principles by which it has thrived for nearly 2 1/2 centuries.

Ultimately for Democrats, the decision hinges on a fundamental question: What is the best path to securing a victory in 2024? The party must weigh Biden’s proven leadership and policy achievements against the imperative of electability in a high-stakes election. It is a dilemma that requires thoughtful deliberation, unity, and a focus on the ultimate goal of safeguarding democracy and advancing the Great American Experiment.

Or maybe your neighbors will just disappear in the middle of the night, and nobody will say anything.

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