Categories: News

Biden is weak — and unstoppable

Biden addressing the nation’s governors on February 23, 2024. | Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It will be hard to convince the president that he isn’t the best of his party’s bad options.

Joe Biden is very old. He was born closer to the Battle of Gettysburg than the 2024 election. He was an adult before the JFK assassination and a senator before the fall of Saigon. And it shows.

The 81-year-old president was never a pristine public speaker; he’s also struggled with a stutter for much of his life. But in recent years, Biden’s oratory has grown increasingly stilted and slurred, his gaffes more frequent. He recently referred to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Helmut Kohl (who left the German government in 1998) and Emmanuel Macron as François Mitterrand (who has not been the president of France since 1995).

Shortly after these slips, special counsel Robert Hur released his report on Biden’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. Hur acknowledged that there was no strong case for prosecuting Biden — unlike Donald Trump, he promptly returned all classified documents in his possession upon the Justice Department’s request. But the report also made many editorial comments about the president’s cognitive capacities. It referred to Biden’s “faulty memory” and “diminished faculties,” and it claimed that he “did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.”

Hur is a veteran of the conservative legal movement, and most liberals saw his knocks on Biden’s mental acuity as pure political opportunism. But it nevertheless reinforced the public’s preexisting perception that Biden is too old for his job.

The notion that Biden is less mentally fit for the presidency than Trump is extremely dubious. The president has been involved in public policy for more than half a century and Biden has almost certainly forgotten more about geopolitics and the federal bureaucracy than Trump has ever learned. Age notwithstanding, Biden remains far more cognitively qualified for the presidency than his 77-year-old rival, whose ignorance of (and incuriosity about) the details of federal policy has been exhaustively documented.

The president’s mental competence is similarly well established. Last year, then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told allies that he “found the president sharp and substantive in their conversations,” as Politico put it. This comports with the assessment of Democratic insiders. And nothing in Biden’s public performance contradicts these reports of his private behavior. The president’s slip-ups have been verbal, not cognitive. When he described Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “president of Mexico,” Biden quite clearly understood who Sisi actually was, and he proceeded to discuss issues of Israel-Egypt relations. He had simply misspoken, something that Trump does on a routine basis.

Nevertheless, Biden’s current job is not merely to serve as president but to campaign for that position. And his fitness for the latter task is suspect — or so Ezra Klein argued last week in a much-discussed audio essay.

Klein insists that Biden has been a good president and would continue to be one if given the opportunity. But he notes that Biden’s gifts for public speaking have diminished considerably over the last four years (a point he effectively illustrates by playing Biden’s 2020 campaign launch speech against his de facto 2024 one). He seems much older today than he did then. Which is a problem, since more than 70 percent of voters are worried about his age, and Trump leads the president in national polls, according to Real Clear Politics.

Democrats need a gifted campaigner to get back in the race, Klein suggests, and Biden simply isn’t it. Instead, he argues that the party would be better off if the president stepped down and let delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago choose whichever standard-bearer they deem most likely to deliver victory in November.

Klein’s case that Biden is an unusually weak candidate is strong. His prescription for what Democrats should do about this is less so. The Democratic National Convention is in late August, and having a bunch of party insiders anoint a nominee less than three months before the convention is a risky gambit — arguably riskier than sticking with the incumbent.

Fundamentally, though, the argument is moot. Biden is not going to drop out unless his party’s standing gets much worse (or his health greatly deteriorates). And even in that scenario, it’s doubtful that the party could nominate anybody in Biden’s stead but Kamala Harris, who looks no more competitive in the polls.

Biden isn’t losing by enough to forfeit his lifelong dream

Biden has spent much of the past four decades angling for the presidency. He first ran for the office in 1988 and then again in 2008 before finally securing the prize four years ago. By all accounts, he enjoys being president.

People tend to be reluctant to relinquish enormous power. Doing so on the grounds that one is too old is especially psychologically difficult. Holding the presidency must be one of the most potent distractions from mortality in existence — the itinerary of a Delaware grandpa leaves far more time for contemplating one’s imminent death than that of a commander-in-chief.

At this point, Democrats cannot replace Biden against his will. The Democratic primary is effectively over, and the president will bring an overwhelming delegate majority to his party’s national convention. If he decides that he does not wish to run for reelection, his delegates could back another candidate. Otherwise, they will surely hand him the nomination.

Biden is leading Trump in national polls by roughly 2 percentage points. The president, according to Real Clear Politics, is slightly ahead in polls of Pennsylvania voters, slightly behind Trump in Wisconsin, and 4.6 points behind in Michigan.

These numbers are deeply concerning, but they are not yet catastrophic. More to the point, they leave plenty of room for Biden to rationalize his ongoing presence in the race.

For one thing, most pollsters are currently surveying all registered voters, rather than those who are likely to actually show up at the polls. This is significant, since polls have consistently found that Trump enjoys disproportionate strength among low-propensity voters (in other words, people registered to vote who don’t often cast a ballot). In December, Trump led Biden by 2 points in a New York Times/Sienna College poll of registered voters. But when the Times applied a “likely voter” screen to its results, it found that Biden led Trump by 2 points. Marquette University Law School’s surveys have shown a similar pattern. In that outfit’s September 2023 survey, for example, Biden trailed Trump by 3 points nationally with registered voters, but led him by 2 with likely ones.

The president’s numbers in Michigan are concerning. It’s fairly easy to discount swing-state polls this far from Election Day, which tend to have higher margins of error than national surveys. Meanwhile, in special elections, Democrats have been trouncing Republicans throughout the past year.

But personally, I don’t find these considerations especially comforting. It’s true swing-state polls have been wrong the past couple of cycles. But in the Rust Belt, they’ve been wrong in Democrats’ favor. In 2020, polls showed Biden winning Michigan by as much as 8 points. His actual margin was 2.8.

Further, the Democrats’ strength in special elections could be totally compatible with Biden’s grim poll numbers being accurate. Special elections aren’t very predictive of general election outcomes.

Nevertheless, Trump’s relatively narrow polling advantage, Biden’s strength with likely voters, and the Democrats’ electoral successes provide the president with plenty of reasons to believe in his own viability.

The alternative to Biden is not obviously better for his party

If Biden has cause to believe he’s still a contender, he also has grounds for doubting that his exit would increase the Democrats’ odds of victory.

The party has no shortage of candidates who would plausibly outperform Biden at the top of the ticket, from Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock to Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro. But nominating anyone but the sitting vice president would invite a crisis of dissension and legitimacy. Passing over a Black female heir apparent would likely spur backlash from key segments of the party’s activist core, professional staff, and voting base.

Just as importantly, only Harris could become the presumptive nominee ahead of the party’s convention and sail through relatively smoothly in a vote of the delegates. If Biden stepped down and endorsed Harris — imploring his delegates to vote for her — then Democrats could all begin aligning behind the party nominee before late August.

It would not be tenable for Biden to endorse anyone else. Risky as it would be for convention delegates to pass over Harris through a formal, deliberative process, it would be even more incendiary for the president to snub her unilaterally.

What’s more, as Biden’s running mate, Harris would be able to make immediate use of the president’s copious campaign funds, which currently total $130 million. As MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell has noted, no other replacement candidate would have legal access to that cash — at least, not until it passed through the Democratic National Committee’s coffers.

If Democrats went into their convention without a presumptive candidate, they would also cede the airwaves to the Trump campaign for an extended period of time. After all, in the period between Biden’s exit and the convention, there would be no Democratic candidate to advertise for. Then, in late August, the party would effectively run a multiday advertisement of its own internal divisions. Fierce debates over both candidate selection and policy programs would rage in Chicago. Delegates chosen solely on the basis of their loyalty to Biden would find themselves suddenly transformed into power brokers of national importance.

The last brokered convention predates even Joe Biden’s time in national politics. No one in the party actually knows how to run such an event. And even in the best-case scenario, Democrats would then have only 11 weeks to introduce their ticket to the country.

For all these reasons, Harris is the only really plausible alternative to Biden. And her polling is just as bad as his, if not worse: One national survey taken last week found the president trailing Trump by 1 point, while Harris trailed him by 3. About 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Harris, while about 56 percent disapprove of Biden.

The vice president’s electoral track record is also uninspiring. Campaign operatives typically judge politicians by how well they perform relative to their state’s partisan lean in presidential elections. In her first statewide election in 2010, Harris beat a Republican in the race for California attorney general by less than 1 percentage point. Two years earlier, Barack Obama had bested John McCain by more than 23 points in that state. In 2020, Harris began her run for the Democratic nomination with strong donor support and an early surge in the polls. Yet her campaign collapsed before the primary’s first ballots were cast.

If Biden is roughly as unpopular as Harris but more than two decades older, then it might be wise to go with the younger standard-bearer. Biden’s strength in 2020 was that he functioned as a relatively generic Democrat, thereby focusing the public’s attention on Trump’s peculiar liabilities. Today, however, the president does not scan as a normal candidate so much as an extraordinarily old one.

It seems possible that replacing Biden with Harris would be an improvement. Yet that isn’t remotely obvious to me — and more importantly, it isn’t obvious to Biden. Absent such clarity, there is little reason to think that the president would forfeit the job of his lifetime.

A collapse in the president’s poll numbers might change his mind. But mere advocacy almost certainly won’t — liberal pundits are unlikely to force Biden from the race through sheer reason. In spotlighting Biden’s declining vitality, however, Democratic commentators risk persuading the public that he is unfit to run for president without convincing the man himself.

Vox - Huntsville Tribune

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