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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 28: A Decision Biden Alone Can Make

After watching with concern the Biden-Trump debate in Atlanta, I offered some thoughts at New York about the path forward:

After the debate debacle in Atlanta on June 27, the well-known hand-wringing tendencies of the Democratic Party are in very plain view. That’s particularly true in the left-of-center pundit class, where full-blown panic has erupted over the terrible sight and sound of Joe Biden struggling to debate Donald Trump. We still don’t know the extent to which American voters share the horrified perceptions of Democratic elites; those not accustomed to Trump’s own routine incoherence may have thought the debate was closer to a draw than a rout. It will probably be a week or two before we can properly contextualize Biden’s bad night.

But one thing should be very clear: Democrats are not going to dump the 46th president when they gather in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention on August 19 (actually, the balloting is likely to happen earlier and virtually). Yes, removing the presumptive nominee against his will is technically possible. Unlike the GOP, the party itself doesn’t enforce delegate pledges to back the candidate under whose banner they were selected, though 14 states do have laws binding delegates to one extent or another. The real problem is that the political damage to Democrats inflicted by Biden’s debate performance is but a shadow of what would happen if a sitting president were dragged kicking and screaming off the ticket. There would be some delegates legally obligated to vote for him anyway (though the convention itself could adopt rules that might supersede state laws binding delegates). Others delegates would stick with Biden as an act of loyalty. So you’d have a convention and a party deeply divided, to the delight of the opposition. Democrats would be fools to invite that catastrophe instead of carrying on in the sure knowledge that nearly half of the electorate really doesn’t want a second Trump administration. The “dump Biden” scenario just isn’t happening.

But Biden himself could withdraw as a candidate, instantly removing any legal obstacles to the selection of a different nominee (state laws binding delegates generally release them when their candidate’s tent folds) and mitigating the political damage significantly. And even as Democratic elected officials and party leaders publicly renew their vows of support for Biden, as they must, you have to figure private discussions are underway to determine if this proud and sometimes stubborn man will indeed step aside. He surely understands that he’s now given vivid life to widespread fears that he’s too old for another term in the White House. Reversing that impression will be very difficult, particularly since Trump is unlikely to give him a chance to redeem himself in a second debate. What was already a tough uphill slog of a campaign for reelection has now become a steep and perilous climb in which the incumbent, not his calamitous predecessor, will be the focus of constant malicious scrutiny.

Biden could reset the contest with one clear statement repeating his determination to keep Trump out of the White House and passing the torch to a successor. And, yes, he’d have to name a successor, lest the Chicago convention become a riotous playground for political egos, making a general-election campaign impossible to plan, finance, and execute. Sure, the punditocracy will clamor for the spectacle of an “open convention,” but it would represent political malpractice of the highest order. If he does “step aside,” Biden must help his vice-president “step up” with the backing of a united party. Any other option at this late date would smack of desperation and would divide Democrats even more bitterly than an effort to “dump” the incumbent.

The president chose Kamala Harris as his running mate in the full knowledge that an emergency requiring her elevation was an ever-present possibility. An imminent return to power by the 45th president is enough of an emergency to justify an extreme measure of self-sacrifice by the one man who stands in the way of that calamity.

Biden and those who advise him should, of course, carefully assess the damage wrought by the debate during the next few days. Perhaps the pundits are overreacting, and the Biden-Trump race will settle back into its familiar status as a barn burner that either candidate can win. There’s only a small window of opportunity for a presidential game-changing decision to flip the board and improve the odds of victory. It could be the most momentous decision of Joe Biden’s long and distinguished life.


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