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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Let’s Stop the Magical Thinking About an Open Convention

As a veteran of six Democratic National Conventions who is familiar with many more, I had to object to some of the loose talk about the likelihood and desirability of an “open convention” in August, and wrote about it at New York:

Sometimes in politics, a perfectly justified maneuver falls to the wayside because there’s no way to execute it. Justified or not, the scheme to replace Joe Biden and Kamala Harris with a wholly new Democratic ticket will fail because no one is in a position to make it happen.

My esteemed colleague Jonathan Chait makes a solid, if not incontestable, case that there are stronger options than a 2024 Biden-Harris ticket, or a replacement of the president by his vice-president, for what has now become a desperate fight to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. He argues that the reluctance of Democrats to toss the incumbents and start over represents a sort of failure of nerve induced by Biden’s stubborn selfishness and Harris’s weaponization of identity politics:

“At the moment, according to one post-debate poll, only 27 percent of Americans believe Joe Biden has the mental and cognitive health to serve as president. This poses an almost-insurmountable obstacle to his election, even with Trump’s manifest unfitness. Biden is losing, and he has already squandered what his own campaign considered his best chance to change the race.

“Again, even with all her limitations, Harris is probably a stronger candidate now than Biden. I also think there are better options than Harris.”

Democrats, Chait believes, can seize the opportunity presented by Biden’s debate debacle to make a fresh start, if only they show “the collective willpower to make political choices in the clearheaded interest of their party and their country.”

I have mixed feelings about my colleague’s assessment of the political situation. But about this I have little doubt: At this late date, there is simply no instrument for canceling or reversing all the decisions the Democratic Party has made over the past four years–or indeed, over the past five months. There is no way to muster the collective judgment of Democratic voters about an ideal 2024 ticket. The primaries are long past; every single potential Biden or Harris rival has already bent the knee to the reelection effort; the soon-to-arrive convention’s only conceivable managers are in the White House or in the Biden campaign; and, even if there was agreement among Democratic elites and rank-and-file party activists that “Joe must go and take Kamala with him,” there is no consensus on replacements. Chait likes the idea of a Whitmer-Booker ticket; dozens of other ideas would arise if the party was somehow forced to upend primary voters and pledged delegates and start anew. Who, specifically, will forge the consensus? Nobody comes to mind. How, mechanically, would it be imposed? It’s very hard to envision it occurring without magic far more fanciful than Biden and/or Harris picking up a few points to beat Trump in November.

Let’s be clear: There’s no template for what the would-be deposers of Biden and Harris are suggesting. The last major-party convention in which there was any doubt about the outcome was the Republican confab of 1976, which was in turn the product of two candidates slugging in out to a draw in the primaries. Both were battle tested and could claim a popular mandate. The last multi-ballot convention was the Democratic gathering of 1952, which produced a landslide losing ticket. You have to go back to the Republican convention of 1940 — 84 years ago, long before the era of universal primaries and caucuses — to find a convention that suddenly chose a dark-horse nominee because he seemed a better bet than the career politicians he shoved aside. That nominee lost too. And the last truly wide-open convention was exactly 100 years ago, when Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate who won a booming 28.8 percent in the general election. Open conventions always sound like fun to political pundits. They are a disaster for political parties, particularly parties in mid-panic.

As it happens, the timetable for blowing up a settled nomination is particularly poor right now. Because of an Ohio ballot deadline, the Democratic National Committee has already decided to hold a “virtual roll call” for the presidential and vice-presidential nominations more than a full week before the convention begins. The idea, of course, was a pro-forma ratification that at most might represent a campaign infomercial. Is it now to become a deliberative and likely multi-ballot process that delegates enter with no idea of the outcome? That sounds like true chaos. And the only thing that could make it worse is an endless series of behind-the-scenes meetings where Democrats — which Democrats? Delegates? Delegation leaders? Party pooh-bahs? Donors? Interest-group leaders? The Clintons? The Obamas? — struggle to agree on a ticket.

Yes, there are reasons to worry about Biden’s capabilities as a candidate going forward and reasons to fear that Kamala Harris isn’t an ideal presidential candidate either. But the evidence is very mixed. If in a week or so that evidence turns unambiguously dark, the extremely efficient course for Democrats is the one Republicans chose in 1974 when congressional leaders of unimpeachable loyalty to Richard Nixon went to him and convinced him to throw in the towel. Another colleague of mine, Gabriel Debenedetti, says that the 46th president may not want to listen. But it’s the best bet for changing the ticket and eliminating the immediate source of panic. Indeed, it would be an important and appropriate consolation prize for Biden that as he “stepped aside” he would name a successor. The party could unite around this candidate and be spared the impossible chore of letting the ticket be chosen by pollsters for the benefit of politicians who did not enter a single primary. That successor will very likely be Kamala Harris, and she’s not ideal. But ideal presidential candidates do not fall from the sky or ascend via a landslide in the commentariat.

4 comments on “Let’s Stop the Magical Thinking About an Open Convention

  1. Victor on

    Far right ascendant

    The far rights continues its rise across the West. Only outdated electoral rules and systems impede its increasing influence.

    In France the center and left had to withdraw candidates in order to act as a check on Le Pen. The first past the post system is being abused against the far right.

    In the United Kingdom UK Reform (Farage) has almost replaced the venerable Conservatives as one of the two main parties. Labour has barely gained any new voters. It is hard to understand where the center is, with a splitting of the political scene including major gains for Greens and Liberal Democrats. The first past the post system gives a party with barely 30% of the electorate around 60% of parliamentary seats.

    There is a need for analysis on how Labour actually managed to distance itself from Corbyn. I actually read their programme and think their choices were good, specially regarding immigration, energy and criminal justice.

    Problem is that Labour actually had incredibly mediocre results. So, move to the left and raise the vote for third party options? I mean this requires a more comprehensive explanation of the splintering of political systems in Europe and how this was delayed in the United Kingdom due to the first past the post voting system.

    But without explaining the shift of many Conservative voters towards the Greens and Liberal Democrats and contrasting these parties to Labour under Starmer all the self-congratulatory tone is unwarranted.

    Furthermore, the replacement of the Conservative party by Farage’s Reform is a major shift to the far right. Not any kind of victory long term for liberal democracy.

    The United Kingdom election wasn’t a high stakes election like the one the United States is redoing in 2024, yet the choices are still problematic.

    It is unsurprising, although unsettling, to see minority voters in the United Kingdom turn Gaza into a litmus test.

    What is unsettling and unacceptable is to see minority voters in the United States turn Gaza into a litmus test in the context of attacks on the very system that allows them to immigrate to the country.

    The vanguardist campaign against Biden could succeed for completely different reasons and yet lead to completely predictable results.

    Horseshoe politics is as ascendant as the far right.

    In the United States the left is in the middle of a historic discussion on removing the current presidential candidate just a few weeks after the primary season. Voters are being completely sidelined in the most crucial of decisions by abusing the status of national parties as private legal entities.

    The abuse of electoral rules and systems by the left in order to protect democracy against the far right is a contradiction that only further weakens liberal democracy.

  2. Victor on

    Replacing Biden with Harris

    1. Replacing one bad debater with an even worse one

    2. Coronation style appointment which reminds voters of Hillary’s

    3. Moving towards identity politics once again

    4. Biden not fit to be candidate, but fit to be president?

    Fake consensus between partisans will create problems with independent voters

  3. Victor on

    Biden’s errors:
    – in debate order, not order of importance
    – regarding strategy and substance, not style

    1. Trying to portray the Trump economy as negative

    This is just telling voter’s (including a lot of Democrats) they are stupid.

    2. Promising 2 million homes

    Meaningless statistic (except for policy wonks ie 1% of the country).

    3. Capping rents

    Fake populism that goes against his actual record of ending pandemic housing protections.

    4. Corporate greed

    This requires a whole narrative, not just a quip.

    5. Prescription prices

    Haven’t come into effect, requires further explanation as to why. Need to tie in with political corruption and corporate greed.

    6. Abortion

    Too much focus on legality instead of morality of Roe v Wade.

    7. Immigration

    Just promise to keep the border closed until the situation is under control. All the rest is unnecessary. Focus more on attacking Republicans as do nothings and Trump as an obstructionist. Fact checking is a waste of time.

    Using immigration as a cause of economic growth was a mistake.

    8. Foreign policy

    Biden should just have insisted that Trump answer the questions posed by the moderators. Trump should be forced to state his own terms of settlement.

    He should attack the notion of immediately settling the conflict in Ukraine by comparing to past Trump broken promises (Mexico paying for the unconstructed wall).

    He needs to engage directly with the increasing isolationism problem in the GOP. Call out their votes against Ukraine.

    On Israel he should talk less about the ceasefire and just simplify by calling for a balance between self-defense and protecting civilians.

    9. Charlottesville

    The allusion needs explanation and context.

    10. Tax credit for black home buyers and student loan relief

    Mistake presenting and framing general policies in terms of helping specific groups.

    Should have pivoted to Republican opposition to criminal justice reforms. And attacked radicals on the left for defunding the police, placing himself at the center.

    11. Climate change and China

    Should have attacked China before Trump.

    12. China and tariffs

    Imposes tariffs on electric vehicles and other products but opposes tariffs in general. Is incoherent.


    Overall Trump talks in narratives and Biden wasted his time with some fact checking and allusions that only political junkies remember.

    The debate was a 90 minute ad with Trump attacking Biden about immigration. Totally predictible, which makes Biden’s approach more unforgiveable.


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