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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Opinion | This Isn’t All Joe Biden’s Fault - The New York Times

This Isn’t All Joe Biden’s Fault

A black-and-white collage of President Biden looking down and a doorway that has a Democratic donkey logo on it.
Photographs by Kenny Holston/The New York Times and Damon Winter/The New York Times

What Is the Democratic Party For?

Top Democrats have closed ranks around Joe Biden since the debate. Should they?

"On Thursday night, after the first presidential debate, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner interviewed Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. “You were out there getting a chorus of questions about whether Biden should step down,” she said. “There is a panic that has set in.”

Newsom’s reply was dismissive. “We gotta have the back of this president,” he said. “You don’t turn your back because of one performance. What kind of party does that?”

Perhaps a party that wants to win? Or a party that wants to nominate a candidate that the American people believe is up to the job? Maybe the better question is: What kind of party would do nothing right now?

In February, I argued that President Biden should step aside in the 2024 election and Democrats should do what political parties did in presidential elections until the 1970s: choose a ticket at their convention. In public, the backlash I got from top Democrats was fierce. I was a bed-wetter living in an Aaron Sorkin fantasyland.

In private, the feedback was more thoughtful and frightened. No one tried to convince me that Biden was a strong candidate. They argued instead that he couldn’t be persuaded to step aside, that even if he could, Vice President Kamala Harris would lose the election and that if a convention didn’t choose Harris, passing her over would fracture the party. They argued not that Biden was strong but that the Democratic Party was weak.

I think Democrats should give themselves a little bit more credit. Biden’s presidency is proof of the Democratic Party’s ability to act strategically. He didn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2020 because he set the hearts of party activists aflame. Support for him always lacked the passion of support for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or even Andrew Yang. Biden won because the party made a cold decision to unite around the candidate it thought was best suited to beating Donald Trump. Biden won because Democrats did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do.

And it wasn’t just Biden. While the Republican Party collapsed into its MAGA era, repeatedly choosing wannabe Trumps who lost winnable elections, Democrats kept choosing candidates who could win tough races in challenging states: Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tony Evers in Wisconsin, Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Mark Kelly and Katie Hobbs in Arizona, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Since 2018, Democrats have been on a winning streak because they have acted strategically while Republicans have acted impulsively. But the same Democrats had no confidence that they could rise to the moment if Biden stepped aside.

I sometimes asked the Democrats I was talking to what they thought would happen if, in a terrible turn of events, Biden received health news that forced him to end his campaign. Would the Democratic Party collapse into a fetal position and accept Trump’s ascension? Of course not, they said. Then Democrats would have no choice but to build a ticket at the convention. I always found that answer revealing.

There is no lack of talent or capacity in the Democratic Party. But there is a lack of coherence and confidence. What is the party for? Newsom’s comments on Thursday implied that the party’s function was to support Biden. “We gotta have the back of this president.” Newsom said that the criticism of Biden was not unfounded, just “unhelpful.” A more astonishing statement came from Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota. “I think we could learn something from Republicans,” he told Fox News. “Republicans will not abandon Donald Trump through indictments, through whatever it may be.”

Do Democrats really want to follow the model of the Trump-era Republican Party? Republicans lost in 2018 and 2020 and badly underperformed in 2022. In March, Lara Trump was elected co-chair of the Republican National Committee. She is, from the traditional party perspective, completely unqualified for the job.

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But if you view the committee as a vehicle for the ambitions and whims of Donald Trump, her father-in-law, then she is wholly qualified. She is loyal to nothing and no one in the party except Donald Trump, and she is clear on the role the committee should play. She said, “Every single penny will go to the No. 1, and the only job of the R.N.C. — that is electing Donald J. Trump as president of the United States and saving this country.”

This is a corruption of the concept of a political party. In “The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics,” Sam Rosenfeld and Daniel Schlozman tell the history of how the strong parties of yesterday have become the hollowed-out vehicles for presidential ambition we see today. The ethos of the early American political parties was that they were a bulwark against politics becoming about one person. “The idea,” Rosenfeld told me, was “that parties subsume individual ambition, that you commit to the party and to the cause, never to the man.”

Parties lived up to this imperfectly, but at key moments, they did live up to it. Famously, it was a delegation of Republican members of Congress who persuaded President Richard Nixon to resign. There was more to the Republican Party than Nixon’s ambitions. There is not more to the Republican Party today than Trump’s ambitions. I would have told you that the Democratic Party was different, that it was not just a vehicle for Biden’s ambitions. Now I’m not so sure.

The best case against replacing Biden is that doing so at this late hour would be riskier than keeping him. But that is a choice the Democratic Party made.

It was a choice to support Biden in running for re-election, despite poll after poll showing supermajorities of the American people thought he was too old to serve a second term.

It was a choice, if an understandable one, for zero major Democrats to run against him in the primaries, even as polls showed majorities of Democratic voters didn’t want Biden to run again.

It was a choice, if top Democrats and the White House believed Harris too weak to run or govern in Biden’s place, to do nothing about it.

Democrats have spent all this time choosing to do nothing to solve the most obvious problems they faced in 2024, and now the argument is that there is nothing they can do; it’s too late. Now to even admit these problems is “unhelpful.”

Even if top Democrats believe Biden should be replaced, they face a collective action problem. Imagine you’re Newsom. You want to run in 2028. If Biden drops out, you want to be considered in 2024. Is the best strategy for you to try to push Biden out of the race publicly? Or is it to be the most loyal of loyal soldiers so that if Biden leaves or loses, you have a strong bond with his donors, his team and his supporters? And who wants to be the member of Biden’s inner circle who goes to him and says: You’re not up to this anymore. What happens to your role in the White House the day after? It doesn’t serve any individual Democrat’s interest to oppose Biden.

The argument Democrats have made is that Biden has lost a step on the campaign trail but his capacity to govern is unaffected, that the problem is superficial. This is Biden’s line. “I know I’m not a young man,” he said on Friday. “I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. 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.”

Biden’s speech calmed some Democratic nerves. He was louder, clearer, feistier. Closer to the Biden of the State of the Union than the Biden of the debate. Democrats asked: Where was this guy? Come on. It is easier to read off a teleprompter than to manage the chaotic, unexpected demands of a debate. You cannot say that the Biden of the teleprompter is a true reflection of the man but that the Biden of this debate answer is not:

For example, we have a thousand trillionaires in America — I mean, billionaires in America. And what’s happening? They’re in a situation where they, in fact, pay 8.2 percent in taxes. If they just paid 24 percent or 25 percent, either one of those numbers, they’d raised 500 million dollars — billion dollars, I should say — in a 10-year period. We’d be able to wipe out his debt. We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do — child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single, solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the — with, with, with the Covid. Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with — look, if — we finally beat Medicare.

You don’t have to believe Biden is senile to believe he is diminished by age, as we all will be. I worry about the fact that his worst moments come when he is unscripted, like in the debate, or when he stopped to answer questions after his news conference rebutting the special counsel’s report and mixed up Mexico and Egypt. I worry that people around Biden tell me they were unsurprised by his performance, that they have seen him like that many times. This is not the president I want in a pressured, high-stakes dialogue with Benjamin Netanyahu or Xi Jinping.

Biden’s campaign could show us these are flukes, that the president is fast and convincing on his feet. There is no end of adversarial podcasts and TV shows and interviews they could have him do. In polls, he is losing badly among voters who get their news from social media and YouTube. Why not sit for a long interview with Lex Fridman or Joe Rogan or Charlamagne tha God? Why didn’t Biden do the Super Bowl interview? Biden sits for fewer interviews than any other recent president. He gives fewer news conferences than any other recent president. The idea that this is all just coincidence, that none of it reflects capacity, isn’t plausible. Not anymore.

I have heard some Democrats point to Fetterman, who suffered a debilitating stroke during his Senate campaign, as a kind of grim model. He also turned in a bad debate performance, but he won his seat anyway. But he was recovering from a stroke. It was reasonable to expect his capacities to return, as indeed they have. Biden will not age in reverse.

What do political parties do? One thing they do — perhaps the most important thing they do — is nominate candidates. We have a two-party system. Voters will have two viable options in November. The Democratic Party is responsible for one of those options. It needs to make that choice responsibly. What is its job if not that?

But rather than act as a check on Biden’s decisions and ambitions, the party has become an enabler of them. An enforcer of them. It is giving the American people an option they do not want and then threatening them with the end of democracy if they do not take it. Democrats like to say that democracy is on the ballot. But it isn’t. Biden is on the ballot. There are plenty of voters who might want to vote for democracy but do not want to vote for Biden. That’s why we see Democratic Senate candidates running well ahead of him in key states.

Biden likes to say: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” And yes, Biden is preferable to Trump, one of the most dangerous men to ever occupy the White House. But the alternatives to Biden, right now, are Harris and Whitmer and Newsom and Warnock and Shapiro and Jared Polis and Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg and Gina Raimondo and Chris Murphy and on and on. How does Biden compare with them, really?

Biden says not to look at the man; look at the record. Look at the unemployment rate, the Inflation Reduction Act. He has been a good president. But he did not write the Inflation Reduction Act by hand with a fountain pen. It and every other bill passed under his tenure was written and passed by members of Congress. Those votes were organized by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and Hakeem Jeffries. Biden’s White House staff — his policy advisers and his foreign policy team — they’re Democrats. The cabinet members carrying out those bills are Democrats, and some of them are potential presidential candidates. The president is important, but he is not alone. He is part of a party.

I’m not going to end this by pretending that there is some easy path forward for Democrats. No path now is without risk. An open convention would be a risk. Nominating Harris would be a risk. To run an 81-year-old with a 38 percent approval rating who just got trounced in the first debate would be a risk. Biden was headed for a loss before the debate, and he is likelier to lose after it. To the extent his team has articulated a theory of what was supposed to turn the race around, this was the theory: the unusually early debate, in which the American people would see Biden and Trump on the stage and be reminded of why they backed Biden in 2020. That theory failed. Biden couldn’t pull it off.

Politically, I am more optimistic about a convention than some. It carries risk but also possibility — the possibility of a ticket that re-energizes the Democratic Party, that excites voters who currently feel they have no good choices. But it could go badly, too, just as Biden’s campaign is going badly now. And so what tips me is not really the politics. It’s that I don’t actually believe Biden should be president for another four years. I don’t believe he would be better than the alternatives.

I realize there is no magic mechanism, no unitary actor called the party that can persuade him to step aside. But there are many people in the party with influence over him. There is the support he senses he has from the rest of the party. The Democratic Party may not end up with another choice — it may truly be too late — but it should be trying to make one possible. Because there is not a plausible way for Democrats to convince voters that the man they saw on Thursday’s stage should be president three or four years from now.

So to go back to Newsom’s question: What kind of party would be trying to make a change after Thursday night? A party that was doing its job.

Ezra Klein joined Opinion in 2021. Previously, he was the founder, editor in chief and then editor at large of Vox; the host of the podcast “The Ezra Klein Show”; and the author of “Why We’re Polarized.” Before that, he was a columnist and editor at The Washington Post, where he founded and led the Wonkblog vertical. He is on Threads."  

  • Rebecca Noble/Reuters

  • Damon Winter/The New York Times

  • Damon Winter/The New York Times

  • Damon Winter/The New York Times

Opinion | This Isn’t All Joe Biden’s Fault - The New York Times

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