In a 2024 presidential race with many imponderables, all we can know for sure is that Joe Biden won’t be the Democratic nominee. That, at least, is what many Republicans actually believe or state publicly, from the very top of the party to the people in the very last row of the latest Trump rally.
Donald Trump has said he doesn’t think Biden “makes it,” and when Ron DeSantis was still in the race, the Florida governor speculated Democrats “may sub him out for someone else.”
Ted Cruz, giving voice to a popular theory, told Sean Hannity last September, “I think the odds are very significant that next summer at the Democrat[ic] National Convention that the Democrat[ic] Party will jettison Joe Biden and will throw him off the ticket, and they will parachute in instead, Michelle Obama to be their candidate.”
It’s something I routinely hear, too, from friends and acquaintances both inside and outside the political and media business: “No one I know thinks Biden is going to be the nominee.”
There are two versions of this notion. One has Biden suffering some health event that forces him off the ballot. This isn’t implausible. It could happen to anyone, but is obviously more likely with an 81-year-old who is visibly in decline than a robust 21-year-old. Still, there’s no predicting such an eventuality.
The other version has had Democrats planning to get Biden off the ballot all along and simply biding their time until they pull the trigger. This has never made any sense. But Biden’s latest flubs — mixing up the names of current European leaders with those from the 1980s — and a special counsel report that is damning about his mental state are going to fuel more speculation.
Even if Democrats were to decide Biden is unsuitable, there’s no easy way to leverage an incumbent president out of office, especially at this stage of the race.
A high-powered Democratic delegation could sit down with Biden in the White House and say for the good of the country and the party he has to step aside, and he’d likely just say, “No. Make me.” And how would they make him? They could leave the meeting and immediately go in front of cameras in the White House driveway and say they think he shouldn’t run again. Unless they could be sure he actually would fold his tent under such pressure, though, they’d just be grievously wounding him in advance of what already looks like a stiff challenge from Trump.
For Biden not to run requires Biden deciding on his own not to run. If that was going to be the call, he needed to make it last year, to give the alternatives the chance to mount primary campaigns.
It’s worth remembering, by the way, that the last person on the planet who is going to come to the conclusion that Joe Biden isn’t capable of being president any longer is Joe Biden. Not only does he probably think he’s doing a fine job, he’s spent his entire adult life trying to get to the place where he can walk out his door and get greeted by a Marine saluting him outside Marine One. No one wants to give up the presidency, especially when they’ve spent decades — with some humiliating false starts — trying to get there.
Let’s assume, nonetheless, for the sake of argument that Biden is willing to go along with a plan that would involve his dropping out and Democrats holding an open convention after he’s been racking up delegates against token opposition for months.
Who would the alternative be? Kamala Harris has lower ratings than Biden. Gavin Newsom? He looks good on paper — and on TV — but is completely untested at the national level. In his primary campaign in 2020, Pete Buttigieg demonstrated little appeal outside his upper middle-class white progressive base. Same with Elizabeth Warren. Bernie Sanders is an 82-year-old avowed socialist. And so on.
As for Michelle Obama, she is highly popular among Democrats, a major cultural figure and a talented communicator. Outside the question of whether she’d want to do it (no, no and no), she has never run for anything, and it’s quite possible that she’s not actually a skilled political candidate.
Even if the party’s power brokers considered one of these figures far and away superior to the others, would the other candidates agree? Would Kamala Harris, say, consent to getting bypassed by Gavin Newsom? Why would she? And if not, Democrats would be looking at a nasty political brawl at an open convention.
If that’s the alternative, sitting tight with Biden, despite everything, and hoping the economy continues to grow and Trump gets convicted of something doesn’t seem so crazy.
Why is it so difficult to accept that this is the strategy? For three reasons.
First, Biden does often look and sound so enfeebled it’s hard to believe that a political party would really be pinning all its hopes — including purportedly saving American democracy — on him. In the latest NBC News poll, 76 percent of voters have concerns about whether Biden has the requisite mental and physical health to be president for a second term — a threshold question of fitness that wasn’t there in 2020.
If anything, those numbers could go up.
Considering this, and his dismal polling generally, Republicans believe that there must be some plan, when as a matter of fact, Biden is the plan.
Second, each side of the political divide tends to think the other is shrewder, more conniving and more in control than it is. The reality is that both left and right are buffeted by events and political forces beyond their mastery. But since the Democrats have a political establishment that has maintained more sway than its GOP counterpart, and the Democrats are more capable of coherent actions (getting Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to quit the 2020 primary at the same time to back Biden is an example), Republicans attribute more power to Democratic string-pullers than they should.
Finally, there’s always the psychological satisfaction of supposedly knowing what’s really going on beneath the surface, when usually the muddle of the surface — like being yoked to a flawed incumbent for the lack of realistic alternatives — is all that there is.
It’d certainly be interesting if Joe Biden were about to be swapped out for Michelle Obama in a premeditated plan to wrongfoot Republicans and coast to victory. In reality, Democrats, figuratively and literally, are stumbling ahead with the guy they’ve got.
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