There's nothing noble in Biden fighting on (2024)

Days after Joe Biden’s car-wreck TV debate with Donald Trump, the public divide among Democrats and their supporters over whether the incumbent should quit the presidential race or fight on remains stark.

Many pundits and liberal papers are aghast at the thought of Biden staggering on, while senior Democrats are largely circling the wagons around their 81-year-old candidate.

In private, party bigwigs are having panicked discussions with campaign donors as they await data from secret polling, particularly in the swing states.

Those closest to Biden are said to have backed his determination to fight on. Huddled in Camp David on Monday, family members reportedly reiterated their support for his candidacy.

The stronger performance Biden gave in North Carolina, soon after the TV debacle, was cited by some supporters as evidence he still had what it takes. But even that showing was hardly flawless, despite the benefit of an autocue.

We don’t know if Biden has what it takes to survive another debate with Trump, who was, by any standards, awful: crass, unpleasant and dishonest.

One US political pundit, who did not want to be named, told i: “The debate was shocking. I cannot honestly see him [Biden] beating Trump in November. The Democrats might win back the House [of Representatives]. But that might be the best they can hope for.”

The excuses for Biden’s wretched performance are still coming.

“My only request was make sure he’s rested before the debate, but he was exhausted. He was unwell,” said one source, who told Reuters they appealed to Biden’s aides in the days before, to no avail. “What a bad decision to send him out looking sick and exhausted.”

Another figure said he’d been given too much to think about.

“It is my belief that he was over-coached, over-practiced. And I believe [aide] Anita Dunn… put him in a venue that was conducive for Trump and not for him,” said John Morgan, a Florida-based attorney and major Biden fundraiser.

Then there was the denial.

“I’ve never seen him perform that way before,” said Michael LaRosa, former special assistant to Biden and press secretary for First Lady Jill. This was always going to be a matter of presentation and cosmetics, and superficial judgments that were going to be made about his performance. And he wasn’t able to clear the bar.”

Superficial judgments?

Biden frequently appeared unable to maintain a simple line of thought, let alone articulate in complete sentences – raising the question of his ability to appeal to the swing voters he needs to defeat Trump.

Perhaps the most prominent Democrat to suggest Biden’s continued candidacy was congressman Jamie Raskin, who told MSNBC on Sunday that “there was a big problem with Joe Biden’s debate performance. There are very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party.”

Seeing The New York Times call in its leader page for him to make way for a younger candidate must have been a huge blow to Biden. If he does stagger on, he can expect the paper’s support and that of other liberal voices who have called on him to quit, for the simple reason that they see the defeat of his Republican opponent as the priority.

Reminding us why this is, on Sunday afternoon, Trump – the convicted felon and would-be autocrat – reposted a meme saying his leading GOP critic and former congresswoman Liz Cheney was “guilty of treason” and calling for “televised military tribunals”.

Some senior Democrats who panicked after watching the TV encounter appeared to have second thoughts about Biden withdrawing.

Immediately after the debate, David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack Obama, seemed to suggest that a replacement for Biden would have a good chance against Trump.

By Saturday, however, Axelrod tweeted: “Reality check: @JoeBiden is the nominee of the Democratic Party, nominated by voters in primaries across the country. Unless the @POTUS, himself, decides to quit – which he won’t – that issue is settled.”

Other commentators strongly opposed to another Trump presidency are sticking by Biden.

“One debate does not change the structure of this presidential campaign,” said Stuart Stevens, of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “It’s baffling that so many Democrats are failing to rally around a wildly successful president after one bad night.”

It is not so “baffling” to many of us who saw Biden’s quasi-demented performance.

However, the distinguished liberal commentator, Lawrence O’Donnell, also insisted Biden should remain candidate.

O’Donnell says any replacement would lack the national profile needed to win the White House, and the last-minute stand-in would not have enough cash to pay for a campaign.

It’s true that the Democrats have not switched presidential candidates at the last minute since 1968, and it would be fraught with difficulties.

But if the US could put a man on the moon a year later in 1969, is it really beyond the wit of the wealthy political party to put Biden’s profile to good use by having him back his successor and saturate press, TV – and social media – with the message?

The Biden campaign has lots of cash – and claims to have raked in another $27m on Friday despite – or perhaps because of – the debate disaster. But handing the money over to a new candidate would not be straightforward.

Under campaign financing rules, if Biden dropped out, his campaign would have to pay back all contributions designated to be used in the election. The rules say that most of what was left of Biden’s eight-figure war chest could not be given directly to another federal campaign, but could be passed to groups like political parties or PACs, which are limited in how they are allowed to spend the money.

“If a new candidate were to be chosen by the Democrats, that candidate would have to raise their own money for direct campaign ads. It would put them at a huge disadvantage immediately,” says Patricia Crouse, a political scientist at the University of New Haven.

In a move away from tradition, the funds could be passed over to national or local party committees, such as the Democratic or Republican National Committees, which could use the money to support a replacement nominee.

But Biden’s TV appearance poses another question. If the President is, even sporadically, as mentally incapacitated as he appeared on Thursday night, does he have any business being in the Oval Office, let alone running for another four-year term?

As one of the two most powerful men in the world – along with China’s Xi Jinping – he sits at the heart of a global network of security alliances, must lead the world against a threatening axis of revanchist and hostile states, and commands a vast nuclear arsenal.

What happens if Thursday’s Biden tells generals in the Situation Room to “go to Defcon 1” when he means “don’t go to Defcon 1” or “stand down”?

Ross Douthat, a traditional Republican and Trump critic, noted this danger in The New York Times. “A second Biden administration would be unusually dangerous for the country in a very specific, very significant way. And replacing him with another Democratic candidate, however difficult it seems, would spare America from the significant dangers of a Biden victory, not just from the risks of his defeat.”

If there is a concerted attempt to remove Biden before August’s convention, one figure might emerge to test the water, before a second heavyweight contender – a Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmore – revealed themselves were there evidence of sufficient support for dethroning Biden.

But most Democrats think that there will be no change at the top unless Biden falls on his sword. And only cataclysmically bad swing-state polling might prompt him to do so. If this happens, the Democrats would have to grapple with the issue of dumping Biden’s even less popular running mate, Kamala Harris. Some sections of the party would not be pleased at ditching a woman of colour.

For now, it seems that Biden, and those closest to him, particularly his wife, have yet to be persuaded that his continued candidacy makes the spectre of a Trump II administration more, not less, likely. “Thursday night had the sense of an ending,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post of Biden’s enfeebled TV performance. “There was something Shakespearean about the gaunt, haunted face of Biden on stage squinting as if to see in a dwindling light, struggling for words even as the nobility of his purpose remained.”

But there would be nothing noble if Biden’s determination to continue were informed by pride and obstinacy rather than common sense. For her part, the widely admired Jill Biden, might, come 6 November, be viewed less as faithful spouse and more like Lady Macbeth.

There's nothing noble in Biden fighting on (2024)
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