Joe Biden Is Now Democracy’s Greatest Liability


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June 29, 2024

Joe Biden Is Now Democracy’s Greatest Liability

  • Biden
  • Democracy
  • Elections
  • United States
  • US elections
The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:
The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Joe Biden’s performance last night in CNN’s so-called “debate” with Donald Trump was a monumental disaster, for his campaign and for everyone who cares about democracy in the U.S. 

Ever since first entering the presidential race in 2019, Biden has claimed to personify the strongest political  bulwark against Charlottesville-style neofascism and Trumpist authoritarianism. The claim was redeemed in the 2019-2020 Democratic primary and in the November 2020 election, and it retained some plausibility in the early months of Biden’s administration. But it has become increasingly hollow as his agenda has been stalled (in large part due to GOP obstruction but also his refusal to upend the Senate filibuster rule), his political energy has flagged, and his popularity has tanked. His senescent, confused, and beleaguered performance last night, and his complete lack of any unifying theme much less a galvanizing vision, was the last straw for a great many who have long feared for the outcome of this coming November election.

Back on July 21, 2022, I argued that “Biden Should Not Run For President in 2024”:

I do not think that Biden is a ‘bad’ President. I never thought he would bring forward a new New Deal. He has faced serious challenges and obstacles and has lacked the mandate and the Congressional votes to do great things.

But he has been listless; his ‘bipartisanship’ shtick has been a huge failure; and he has done whatever he can do already. He is a very flawed figure, a very mediocre and uninspiring ‘leader,’ and an old man who has obviously slowed and whose ideas about ‘institutional memory’ are antiquated. He does not have the energy, the charisma, or frankly the record to run again as the standard bearer of a Democratic party serious about defending and extending democracy.

He did turn out to be the person who stood between us and Trump in 2020.  His time in office thus far has been very shaky. Most of that is hardly his fault. But he is now a vulnerable incumbent who can no longer represent what he represented in 2020—banality in the face of Trump’s destructive megalomania. 

The best thing Joe Biden can do for his reputation and historical stature is to spend the next two years doing what he can within his executive power to defend liberal democratic institutions and then to bow out gracefully and allow a real primary contest to mobilize activists and voters and generate some enthusiasm. The only thing that might save the republic moving forward is enthusiasm among Democratic leaders and within the Democratic base. And the best hope to generate this enthusiasm is a real competition for leadership of the party. It remains to be seen whether such a reenergization of the Democratic party is possible. But if it is not, our already dark times are likely to quickly become much darker.”

I was hardly alone. David Axelrod, Ezra Klein, Harold Meyerson, and many others made similar arguments. They mainly fell on deaf ears, primarily for one reason: once Biden made it clear that he had decided to run for re-election, a primary fight against an incumbent seemed like a fool’s errand, and most people who knew better were afraid to say that “the emperor had no clothes” because doing so would seem to only weaken “Democratic unity” while strengthening Trump.

The electoral calculations had some merit. But the stakes have never been simply electoral. For, as Biden and every other Democrat and Democrat-leaning pundit has insisted for years, “democracy itself is on the ballot.” Back in February of this year, I published “Has Biden Gone From Democracy’s Best Bulwark to Its Greatest Liability?” arguing, in the affirmative, that “It is not simply that Biden increasingly appears to be a weak candidate given the demands of the contest. It is also that every week that passes makes clearer that the stakes are so high, and the risks too great, to ‘bet’ on Biden as if this were a normal election. And the stakes are nothing less than the question on which Biden himself has staked his entire presidency since 2015: the survival of America’s tattered democracy itself.”

After last night, it is no longer possible to pretend that Biden is a strong or even a capable candidate, or that he can credibly lead the nation through a very real political-economic crisis of democracy for four more years—and “leadership” means more than occupying the Oval Office.

The hastily emergent consensus among a wide range of liberal and left commentators about the implications of Biden’s failure is striking. 

In today’s New York Times: Thomas Friedman, “Joe Biden is a Good Man and a Good President. He Must Bow Out of the Race”; Paul Krugman, “The Best President of My Life Needs to Withdraw”; and Nicholas Kristof, “President Biden, I’ve Seen Enough.”

In today’s Washington Post: Ramesh Ponnuru, ”Trump is too dangerous for Democrats to stick with Biden,” and Karen Tumulty, “The Great Democratic Freakout is upon us.”

In today’s The Atlantic: David A. Graham, “A Disaster for Joe Biden”; Franklin Foer, “Someone Needs to Take Biden’s Keys”; Mark Leibovich, “Time to Go, Joe;” and Jerusalem Demsas, “Dropping Out is Biden’s Most Patriotic Option.”

In today’s The Bulwark: William Kristol and Andrew Egger, “It’s Not Too Late. Biden Should Step Aside” and Tim Miller, “The Bidens Need to Have a Talk.”

In the Nation: Jeet Heer, “Trump Was Terrible. Biden Was Worse”: “Trump’s lies and unhinged ranting went unchallenged because Biden was incoherent and lost.”

In the New Republic: Alex Shepard: “Ditch Biden. That Debate Performance Was a Disaster.”

In the New Yorker, Susan B. Glasser, “Was the Debate the Beginning of the End of Joe Biden’s Presidency? Notes on a Disastrous Night for the Democrats.”

And in the American Prospect: Robert Kuttner, “A Tarnished Silver Lining: Biden was so inept that the case for replacing him is now overwhelming” and  Harold Meyerson, “The Democrats Must Dump Trump. Here’s How.”

Meyerson makes an especially strong case for the why and the how. As many commentators have already responded, such a move would be unprecedented, and carries real risks of Democratic disunity.

But everything about the current situation is unprecedented, especially if we believe, as so many of us have long been saying, that the MAGA Republican party poses a clear and present danger to even the most minimal understanding of democracy, and a second Trump administration would be an utter nightmare. 

There are risks of moving from Biden. But are these risks greater than the risks of staying with Biden? 

His support is now hemorrhaging. Further, the reason why is not simply because he had a bad debate performance, but because the performance confirmed all the worst fears about his candidacy, and his leadership, that are shared by even most of his supporters. Biden has always been an uninspired and an uninspiring politician. But as long as he could claim to represent the best chance to beat Trump with even the barest of credibility, many of us were willing to go along. But the credibility of this claim was shattered last night.

What Meyerson proposes is not a simple “dumping.” Like many of the others cited above, he proposes that major Democratic party leaders—Shumer, Jeffries, Pelosi, Obama, the Clintons—work, along with his circle of advisers, to persuade Biden to gracefully bow out and firmly offer his blessing to a candidate better able to carry the torch. Such a move would involve gaming some real Democratic party rules; garnering real support among key Democratic stakeholders; and forging some kind of agreement among likely alternative candidates—Governors Whitmer, Beshear, Simon, and Newsom, and of course Vice President Harris—about a process of candidate selection.

Yes, this is complicated, and might not be feasible, especially if Biden refuses, as he almost surely will.

But simply going forward as if the Biden campaign has not suffered a death blow is not an option.

And failing to consider an alternative to the Biden candidacy comes with enormous electoral risks, for the presidential election and all down-ballot races. This is something that all serious Democratic leaders must realize. Can any rational person imagine that Biden has any chance of mobilizing young voters, or Black or Hispanic voters, or RFK-leaning voters, or swing voters? Indeed, he so badly botched the abortion questions last night that it is not even clear that he can mobilize women in the numbers previously imagined.

And Biden’s senescent debilities aside, how can he possibly succeed when he has already lost the confidence of much of the Democrat-leaning media that is having an increasingly difficult time refraining from either weeping or vomiting as they discuss his candidacy?

As David Frum observes in today’s Atlantic, “Trump Should Never Have Had This Platform.” His argument is neatly summed up in its tag line “The debate was a travesty—because its whole premise was to treat a failed coup leader as a legitimate candidate for the presidency.” And of course he is right. But it was Biden—Mr. “I am the savior of democracy”—who proposed the debate, who agreed to treat the failed coup leader as a legitimate candidate for the presidency, and who botched every opportunity during the debate effectively to make democracy the issue he claims to champion (his repeated Cold War platitudes about defending Ukraine and Poland notwithstanding). And these egregious failings are simply reflections of the larger problem: Biden is simply not a strong defender of democracy, and his rhetorical appeals to democracy are increasingly hollow, inconsistent, and lacking in credibility.

Nothing about his campaign or its messaging is compelling or credible except for the fact that he is not Trump. In 2020 this was enough. But in 2024 it is not enough.

It is too early to know what will happen next. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has framed “The Great Democratic Conundrum” clearly: “how to replace the presidential candidate without tearing the party apart and losing the election anyway?” Brownstein, like Meyerson, lays out the alternatives, drawing heavily from interviews with Democratic insiders such as James Carville (“What is there to fucking say?” Carville told me. “How could somebody not see this coming? I’m just flummoxed.”) What Brownstein, Meyerson, and all the others are saying is surely right: “the prospect of the party simply marching forward with Biden as if nothing happened last night seems difficult to imagine.” I would go further: such a prospect would be nothing short of insane

The situation now is more precarious than at any time since 2016, for Trump is a rabid beast, and he now smells blood, and if he wins in November, his “retribution” will be devastating.

Now is the time for those who care about the survival of even minimally democratic governance to speak up, to pressure Biden, his advisers, and Democratic party elites, to chart a new course. To believe that Biden can lead the way forward is delusional.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.

This piece was originally pubished on June 28th, 2024, on Democracy in Dark Times.


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