Biden Is Still the Democrats’ Best Bet for November

Let’s start with the obvious. The concerns about Joe Biden are valid: He’s old. He talks slowly. He occasionally bumbles the basics in public appearances.

Biden’s age is so concerning that many Biden supporters now believe he should step aside and let some other candidate become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. The New York Times journalist Ezra Klein made the best-available case for this view recently in a 4,000-word piece that garnered intense attention by arguing that Biden is no longer up to the task of campaign life. “He is not the campaigner he was, even five years ago,” Klein writes. “The way he moves, the energy in his voice. The Democrats denying decline are only fooling themselves.”

In one sense Klein is correct. As the political strategist Mike Murphy said many moons ago, Biden’s age is like a gigantic pair of antlers he wears on his head, all day every day. Even when he does something exceptional—like visit a war zone in Ukraine, or whip inflation—the people applauding him are thinking, Can’t. Stop. Staring. At. The antlers.

Biden can’t shed these antlers. He’s going to wear them from now until November 5. If anything, they’ll probably grow.

That said, there’s another point worth noting up front: Joe Biden is almost certainly the strongest possible candidate Democrats can field against Donald Trump in 2024.

Biden’s strengths as a candidate are considerable. He has presided over an extraordinarily productive first term in which he’s passed multiple pieces of popular legislation with bipartisan majorities.

Unemployment is at its lowest low, GDP growth is robust, real wage gains have been led by the bottom quartile, and the American economy has achieved a post-COVID soft landing that makes us the envy of the world. He has no major scandals. His handling of American foreign policy has been stronger and defter than any recent president’s.

Moreover, he is a known quantity. The recent Michigan primary results underscored that Democratic voters don’t actually have an appetite for leaving Biden. In 2012, 11 percent of Michigan Democrats voted “uncommitted” against Barack Obama when he had no opposition. This week, with two challengers on the ballot and progressive activists whipping votes against Biden, the “uncommitted” vote share was just 13 percent. Biden is fully vetted, his liabilities priced in. Voters are not being asked to take a chance on him.

This last part is crucial, because 2024 pits a current president against a former president, making both quasi-incumbents. If Biden was replaced, another Democrat would have her or his own strengths—but would be an insurgent. Asking voters to roll the dice on a fresh face against a functionally incumbent President Trump is a bigger ask than you might think.

But the biggest problem plaguing arguments for Biden’s retirement is: Who then? Pretend you are a Democrat and have been handed a magical monkey’s paw. You believe that Biden is too old to defeat Trump and so you make a wish: I want a younger, more vigorous Democrat. There’s a puff of smoke and Kamala Harris is the nominee.

Do you feel better about the odds of defeating Trump in nine months?

You shouldn’t. Harris’s approval rating is slightly lower than Biden’s. People skeptical of her political abilities point to her time as vice president, but that’s not really fair: Very few vice presidents look like plausible successors during their time in office. (George H. W. Bush and Al Gore are the exceptions.)

What should worry you about Harris is her 2020 campaign, which was somehow both disorganized and insular. She did not exhibit the kind of management skills or political instincts that inspire confidence in her ability to win a national campaign. Worse, she only rarely exhibited top-level-candidate skills.

Harris had some great moments in 2020. Her announcement speech and first debate performance were riveting. But more often she was flat-footed and awkward. She fell apart at the Michigan debate in 2019 and never got polling traction. (My colleague Sarah Longwell likens Harris to a professional golfer who’s got the yips.)

Some public polling on this question fills out the picture: Emerson finds Harris losing to Trump by three percentage points (Biden is down one point in the same poll). Fox has Harris losing by five points (it also has Biden down by one point). These are just two polls and the questions were hypothetical, but at best, you can say that Harris is not obviously superior to Biden in terms of electability. At worst, she might give Democrats longer odds.

So you go back to the monkey’s paw with another wish: a younger, more vigorous Democrat who’s not Kamala Harris, please.

I’m not sure how it would work logistically—would the Democratic Party turn its back on the sitting vice president?—but this is magic, so just roll with it. There’s a puff of smoke and Gavin Newsom walks onstage.

Newsom is one of those people who, like Bill Clinton, has been running for president since he was 5 years old. Also like Clinton, Newsom is a good talker with some ideas in his head. But Clinton was a third-way Democrat from the Deep South at a time when the Democratic Party needed southern blue-collar voters. Today, the Democratic Party needs Rust Belt blue-collar voters—and Newsom is a liberal from San Francisco. Not a great starting position.

Every non-Harris Democrat begins from a place of lower name recognition, meaning that there would be a rush to define them in the minds of voters. Republicans have convinced 45 percent of the country that Scrantonian Joe Biden is a Communist. What do you think they’d do with Newsom? In the Fox poll, he runs even with Vice President Harris at -4 to Trump. In the more recent Emerson poll, Newsom trails Trump by 10 points.

Then there’s the eyeball test. Look at Newsom’s slicked-back hair, his gleaming smile, and tell me: Does he look like the guy to eat into Trump’s margins among working-class whites in Pennsylvania and Michigan?

What about Pennsylvania and Michigan? You have only one wish left on the monkey’s paw, and Gretchen Whitmer and Josh Shapiro—popular governors who won big in swing states in 2022—are sitting right there. Maybe you should put one of them on the ticket in place of Biden?

There’s some polling to back you up: Whitmer would probably beat Trump in Michigan and Shapiro would probably beat Trump in Pennsylvania.

Nationally, it’s a much different question. I haven’t found anyone who’s polled Shapiro-Trump nationally, but Emerson and Fox both have Whitmer polling worse than Biden. (Emerson has Whitmer 12 points behind Trump.)

Name recognition accounts for part of this gap, but not all of it. In 2022, Whitmer won her gubernatorial race by 11 points while Shapiro won by 15. But each ran against an underfunded MAGA extremist. In the Michigan poll pitting Whitmer against Trump, she leads by only six points; in the Pennsylvania poll with Shapiro, he leads Trump by 11. So even in states where everyone knows them, these potential saviors are softer against Trump than they were against their 2022 MAGA tomato cans.

Sure, Whitmer and Shapiro seem like strong candidates at the midsize-state level. But you never know whether a candidate will pop until they hit the national stage. Scott Walker, Ron DeSantis, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, Kamala Harris—all of these politicians looked formidable too. Then the presidential-election MRI for the soul exposed their liabilities. Always remember that Barack Obama’s ascent from promising senator to generational political talent was the exception, not the rule.

Let’s say that one of these not–Kamala Harris candidates is chosen at the Democratic National Convention in August. In the span of 10 weeks they would have to:

  1. Define themselves to the national audience while simultaneously resisting Trump’s attempts to define them.

  2. Build a national campaign structure and get-out-the-vote operation.

  3. Unify the Democratic Party.

  4. Fend off any surprises uncovered during their public (and at-scale) vetting.

  5. Earn credit in the minds of voters for the Biden economy.

  6. Distance themselves from unpopular Biden policies.

  7. Portray themselves as a credible commander in chief.

  8. Lay out a coherent governing vision.

  9. Persuade roughly 51 percent of the country to support them.

Perhaps it’s possible. But that strikes me as a particularly tall order, even if one of them is a generational political talent. Which—again with the odds—they probably aren’t.

We’ve got one final problem with the monkey’s paw: It doesn’t exist. If Biden withdrew from the race, the Democratic Party would confront a messy, time-consuming process to replace him. Perhaps a rigorous but amicable write-in campaign would produce a strong nominee and a unified party. But perhaps the party would experience a demolition derby that results in a suboptimal nominee and hard feelings.

Or maybe party elites at a brokered convention would choose a good nominee. (This is the Ezra Klein scenario, and I’m sympathetic to it. Smoke-filled back rooms get a bad rap; historically they produced better candidates than the modern primary system.) But very few living people have participated in a brokered convention. It could easily devolve into chaos and fracture the moderate, liberal, and progressive wings of the party.

The point is: Biden has a 50–50 shot. Maybe a little bit worse, maybe a little bit better—like playing blackjack. Every other option is a crapshoot in which the best outcome you can reasonably hope for is 50–50 odds and the worst outcome pushes the odds to something like one in three.

Joe Biden is Joe Biden. He isn’t going to win a 10-point, realigning victory. But his path to reelection is clear: Focus like a laser on suburban and working-class white voters in a handful of swing states. Remind them that Trump is a chaos agent who wrecked the economy. Show them how good the economy is now. Make a couple of jokes about the antlers. And then bring these people home—because many of them already voted for him once.

Having a sure thing would certainly be nice, given the ongoing authoritarian threat we face. But there isn’t one. Joe Biden is the best deal democracy is going to get.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top