10 min read

Should Democrats ditch Biden?

Trick question: It’s much too late to push the president aside.
Should Democrats ditch Biden?
Joe Biden with Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer, and Cory Booker at the March 2020 event where he said he’d be a “bridge” to the next generation of Democrats. (Photo by the Biden campaign)

Good morning! It’s Monday, February 12, 2024. Election Day is 267 days away. Happy birthday to Abraham Lincoln. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Let’s start the week off with a reader question!

Phil N. writes:

I am glad that you mentioned the Special Counsel’s report [in Friday’s newsletter], but I am surprised you didn’t comment on President Biden’s ironic error during last night’s press conference when he conflated Mexico with Egypt. I’d love to hear your take on the dilemma the Democratic Party faces in deciding between: (a) proceeding with Biden as their nominee despite his obvious decline in mental acuity and the political liability it represents, and (b) selecting someone else as their nominee despite it being very late in the process to do that and despite the fact that there is no likely choice who has a better chance of beating Trump than does Biden.

First off, yes, I should have mentioned Biden’s Mexico/Egypt slip-up in Friday’s newsletter. Basically, if you haven’t heard about it, while answering a question at his Thursday night press conference, Biden referred to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi — a key player in the ongoing Israel/Hamas negotiations — as “the president of Mexico.” (Mexico’s president is Andrés Manuel López Obrador.)

Here’s that moment in the White House transcript, which includes a correction of the error:

This wouldn’t have been as a big of a deal, except for two things:

  1. It was the fourth time just last week that Biden conflated foreign leaders. At a fundraiser in Las Vegas, he referred to a 2021 conversation with the late French president François Mitterrand, when he presumably meant to refer to sitting French president Emmanuel Macron. (Mitterand died in 1996.) And then at a pair of fundraisers in New York, Biden referred to a 2021 conversation with the late German chancellor Helmut Kohl, when he presumably meant to refer to then-German chancellor Angela Merkel. (Kohl died in 2017.)
  2. The El-Sisi mix-up came at a press conference that was specifically called to rebut allegations in Hur’s report that Biden’s memory was failing. “My memory is fine,” Biden angrily insisted at the presser, just minutes before saying that El-Sisi was the president of Mexico. An “ironic error,” indeed.

So, how should Democrats be handling Hur’s report (which portrayed Biden as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”) and Biden’s accompanying string of uncomfortable errors?

Well, it’s not really my place to give advice to the Democratic Party—but, actually, that’s a good place to start. If you did want to advise the Democratic Party on their 2024 conundrum, who exactly would you go to with your advice?

Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the DNC? Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat? Hakeem Jeffries, his House counterpart?

A lot of the commentary on this issue seems to imagine that we still live in a world before the 1972 presidential primary reforms, when candidates didn’t need to win a single primary to collect their party’s nomination and everything was decided by a group of party bosses.

I’m not sure if this comes from Bernie Sanders’ claims that the 2016 primary were rigged or just a general notion that there must be a group of puppetmasters somewhere orchestrating things in the two parties.

But here’s the truth: there is no smoke-filled room, not anymore. Even if they wanted to, Jaime Harrison and Chuck Schumer can’t summarily bump Biden from the Democratic ticket any more than Ronna McDaniel and Mitch McConnell can do so to Trump on the Republican side. (Trump’s 2016 ascension, against the wishes of nearly every Republican official, should have ended once and for all the idea that party elites have some sort of final say over their nominees.)

Contrary to popular belief, there is no mechanism that would allow Democratic leaders to just slot in Gretchen Whitmer or Gavin Newsom or — as many conservatives have claimed — Michelle Obama as their nominee as long as Biden wins the requisite 2,271 delegates. As political scientist Julia Azari has written, we may have strong partisanship in this country, but we also have weak parties.

So, to the extent that Democratic leaders face a dilemma about Biden, it’s really one they resolved among themselves a while back. In order to have a different nominee, Democratic leaders would have had to go through an open primary process, and that would have meant either pressuring Biden to step aside or fielding someone to run against him several months ago. By now, per NBC, 80% of Democratic primary filing deadlines have passed, effectively closing off the path for a new candidate. Barring any Biden health crisis, it’s just too late for there to be anyone different.

So, understanding that this is a conversation that has now become purely hypothetical, should top Democrats have urged Biden to step aside back when there was still time for an alternative?

I think that’s a hard call, as today’s questioner suggests. On one hand, Biden is clearly a vulnerable nominee. There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them would plague another Democrat. But the biggest one wouldn’t: Biden is 81, older than any president in U.S. history. He would be 86 by the end of a second term, and already (before the first one has even ended) he faces serious questions about his age and mental acuity.

On the other hand, there is generally thought to be an incumbency advantage that preferences the sitting president in re-election contests. There’s no obvious Democrat who polls fantastically better against Trump. Open nomination processes can be messy and create splits in a party (especially presidential primary challenges, if Democratic leaders wanted to try to field an alternative candidate against Biden’s wishes). And, of course, just as Trump is lucky to face him, Biden is lucky in this regard to be facing Trump, who is also quite old (77) and makes many mistakes of his own. In the past few months, he referred to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán as “the leader of Turkey” and confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi.

Still, all things being equal, I think Democrats might have rolled the dice and tried pressuring Biden to step aside, but then three things happened:

  1. Democrats performed much better than expected in the 2022 midterms, postponing the uncomfortable conversations about Biden that likely would have followed a “shellacking.” (In their post-election glee, Democrats looked past considerable evidence that the 2022 electorate was friendlier to Democrats than the 2024 one will be.)
  2. The economy — Biden’s other biggest vulnerability — started to improve.
  3. Kamala Harris’ polling didn’t, leading Democrats to fear that, if not for Biden, they’d end up with a nominee who was even more unpopular.

So, instead of a chorus of Democratic officials calling for Biden to step aside after the midterms, only one did: Dean Phillips, the congressman from Minnesota.

What happened next for Phillips is instructive for anyone who thinks Democrats could have had a different nominee without first convincing Biden to retire. Phillips launched a primary challenge against the president, and has gone on to get crushed in every state so far.

Clearly, there is dissatisfaction about Biden within the larger Democratic universe, just as there are Republicans displeased about renominating Trump. But within the smaller subset of Democratic and Republican primary voters — the ones who actually get a say — there is no obvious appetite for ditching either one of them. It is revealing that, at this point, both Trump and Biden have each effectively won primary contests (in Nevada and New Hampshire, respectively) without even being on the ballot. Even when given a candidate, Dean Phillips, who was basically Biden minus a few decades (and plus a few millions), Democratic primary voters haven’t blinked an eye.

I’m sure the Newsoms and the Whitmers of the world gave a presidential campaign some thought, but once it was clear (partially due to the three factors I listed above) that Biden wouldn’t step aside and once polling showed them what it’s showed Phillips (that a primary challenge would be an uphill battle), they all fell in line.

As I wrote a few months ago, to the extent the “party can decide” — meaning, party elites can influence primaries not that they can circumvent them at this late stage — it requires careful coordination among a party’s leaders, to ensure that the anti-Biden candidate wouldn’t have just been hanging on a lonely ledge. They all would have had to come out against Biden together, or else a Biden challenger would be plunging to career suicide (like Phillips) by running against him in the primary.

As proof of this dynamic, consider this tweet by Whitmer, sent just as the latest round of Biden hand-wringing was taking place on Friday:

It’s too late. The coordinated decision not to challenge Biden has already been made.

Now, of course, the onus is on Biden to prove to Democrats that they trusted the right guy. As many other commentators have said in the past few days, Biden needs to show he is up to the work of running for (and being) president, by holding rallies, giving press conferences (he has held historically few), and granting interviews (he declined a 100-million-person audience last night).

If he is really equipped for the rigors of another campaign (and four more years in office), such public shows of mental readiness should be no problem. If his staff believes he is so infirm that engaging with reporters will only lead to mix-ups, then the next nine months will be long ones for the Democrats.

Often, when I write about Biden’s age, I receive emails from readers who mock me for even bringing it up. But, even if Democratic primary voters are not concerned about this issue (as evidenced by the fate of Dean Phillips’ campaign), general election voters are: in a New York Times/Siena poll late last year, 71% of battleground state voters said Biden was too old to be president, compared to 39% who said the same about Trump.

In politics, you can’t just mock a mass perception in hopes that it will go away. At some point, you have to try to change it.

More news to know.

Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is running for Senate. (Defense Department)

Trump says he would “encourage” Russia to attack NATO allies who do not pay their bills / BBC

Senate moves one step closer to passing package with aid to Ukraine and Israel despite Trump’s opposition / CNN

Israeli forces rescue 2 hostages in dramatic Gaza raid that killed at least 67 Palestinians / AP

Biden moving closer than ever to a breach with Netanyahu over war in Gaza / WaPo

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is hospitalized again, weeks after cancer treatment / NPR

Trump asks about whereabouts of Nikki Haley’s husband, who’s serving overseas / NBC

Larry Hogan launches surprise Maryland Senate bid The Hill

GOP Rising Star and China Watchdog Mike Gallagher to Quit Congress / WSJ

Rep. Andy Kim trounces NJ first lady Tammy Murphy in key contest to replace Menendez / Gothamist

White House frustration with Garland grows / Politico

The day ahead.

President Biden with King Abdullah II in 2021. (Photo by the White House)

White House: President Biden will deliver remarks at the National Association of Counties annual conference; later, he will meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

Congress: The Senate will continue consideration of the $95 billion legislative package to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and Palestinian civilians. The House is out until tomorrow.

Supreme Court: The justices have no oral arguments scheduled this week.

Before I go...

Govs. Gavin Newsom and Mike Parson — and their wives — in Las Vegas before the Super Bowl. (Photo by Newsom’s office)

Here’s something worth celebrating: Normally, during the Super Bowl and other major sporting events, politicians from the two cities represented in the game enter into a good-natured bet over the outcome.

Per the Washington Post, the tradition dates back to at least 1938, when the mayors of New York and Chicago bet on that year’s World Series, “putting a box of cigars and a 500-pound dressed pig, respectively, on the line.” In 1967, the mayors of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Kansas City, Missouri, entered into a bet on the very first Super Bowl.

This year’s Super Bowl was not immune from such betting — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) owes Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO) some Ghirardelli chocolates after the Chiefs victory — but it also included a welcome, bipartisan twist to the normal wagers. Instead of making a bet on last night’s game, Govs. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) and Mike Parson (R-MO) came together to pool their resources towards a more altruistic endeavor.

“Forget about bets, @GovParsonMO and I are teaming up for a cause near and dear to both of our hearts — the @SpecialOlympics,” Newsom wrote on X. “We’ll be donating signed Super Bowl memorabilia to raise funds and support for some truly incredible athletes.”

Here at Wake Up To Politics, we’re always ready to get behind some bipartisanship mixed with charitable giving. The real question, though: will Parson be getting some new ink to accompany the tattoo he got after the Chiefs won last year?

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s tattoo celebrating last year’s Super Bowl. (Parson’s office)

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