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Updated Jul 8, 2024, 6:15am EDT
politics

What’s really going on with the Biden age debate

REUTERS/Nathan Howard
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The News

President Biden’s nomination is on the knife’s edge as Democratic leaders return to Washington today to debate his position on the ticket. Biden has outwardly defied calls from a so-far limited number of Democrats to step down, but he could face a tougher position if a more organized effort emerges this week. Ultimately, the decision rests with Biden given party rules and the limited time remaining, but a mass Democratic call for his exit could be the equivalent of a “no confidence” vote that forces him to reconsider.

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Benjy’s view

The news has been moving so fast that it can be hard to keep your bearings. Here are a few ways to think about the running argument that’s going on between Democrats as they consider Biden’s fate.

There are really two debates going on about Biden’s age. Calls for Biden to step down from Democrats have largely been presented as an electoral argument: We love what you’ve done, Joe, but we doubt you can win. Rep. Mike Quigely, an Illinois Democrat, said that Biden’s “legacy is set” in announcing his opposition to his continued run, but that “the only thing that [he] can do now to cement that for all time and prevent utter catastrophe is to step down and let someone else do this.” Even before the debate crisis, center-left voices who questioned Biden’s nomination made a similar case, arguing he was — and still is — an effective president, but no longer had the oomph needed to sell his record as a campaigner.

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But Biden’s recent debate performance has opened up a separate argument that Republicans have embraced for years, but that Democrats are more reluctant to touch in public: Is Biden up to the job of being president right now, let alone at 86 in a second term? Or, as Nancy Pelosi put it in an ostensibly pro-Biden TV appearance: “Is this an episode, or is this a condition?” As soon as Biden’s position as the nominee fell into question, leaks from allies started appearing suggesting that his health and performance may be in decline and that the debate was not an outlier. If Biden does decisively end up the nominee, that means Democrats will have to publicly vouch for his ability to do the job through 2029 after large numbers of them have, at least privately, lost that confidence. That can have corrosive effects beyond just potentially losing an election — it breeds suspicion and cynicism inside and outside the party and ties elected Democrats to any future revelations about his health.

Biden is especially vulnerable to a party revolt. Biden is unusual among recent presidents in that he has no significant cult of personality. Instead, his primary source of strength is acting as a bridge-builder within the party who can manage its competing factions and secure wins for everyone. His 2020 nomination win was driven by a flood of last-second endorsements from defeated rivals and party figures who worried that Bernie Sanders, a top rival with a passionate and ideological following, would prove too divisive to beat Donald Trump.

Biden’s quiet, consensus-based approach has served him well in many ways and he’s counting on his longstanding relationships with Black Democrats and labor to help weather the storm. But the other side of a transactional relationship is that you have to hold up your end of the bargain. Many of the Democrats and pundits who sound most publicly concerned about his nomination are also the exact kinds of party pragmatists and swing district moderates who powered his 2020 campaign to victory — but now worry the winds have shifted. California Rep. Adam Schiff, the embodiment of the kind of rah-rah partisan who rallies the Democratic faithful on MSNBC, on Sunday strongly implied Biden should consider stepping down. “Joe Biden’s running against a criminal, it should not be even close,” he said. “There’s only one reason it is close. And that’s the president’s age.” Politicians who have clashed with Biden from the left — including Sanders himself — have, by comparison, been relatively muted since the debate.

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Biden’s age is not like other political problems. Past presidents and nominees have weathered crises that threatened their hold on the party by apologizing for misbehavior, or pivoting to a new issue, or demonstrating their support from voters. In Trump’s case, he won in 2016 after prominent Republicans not only called for him to drop out over the “Access Hollywood” tape, but actively announced they were voting for protest candidates in the general election. Biden’s down in the polls, but also could still win in large part because his opponent is unpopular as well, voters are highly polarized, and turnout is uncertain.

But one thing that separates Biden’s age issue from others is that it’s harder to imagine how to move past it once the view has set in with voters that he’s too old and it’s been validated to this degree by typically pro-Biden voices. For one, he’s by definition only going to get older. But every appearance is now also parsed for even the slightest slip-up, the news is focused like a laser on any signs of health concerns, and even Biden’s explanations about his one “bad night” concede that he’s prone to exhaustion in important moments and needs more rest. When the president’s campaign began, his ads rebutted age concerns by pointing to his grueling trip to war-torn Ukraine; this time, Biden told donors he “fell asleep on the stage” because a European trip almost two weeks earlier had knocked him out. When you set your own bar and fail to clear it, that’s not an easy problem to solve.

Democrats have no “good” choices. Some Democrats are publicly rooting for Biden to tough it out, given that Democrats are comfortable defending his record and the alternatives might be even more dangerous for them. The likeliest result is that Vice President Kamala Harris quickly takes over, but she’s historically also been unpopular in polls and ran a weak campaign for president in 2020 that ended with her dropping out before voting began. And if Democrats don’t quickly coalesce around her, they open themselves to a potentially ugly free-for-all to secure Biden’s now-freed delegates just weeks before the election. Whoever wins would then have to withstand overnight vetting in the national media, fend off a barrage of Republican attacks, raise gobs of cash, and coordinate with whatever campaign operation they indirectly inherit from Biden. It would be, as the Biden campaign put it in a fundraising message, “weeks of chaos.”

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Those calling for Biden to step aside are aware of all this — virtually none of them were pushing this idea before the debate, after all, even though Biden was still trailing in polls of key swing states and his approval rating was stuck in the 30s. Their argument is that the current situation is so untenable that even a risky, unprecedented change of candidate would at least offer a higher chance of success since they’re still less defined with the public and would have a chance to reset the race. Cutting your arm off also seems like a pretty dumb idea, until suddenly it isn’t.

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Notable

  • Semafor’s Morgan Chalfant reports on a pair of Democrats who have been circulating a plan for a “blitz primary” if Biden drops out, which would feature high-profile media forums with candidates to help quickly settle on a winner.
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