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Democrats Aren’t Stuck With Joe Biden

No one has to tie themselves in knots to defend him if they don’t want to.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

It is the very beginning of May. The Democratic National Convention is scheduled for August. The general election is in November. Dozens of states and territories have not yet held their primary elections. And Joe Biden is still the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, not the nominee.

It is important to remember that, because, as New York’s Sarah Jones writes: “Tara Reade is difficult to dismiss.”

Since she publicly accused her former boss, Joe Biden, of sexual assault, multiple outlets reported corroborative evidence that supports her account. She says she told her brother; The New York Times and The Washington Post confirmed that she did. She says she told an anonymous friend; reporters confirmed that too. She told the Intercept that her mother, distraught over her treatment in Biden’s office, called into Larry King Live to ask for advice around the time of the attack, and the clip emerged. On Monday, Business Insider reported the most significant piece of circumstantial evidence to date: A former neighbor and a former co-worker of Reade’s both told the outlet that Reade disclosed a traumatic event to them in the mid-’90s.

The news cycle moves at a breakneck pace in the Trump era, and time passes oddly in lockdown, but Joe Biden’s coronation and the third-party support for Tara Reade’s assault allegation (which Biden denies) are both very recent developments. Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, and Amy Klobuchar all endorsed Biden at the beginning of March; Reade’s interview with Katie Halper, containing her new, more serious accusations, came at the end of that month; The Intercept and Business Insider partially corroborated her story over the last week.

It is, as I mentioned, now the start of May. Thus far, the Biden campaign and Democratic Party organizations have, for the most part, dismissed the story. As The New York Times reports, “progressive activists and women’s rights advocates” have spent weeks urging the Biden campaign to “address the allegation” more thoroughly. They drafted a letter pushing him “to model how to take serious allegations seriously.”

Biden simply chose not to. The groups sat on the letter.

As the Times puts it, Biden’s aides have said they “remained unconcerned about any significant political blowback from Ms. Reade’s accusation.” They are “confident that the allegation will not shake voters’ perceptions of Mr. Biden’s character,” and they “believe that voters will view the allegation with great skepticism.”

All of that could be true. It is also answering a different question than the one those activists and organizations thought they were posing. They, ostensibly, should not be worried about whether Biden can win with a strategy of waiting for these allegations to go away on their own. But that is all the Biden campaign can offer them. (So far. Biden is scheduled to appear on Morning Joe today, and he is expected to answer some sort of question about Reade’s allegations.)

What his campaign is trying to imply is that Biden’s nomination is inevitable, instilling resignation in those who feel queasy about the allegations but who desperately want to beat Donald Trump in November. They want people who might, under normal circumstances, push a politician facing an accusation like this one to open up the Senate records that could shed light on the veracity of these claims to instead come up with reasons why Biden should keep them closed. (Biden has reportedly sent operatives to look through the records.) It is hard to ask the Biden campaign to “model how to take serious allegations seriously” when it seems more interested in following the old model—of having your fiercest partisans defend you in the press with blithe hypocrisy.

This is profoundly depressing, for people who are troubled by the story, who hate to see a woman smeared for coming forward, and who also believe the stakes of the November election require full-throated support of the Democratic nominee.

But instead of throwing up your arms at being forced to choose between either defending Biden or simply holding your nose and voting for a man you now suspect may have done something terrible, remember—it is only May 1.

Biden is the presumptive nominee in large part because the party leadership coalesced around him, signaling clearly to voters that he was the right man. The most respected and admired figures in the party could now coalesce around another path: Biden bowing out and the presidential contest continuing.

The 2020 Democratic primaries were notable for featuring a huge slate of candidates who were all broadly acceptable to the rank and file. The majority of Democratic voters regularly told pollsters they had favorable opinions of all of Biden’s closest competitors for the nomination. The candidates who couldn’t crack 50 percent were, for the most part, not unacceptable to Democrats but mainly unknown. Loyal Democrats paying the closest attention to the race bemoaned the early exits of numerous perfectly qualified candidates.

Guess what? They can return, if they want to.

The right circled the wagons around Brett Kavanaugh when he faced allegations of sexual assault that were hard to disprove, in large part because he was replaceable. To stick with him was an important display of power and dominance; to withdraw his name and advance an ideologically identical replacement would have made no difference to the right’s larger political project, but it would have been a demoralizing surrender to the forces they hate. There are now some on the Democratic side who feel even more tightly attached to nominee Biden because they, too, are determined not to surrender to the forces they hate, citing Bernie Sanders or Vladimir Putin or both.

But (among the commentariat, at least), there are more left-of-center voices responding with hopelessness or helplessness. I can’t believe male politicians, and the political establishment, are making me do this again threatens to become a common refrain. That reaction would be understandable if the bulk of the corroborating evidence had emerged in October (there is suggestive evidence that right-wing groups had had the Larry King Show tape filed away for just such time; suspiciously, they had it ready to post almost as soon as The Intercept published its story). But it is not October. It is May. Joe Biden is not the nominee. The primaries are still happening. It is within your power to demand an alternative.

The organizations that wasted weeks drafting a letter urging the Biden campaign to come up with an acceptable response to all this could now draft one instead urging Biden to step aside and let the primaries continue. Barack Obama could gently suggest that Biden do what he knows is right. Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar could unsuspend their campaigns. Or some of them could choose, just as they chose to throw their support to Biden, to endorse a well-qualified also-ran they believe deserves another shot, such as Jay Inslee or Julián Castro. And then the Democratic voters could decide. That’s how the system is supposed to work: Neither the Constitution nor the bylaws of the Democratic National Committee require that the guy leading the delegate count on May 1 win the nomination. If Biden left now, on his own terms, perhaps with some polite fiction about his health or stamina, the rest of the primaries could play out as designed, in a civil, well-managed continuation of the contests, and the eventual Democratic nominee could emerge without being seriously wounded.

Based on how the Biden campaign has responded to the allegations so far, and on what they have asked the most principled and loyal Democratic partisans to do, or even to think, a Biden victory in November could be nearly as demoralizing (if not as existentially dangerous) as a Biden defeat. His campaign is run by some of the most cynical people in the Democratic Party apparatus, and unless today marks some sea change in the way they view these allegations, they will continue to believe that they can ignore and dismiss this story and still win. They may well be right. And if you are comfortable with that, there’s not much else to say. But no one is under any obligation to adopt that cynical argument and use it to excuse anything. They would like you to believe that the choice before you is All In With Biden or another four years of Trump. That is not remotely the case.

The alternative scenario is not some outlandish, unprecedented piece of political-junkie fan-fiction, in which backroom deals at a virtual convention produce an Andrew Cuomo–Stacy Abrams ticket. The elections already on the calendar would simply continue with an existing slate of perfectly qualified candidates.

That is possible. It’s not even unreasonable, nor would it necessarily hand the election to Trump. Barack Obama became the presumptive nominee in June 2008. He had plenty of time to unify the party, introduce himself to the rest of the nation, and win the November election.

But just because Biden could step aside and allow the primaries to continue without him doesn’t mean that he will. And it is worth reflecting on why that is. Democratic leadership would panic, obviously, at the thought of changing horses in what they already view as the middle of the stream. But they also seem to believe their die-hards won’t care and the people most vocal about wishing to change things won’t demand a reckoning. They are relying on people already fully invested in a Joe Biden campaign—not just the campaign operatives and donors and elected officials, but the outside organizations and the professional activists, and the think tanks and the media personalities, and even people who seem to do nothing but post all day—to entertain no possibility of disinvestment. But with months to go before the convention, there is plenty of time for people with power and platforms to use them.