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Real Talk

There’s Only One Viable Alternative to Biden

And she’s even less popular than he is.

Kamala Harris smiles while campaigning for president in 2019.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Kamala Harris during her abysmal 2020 presidential campaign

Democrats are in a panic about Joe Biden. His approval rating hovers at a dismal 40 percent. His age, 81, is becoming impossible to ignore, thanks to his verbal slips and the withering Hur report. He’s taking a beating in Michigan and elsewhere for his handling of Gaza. And while his supporters argue that the general election hasn’t even begun yet, he is trailing the preordained Republican nominee in a number of national and swing state polls, despite the fact that voters despise Donald Trump.

What do you do with a problem like this? Over the last few days, Ezra Klein (at The New York Times), Damon Linker (at The Atlantic), and Nate Silver (at Substack) have all made the case that Democrats should replace Biden—that it’s less risky than the alternative, in which Biden tries to hold on while becoming visibly older. Their arguments take different, characteristic forms (Klein’s is a gentle invitation to skeptics; Linker’s is a frustrated, apoplectic plea; and Silver’s is a too-early victory lap), but they can be distilled thus: The Democratic convention isn’t until August. The Democratic bench has many viable options. Biden can step aside, and the party can select someone younger and better suited to the moment without kicking up too much fuss.

It’s an intriguing idea—particularly if, like me, you have growing reservations about Biden as a candidate and a second-term president. But the notion that Democrats can simply select a better option is far-fetched on its face, no matter how many thousands of words are spilled on the subject. It’s also insanely risky. The Democrats’ best reelection argument is that they’re the party of competence. A contested convention would not only foment discord three months ahead of the election, but it also might not produce a battle-tested candidate. Most of the names being bandied about are governors with little national experience: Gretchen Whitmer, Gavin Newsom, J.B. Prizker.

In fact, there is really only one Democrat who could step in for Biden at this late hour. The only practical plan B is to put Kamala Harris atop the ticket.

Let’s imagine that Biden is somehow persuaded by the likes of Ezra Klein to change his mind about seeking reelection. Because the Democratic primaries are already underway, and most of the filing deadlines for the remaining contests have passed, the nominee would have to be chosen by party elites during an open convention in August. On Wednesday, Klein interviewed political scientist Elaine Kamarck, who made the counterintuitive case that the process would be fairly ordinary.

“Suppose that Joe Biden dropped out in April. The people who would want to replace him will engage in a very grassroots campaign to get their loyalists in the state elected to go to the national convention,” she said. “You would be finding your supporters in the state and encouraging them to go to the county convention or go to the state convention.”

This is appealing in theory, but I’m doubtful it would work in practice, for two reasons: An open convention would likely be highly fractious, and Harris would enter such a convention with significant advantages.

Were he to drop out, Biden would have to endorse Harris, the first woman vice president. Not doing so, as Michael Cohen argued in a thread on X this week, would cause an intraparty firestorm and possibly tarnish his legacy. But there’s another obvious reason he’d endorse her: to foreclose a contest to replace him. Biden, who united disparate wings of the party after defeating Trump in 2020, surely would want to avoid a monthslong battle royale that culminates in a chaotic convention—one that may result in a nominee whose name many Americans don’t even know.

Endorsing Harris would effectively make her bulletproof. She would inherit his campaign infrastructure and delegates, giving her a head start over any potential challengers—including Newsom, who has been conspicuously building a national profile over the last couple of years. (Even if Biden didn’t endorse Harris, she would still have huge advantages in fundraising and infrastructure.)

But now we arrive at the other problem. Ordinarily one could expect the vice president to succeed the president in the event of an eleventh-hour decision to not seek reelection, but voters like Harris even less than Biden. This has been borne out in polling, which regularly shows her faring even worse against Trump than Biden. That’s a rather knotty kink in the argument for replacing Biden.

Klein, to his credit, takes Harris seriously as a candidate, arguing that she is “underrated” even as he acknowledges—in an understatement—that she “has not thrived as vice president.” Still, the idea that an untested candidate like Whitmer or Pritzker—or even Newsom, for that matter—would do better on the national stage than Harris, who served for four years in the Senate, ran a (pretty terrible) presidential campaign, and has been vice president for the last three years, strikes me as unfounded at best. Freed from the shackles of the vice presidency—and allowed to be herself—Harris could conceivably grow on the public.

Those concerned about the fate of American democracy are right to be anxious right now: Biden is losing to a would-be autocrat! But panic is rarely conducive to sound reasoning. A lot can happen, and often does, between this point in the presidential primaries and the November election. I’m no happier than Klein or Linker about the situation the Democrats are in, and I find the thought of an orderly process to replace Biden both attractive and comforting. But the odds that any of the options available to Democrats would produce a candidate who isn’t Harris—or who, for that matter, is guaranteed to be in a better position than Biden—are long.

Much like the rampant early speculation about who Trump’s vice president will be, calls for an open convention strike me as filler for an election season that has provided little real drama. Biden is the president. Trump has had the Republican nomination for president sewn up since at least the New Hampshire primary. These what-if scenarios fill the void but also seem like coping mechanisms: a way to imagine a world in which Trump is en route to another resounding electoral defeat. But the most likely scenario—by far—is a Biden-Trump rematch. The second-most-likely one is an anxiety-inducing Trump-Harris fight.

I could spend every day between now and November imagining much wilder scenarios. But would I be engaging in anything other than denial?