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Joe Biden Is Facing the Biggest Decision of His Political Career

Can he beat Trump and save American democracy? If not, he should step aside.

Joe Biden purses his lips at Thursday's presidential debate.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Joe Biden at Thursday’s presidential debate

More than a half-century after he was elected to the Senate and in the midst of his fourth presidential race, Joe Biden should spend the weekend facing up to the biggest decision of his political career.

After an uninspiring, wavering, hoarse-voiced debate performance in which he constantly failed to halt Donald Trump’s torrent of lies, it is time for Biden to face up to the reality of his 81 years. The president, away from his aides and enablers, should ask himself the blunt question: “Can I save American democracy by beating Trump?”

Judging from his performance in the historically early debate that Biden sought, the answer, sadly, is “no.” In the most important moment in the campaign, Biden came across as old and weak. These images are so much more telling than the fact that Trump couldn’t complete a sentence without telling at least three bold-faced lies.

Biden’s defenders—and many Democrats fall into this camp—are certain to argue that the press pack is overreacting to a few bad minutes at the beginning of the debate and that a fresh round of electoral panic is not justified.

Let’s be honest. Biden’s performance made Barack Obama’s listless first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 seem like Pericles in comparison. I have been writing on deadline off presidential debates for four decades—and this was the saddest, most heartbreaking debate in American history. It is almost impossible to see how the sometimes doddering Biden defeats a crazed guttersnipe like Trump.

Because it’s early, the sputtering performance may not have cost Biden millions of votes in a close election defined by partisanship. But it is hard to picture an up-for-grabs voter in Wisconsin or Nevada watching the debate and saying, “I misjudged Biden. He is at the top of his game.”

Even when Biden gained energy later in the debate, fueled by his rage at Trump, the president could not close the deal. In a key moment late in the debate when Biden was asked directly about his age, the president and Trump began wrangling over golf handicaps. Golf handicaps? It was almost as bad as the 2016 primary debate when Marco Rubio mocked the size of Trump’s hands.

Even in his closing statement, when Biden had an opportunity to partly rectify the damage, the president (undoubtedly following bum advice) squandered his time talking about tax rates and lowering drug prices against the opposition of Big Pharma. There was no talk about democracy or abortion or that Donald J. Trump is an uncontrollable danger to America. Even inflation was wedged in a sentence or two at the very end.

No one who was anywhere near Biden’s debate prep sessions should ever put that biographical detail on their résumé. But you can’t blame Biden’s longtime, handpicked advisers for the president’s own failings. He is, to put it bluntly, a terrible candidate—and there is no possibility that he will age well over the next four months.

The relevant question was posed more than a century ago by Vladimir Lenin: What Is to Be Done?

All the delegates headed to Chicago, with a handful of exceptions, are pledged to Biden. So it is unrealistic to expect an open convention to somehow repudiate a sitting president who ran in the primaries with no real opposition. Add to the mix that because of a wrinkle in Ohio’s election laws the president is slated to be nominated virtually some weeks before the convention kicks off on August 19.

That is why the decision is in Biden’s hands. It is on his conscience that Trump is likely to be the Once and Future President. Only Biden, by withdrawing next week, can change that frightening equation. It would be the ultimate self-sacrifice and it would run against every I’m-a-fighter instinct in Biden’s body. But it is a self-sacrifice that is needed to save the nation from four more years of Trump terror.

Who would replace Biden at the top of the ticket?

Ideally, the president would anoint a replacement candidate who potentially polls well. While I wish Biden would make another choice, Kamala Harris, despite her limitations as a public figure, would probably run stronger at this point than the president.

There are major risks to the Biden withdrawal scenario, which is why I have never taken it seriously until I endured the Atlanta debate. Whoever is the replacement nominee would have a serious learning curve, since running for governor in California or Michigan does not prepare you for the rigors of a four-month presidential race against a dangerous demagogue. But any major figure in the Democratic Party would bring more energy and effervescence to the race against Trump than the laudable, but worn-out, Biden.

Joe Biden, after a lifetime of public service, has the opportunity to save the nation with an inspiring burst of self-sacrifice. Let us pray, after a debacle of a debate, that the president has enough realism to recognize that he cannot win in an election that the Democrats cannot lose.