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Stand & Deliver

OK, Democrats, This Is the Week to Say What You Really Believe

Want to replace Biden atop the Democratic ticket? It’s now or never.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Representative Hakeem Jeffries, who is now the House minority leader, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at the White House in 2023

It’s showdown week between Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. That’s a pretty remarkable sentence, and not one I imagined I’d be writing two weeks ago, but here we are. Biden, after a not-horrible-but-definitely-wobbly acquittal last Friday night in his interview with George Stephanopoulos, has dug his heels more deeply into the ground with each passing day. Only “the Lord Almighty” could get him to quit the race, he told the ABC host. But Democratic politicians, though still supportive publicly (with a few exceptions, including now six senior House members), are getting closer with each passing day to confronting their president.

The biggest sign on Sunday was the statement by Adam Schiff on Meet the Press. Schiff is not in the House Democratic leadership, but he’s known to be close to it, and he’s just a few months away from becoming a senator. Kristen Welker asked Schiff if Biden was still the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump. He didn’t say yes. After some pol verbiage, he said Biden “should be mopping the floor with Donald Trump. Joe Biden’s running against a criminal. It should not be even close. There’s only one reason it is close. And that’s the president’s age.” He also said Kamala Harris could win, and “overwhelmingly,” if Biden were to drop out.

That was a warning shot. But other Democrats are standing behind Biden. Senator John Fetterman in particular has been rabidly pro-Biden since the debate. But it goes beyond him. Senator Raphael Warnock also appeared on Meet the Press, and he defended Biden too: “There have been more than a few Sundays where I wished I preached a better sermon. But after the sermon was over, it was my job to embody the message, to show up for the people that I serve. And that’s what Joe Biden has been doing.”

I’ve never seen the Democratic Party in a worse predicament in my adult lifetime. You might say 1984, when Walter Mondale lost 49 states to President Ronald Reagan. But you knew Mondale was going to lose, and lose big. And Reagan, though certainly conservative, wasn’t a fascist. He made no promise during that campaign to round up immigrants by the truckload or to eliminate the “vermin” from society.

This is worse for two reasons. First, because, as Schiff said, it’s a race the Democrat should win. “Mopping the floor” overstates it, but I think Schiff is basically right: If Biden were 75, he’d be five or six points ahead. Second, because Trump is a fascist. As Rob Reiner, a big Democratic fundraiser, tweeted Sunday:

Rob Reiner tweet about Biden

And there’s a third reason: None of the options are great. Option one, Biden stays. He’s obviously hoping to do this. There’s a NATO summit this week in Washington. The White House thinks that if he does well there, things will quiet down and he can run out the clock—that as the convention (August 19–22) gets closer, Democrats won’t risk a public fight there that would tear the party in two. If this is what happens, Biden’s coronation will elicit about as much enthusiasm as when the Bulgarian Communist Party renominated Todor Zhivkov in 1978.

Option two, Harris. She could win. She could be a breath of fresh air. She’s a prosecutor, and Trump’s a criminal. Maybe she can keep him on the defensive. But Trump will come at her in all kinds of ways. It will mostly be about what a crazy radical she is, with her San Francisco background (no, even worse—Berkeley!) and lefty-professor father. She isn’t that, so she might be able to ride that out too. My big concern about Harris is that economics has never been her strong suit, and presidential elections tend to come down to which person made the stronger economic case about the future. Maybe she can do it, but we’ve not heard much from her there.

Option three, the open scenario. A lot of people I know were excited about Ezra Klein’s Sunday column, using James Clyburn’s comments late last week that he’d support an open convention process. “You can actually fashion the process that’s already in place to make it a mini-primary, and I would support that absolutely,” Clyburn said. “We can’t close that down, and we should open up everything for the general election. I think that Kamala Harris would acquit herself very well in that kind of a process, but then it would be fair to everybody.”

It seems fairest. It’s certainly the most interesting, which would be one of its main benefits—Americans would watch it pretty intensely, so they’d see this strong candidate materialize before their eyes, the way we see a palooka transmogrify into a heavyweight contender in movie montages.

But the logistical questions are serious. Biden can transfer his money to Harris, but not to the others. How does this nominee raise all those bajillions? (Trump has raised nearly $400 million so far this cycle.) How do you put together a staff? Hire vendors? These things can be done, but if they’re done in too much of a hurry, they might be done badly.

Then there’s the question of whether anyone would even bother participating. If I’m Gretchen Whitmer or Josh Shapiro, I’m probably thinking, “Do I want to try to take this away from a Black woman and alienate a quarter of the party?” It isn’t clear why someone would do that, although maybe if one takes the plunge, others will follow.

But right now, it’s all eyes on Biden. When I write or tweet that he should leave the race, I get a pretty fair number of angry tweets about how I’m a bedwetter and how all this worry is just helping Trump. I kind of understand where people are coming from. But I am not part of the media that’s been helping Trump. As I noted last week, we just put him on our cover as Hitler. I’m part of the media that thinks the Democrat absolutely has to win this election.

I’m not ready to say categorically that Biden can’t. Trump can screw it up in a dozen different ways. And we saw one poll over the weekend where Biden gained ground postdebate in most swing states (though he was down seven in Pennsylvania).

But he’s a much riskier bet than he was before the debate. And any Democrat who believes that needs to say it, this week. Biden does have the power to run out the clock. The only tool congressional Democrats have is pressure. If they want to use it, the time is now.