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rush to judgment

Booting Biden Would Create an Even Bigger Crisis for Democrats

Replacing the president now, even with Kamala Harris, would create a whole new set of problems for beating Trump.

President Biden speaking at the White House with clenched right fist
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
President Biden speaking at the White House on July 4

There are unquestionably legitimate concerns about President Joe Biden’s age, and polling has shown voters worried about whether the 81-year-old incumbent can effectively serve another term—concerns that his disastrous debate performance fanned into a full-blown panic. But in their zeal to definitively answer the question of What Is to Be Done with what appeared to be an easy response (booting Biden off the ticket), panicky pundits and skittish elected officials have failed to consider the downside of success.

It’s considerable: It would be a nightmare worse than the bad political dream they are having now.

The first question would be who takes Biden’s place at the top of the ticket. That would provoke an open fight among different Democratic factions, each convinced the candidate they supported (and who lost in the 2020 and/or 2024 primaries) should assume the party mantle. With less than four months before the election, a protracted internal fight would be a gift to Trump (who has surprisingly remained largely absent since Biden’s debate bomb, using the nonstop chatter about the president’s capacities as an opportunity to rest his own 78-year-old body while letting the spotlight linger on his faltering foe).

Vice President Kamala Harris would be the natural choice, for logistical, financial, and political reasons. How could the party deny her the top spot after selecting her to be backup president? Would that not send a very un-Democratic signal that the first Black and Asian female to hold the job was just put there for diversity box-checking purposes?

There would be pressure to select Harris for financial reasons as well. If she is either the presidential or vice presidential nominee, the hundreds of millions of dollars in Biden’s war chest could easily be transferred to a Harris campaign, Saurav Ghosh, a former Federal Election Commission attorney who is now director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, explained to me. Otherwise, the money could be transferred to the Democratic National Committee, which would be allowed to spend just $32 million in coordinated expenditures with the new ticket, he said. And as for replacing Biden at the top of the ticket while keeping her in the second-banana spot? That might not go over well with Black women, who are the party’s most loyal demographic group.

“The truth is, the only option is Harris if he doesn’t run,” Florida-based longtime Democratic politico Steve Schale told me. “This isn’t managing your fantasy politics team. This isn’t The West Wing.” Harris—whom the president got to know through his late son, Beau—was Biden’s pick as his second in command, and Democrats could not realistically deny it to her, Schale said.

If it’s Harris, however, don’t expect a sigh of relief and a seamless move to the general election campaign against Trump. She is hardly a blank slate who would deflect media and voter attention back to toxic Trump. The media would embark on a renewed round of Harris “vetting,” which would undoubtedly revisit her time as California’s “top cop,” as she deemed herself. That includes opposing statewide standards requiring police to wear body cameras, which bothered progressives. And surely there would be a barrage of what-did-she-know-and-when-did-she-know-it stories about whether Harris concealed personal knowledge of Biden’s health and, presumably, declining cognitive ability. Republicans, meanwhile, have tied Harris to problems at the border, an area on which Biden tapped her to take the lead, and would relentlessly attack her on the issue. While some polls do show her outperforming Biden against Trump, the results are mixed, and she enjoys the backup-quarterback phenomenon: The fill-in is always popular until they actually get into the game. 

And challenges inherent in being the first female presidential nominee of color would only sharpen that conundrum, with just a few months to get American voters on board. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who was popular with voters—right up until she ran for office. Her approval ratings tumbled when she ran both for the U.S. Senate and for president. You can expect to hear a similar refrain from voters who don’t want to acknowledge any discomfort with a female, Black, or Asian president—that they’re fine with a woman as president, just not “that woman.” The “likability” issue that dogs female candidates is especially problematic for a presidential hopeful, with research showing that voters find power-seeking an unlikable trait in women.

Bullying Biden out of the race would also be a slap at the millions of Democrats who voted for him in the primaries—and at consistently higher percentages than the de facto GOP incumbent, Trump, got in his nominating contests this year. Yes, a change in circumstances might warrant undoing the primary results—death, severe disability, or (in an era gone by) being convicted of 34 felonies. But the polling since the disastrous debate has been relatively stable, indicating that actual voters don’t share the media’s and political operatives’ hysteria. And grassroots fundraising (individual donations, not part of an organized fundraiser), the Biden campaign told me, hit a record in the hour after the debate. July has had the best start of any month in the entire cycle, in terms of grassroots fundraising, according to the campaign. Further, over 40 percent of grassroots donors this month gave for the first time, indicating Biden is attracting new, paying supporters even in the wake of his dismal debate and the subsequent freakout. And in the 24 hours following the debate, volunteers signed up at more than triple the clip of an average day, the campaign said.

Biden has even smartly taken a page out of the Trump playbook, calling in to MSNBC’s Morning Joe to make his case and dismissing media elites as out of touch with what rank-and-file voters want and think.

“It’s like a 2016 moment for these guys,” Mike Madrid, a longtime Republican consultant and author, told me. “They’re so far removed from where the Democratic base voter is, they can’t understand it; they can’t comprehend it. They’re like the Republicans in 2016” who didn’t understand Trump’s appeal. “The voters don’t take cues from elites anymore. It’s a transformational moment. There’s a massive gulf between elites now in the media and the chattering class, and the voter base,” Madrid added.

“If you want to do anything to steel the resolve of the Biden world, have The New York Times write an editorial about it,” Schale added, referring to the Gray Lady’s calls for him to drop out of the race. Biden Monday sent a lengthy letter to congressional Democrats reiterating his determination to stay in the race, and a memo detailing his busy campaign schedule of the previous week.

Nervous Democrats look at polling and are befuddled and alarmed: How is it possible that a candidate found liable for sexually abusing and defaming a woman, convicted of 34 felonies, and indicted on scores more, is neck and neck with or beating their incumbent president? The answer they cite is Biden’s age. And they have simplistically turned the issue into a question of Biden alone, as if the “problem” goes away with the 81-year-old candidate.

Instead, Democrats could be left with a deeply divided party, with different factions fighting over the nomination. Republicans—who lucked out by not having their nominee sentenced a week before their convention—could hold a unifying event while Democrats would be poised for an August convention that would make their infamous 1968 iteration look like a White House picnic. (That riot- and violence-filled disaster took place in Chicago … where Democrats will be gathering to formalize their nominee again this year.) Even if the party quickly coalesced around Harris, they’d have less than three months to sell the public on her—all while Trump, whose campaign has already dubbed her Biden’s “Cackling Co-pilot,” taps latent and not so latent sexism and racism to weaken her. The media would offer an assist with new rounds of vetting overshadowing Trump’s own erratic behavior and lies.

And Biden’s cognitive state? It would still be an issue Republicans would use against her. Even if he is not on the ticket.