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Groundhog Day But With Cognitive Exams

 Member Newsletter
July 8, 2024 2:04 p.m.

I am going to try to write a few pieces today and tomorrow taking stock of the truly unprecedented and almost unimaginable standoff that is not so much wracking the Democratic Party as simply holding it in place, in limbo, for more than a week now. But before doing that I thought it was important to share some general thoughts on where we are with all of this. First I must say that I can’t think of many other or perhaps any political situation I’ve written about at TPM over decades that was more difficult for me to make sense of, either as a matter of what is happening or will happen, or what should happen. I’ve been mainly focused on the first question.

For the second half of last week I was basically certain that Joe Biden would be forced to end his candidacy and that it was simply a matter of time before he did so. Then, starting Saturday, things seemed to shift. These things work in waves. For any politician the best way to avoid being forced to resign (and here I’ll use “resign” as a proxy for Biden ending his candidacy, not actually resigning the presidency) is simply not to resign. It’s one of those truisms that contains more depth and nuance than one at first realizes.

One of the reasons for that shift was simply that Biden was still there. He’s still running and still the nominee. We’re in the midst of a level of feeding frenzy I’ve only seen twice as a political observer — the first week of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1998 and the one that ended Al Franken’s career in the Senate in 2018. The Washington press corps and national political press overwhelmingly and vociferously want to force Biden out of the race. I don’t say that in the sense of bias, per se — it’s not even necessarily at the level of intentionality. It’s more at the level of crowd behavior. It’s just how these feeding frenzies work. What do foxes think they’re doing when they rip through a hen house? For the DC press, this is all mixed in with ego and a sense of vindication. But again, it’s just how feeding frenzies work. But at a certain point, the feeding frenzy has been churning for days and Biden’s still running and there’s some element of a wave cresting. Like, hey we’ve been telling you all the reasons why Biden has to withdraw from the race for days but he’s still running and okay, well, maybe not — or, like, we can’t keep up this 100 yard dash forever. It’s just a cresting pattern.

At the same time I think there were the first hints of a realization that this has been overwhelmingly a conversation among media and political elites without much focus or knowledge about anything average voters are thinking or doing. My point here isn’t that average voters are necessarily rising up in defense of Joe Biden. More that no one really has any idea what most voters are thinking. And of course there is no “average voter.” It’s a big country with lots of different kinds of people. My point is simply that the elite conversation had already arrived at a consensus and blown right past it without any real idea of what the rest of the country was thinking.

This was captured for me by a couple interviews with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D) of Michigan. At the beginning of the week she appeared on TV demanding Biden solve the situation or move on, appear on camera with various feats of cognitive strength, etc. We’re running out of time, etc. Then, a couple days later, she described spending time back in her district and getting approached by ordinary voters saying, Debbie, what are you talking about? We had a primary and we voted for Biden. What’s going on here? It wasn’t so much a dead-end defense of Biden as a reality check that what was happening in DC was pretty different from what was happening at home. And, again, not absolute resistance, as she seemed to put it, more just, “hold on a second, what are we talking about here?” After that she’s shifted to a more equivocal stance, mainly saying we need to find a way to get back to bashing Donald Trump.

By the end of the weekend I was back to near total uncertainty about where any of this was going. I also noticed that my analysis of what is happening and what should be happening had become hopelessly blurred. That is probably partially a simple and healthy recognition that what I think should happen is mostly irrelevant since I’m not in charge of any of it. But “is” and “should” often become fused in high chaos and stress. A party leader or candidate can’t continue if he’s lost the confidence of his party stakeholders. And by that I mean, in this case, members of Congress, governors, top donors and fundraisers and political operatives. It just can’t work. So if it can’t work and it can’t be repaired, you want a candidate switch to happen as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. And it really has seemed to me that Biden has lost that confidence, at least for the moment, and not just for frivolous or over-hasty reasons.

Can that lost confidence be restored? I’ve been trying to understand that for days. Big picture, I think what happened in that debate was this: Democrats, from the very top people in Washington down to ordinary voters, thought that Joe Biden was old, had slowed down a lot, even over the course of his presidency, but that he could be relied on to put in solid or at least passable performances in the clutch moments. Over 20 or 30 minutes people went from, “he’s really old and he’s slowed down but he’ll show up in the big moments and we can win this” to “he’s old and slowed down and every big moment’s going to be rough at best and we’re probably going to lose.” That’s a massive shift and Biden really hasn’t been able to do much to change that impression. Age is age. It comes for all of us and at different times.

What worries me now is that it looks like we may be building towards a big public fight over this. And that, frankly, is disastrous. Any switch to a new candidate absolutely requires Joe Biden to credibly embrace the change and get behind it. It is up to him and the other critical people — and I think Nancy Pelosi is the highest on that list, after which comes maybe Chuck Schumer, perhaps Barack Obama, maybe Hakeem Jeffries, possibly Jim Clyburn et al. — to make certain this impasse is resolved in a bloodless way.

This gets me back to the issue of “legitimacy” I’ve mentioned several times. I’ve had a few people tell me, “no actual voters give a crap about that. They want to win.” This is a misunderstanding. I’m not talking about a political science concept. I’m talking about people’s foundational assumptions about what is fair, just and credible. That actually matters a lot, especially in a context in which it’s basically impossible to know which decisions give the best odds of preventing a Trump presidency. “Legitimacy” in that sense — as a catch-all identifier for those assumptions — is always critical, especially in a case like this when many people will have to embrace a choice that wasn’t their first choice or may even be one they disagree with. You can’t wave that stuff away. And in the same way you can’t wave away how the switch is managed if it happens.

For the moment we appear to be locked in a situation in which it is constantly demanded of Joe Biden that he daily perform cognitive or physical feats of strength which he cannot perform. And at the end of each day in this uncomfortable and unresolved standoff we suit up for another day of exactly the same thing. That is clearly untenable.

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