Where We Are on July 4th and One Week After

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I wanted to take a moment to share with you, as well as I’m able, where I think we are with President Biden, the 2024 nomination and the fallout from last week’s debate. Not where I think we should be, but where we are.

My sense is that as of this moment the critical stakeholders in the Democratic Party, elected officials, party officials, prominent voices out of office, funders, opinion columnists, etc. remain behind President Biden on the most tentative and contingent of bases. They are waiting to see how Biden manages in his sit-down interview with George Stephanopoulos which will be taped tomorrow and now, in a change of plans, will actually be aired tomorrow as well. There’s also a couple rallies in swing states over the weekend. Those will tell the story of whether Biden can regain confidence of these people, not only in his health status and wherewithal but also in whether he is able to run the kind of vigorous campaign required for victory.

My own sense, based not on any secret information but just taking stock of all the information out there, is that this is as much a matter of giving Biden the courtesy and respect of trying as it is based on a confidence that he can. It seems critical to note that I don’t think the standard here is any level of performance. It’s in the result. He needs to show up in a way wherein people who had decided or feared that he simply wasn’t able and vigorous enough to continue on the ballot say, “The debate was terrible. I thought he should step aside. But based on what I see from him I think he’s good to go, I think he’s ready to fight this campaign and win.” If they say that and mean that then that’s kind of it. And I think saying that and meaning that means whoever is saying it is confident Biden can shut down this conversation.

That’s a big challenge. I don’t know any other way to put it. But given the range of utterly beyond belief things that have happened over the last ten days and frankly over the last nine years I really have no confidence ruling anything out.

A minor note: the polls show Biden falling back, but I don’t think this is or will be about the polls. Non-response bias alone could drive these shifts and, assuming they are real shifts, they can be won back. The whole issue is what does happen and can happen for the next four months. I don’t think the wiser people calling for Biden to step aside don’t think these losses can’t be won back. They don’t think Biden as he is is currently able to campaign and with these questions looming over him to win them back and then grab two or three more points. So the polls are not insignificant and if somehow we’d seen him climbing in the polls we might not be having this conversation. But they’re not the driver. It’s entirely possible that if Biden steps aside and is replaced by Harris you might see them drop further in the short term — even if she’s able to win them back and defeat Trump. Big public shocks just make polls screwy.

One good thing I think we’ve seen over the last 72 hours is an increasing realization that, if Biden does step aside, the new candidate really has to be Kamala Harris. I’ve explained before the risks and challenges of throwing the nomination to what editorial boards now routinely call an as-yet-to-be-explained “process” by which a group of people with no clear legitimacy to make any decision beyond nominating Joe Biden will make this decision on behalf of half of the country over a period of a few weeks.

There’s a different, though related, point that hasn’t been sufficiently aired: legitimacy. Joe Biden ran for President in 2020 and, in selecting him, the American people decided that if anything happened to Joe Biden, Kamala Harris would become President. Joe Biden was just renominated with millions of votes. We’re now talking about simply tossing all that out the window. Of course, if Biden steps down a big part of it will go out the window. What has angered me about a lot of the columnists demanding Biden step aside is their almost unanimously deciding that Kamala Harris simply doesn’t exist. There will be some “process,” a choice will be made and all Democrats will unite and say Kumbaya. If you think you can toss the incumbent President and just go full write-your-own-adventure process, I really doubt you fully appreciate the gravity of the step one of the process you’re calling for.

I’ve already noted that I think that optimistic vision is a pipe dream and that tossing aside the black woman Vice President will split the party. But this process simply has no legitimacy. And what angers me about these columnists is just the lack of humility. What are they talking about? On what basis and with what legitimacy or authority are they coming up with this fantasy process? We’re way, way off the rails of democratic legitimacy here. In a case like this it behooves us, both politically and far more substantively, to search for sources of legitimacy where we can and make our choices accordingly. And the obvious and clear ones all point to Kamala Harris. The American people chose her as Biden’s replacement in 2020. And while she wasn’t technically nominated for VP during this year’s primary process, in effect she was since Democrats chose Biden again fully knowing she was part of the package. Her name is literally in the name of the campaign.

Over recent days others have noted the pretty critical fact that only Harris can inherit the mountain of money the Biden-Harris campaign has raised. Anyone else probably can’t. Or at least the Trump campaign can tie it up in the courts, which is functionally the same thing.

Frankly, if Biden does step aside and Harris replaces him I think he should seriously consider resigning from office altogether. Yes, it’s really hard for me to believe I’m writing those words. But the truth is that everything currently under consideration is simply absurd by any normal reckoning. I’ve seen some argue that if Biden isn’t up to running a campaign then he’s not up to being President either. I’m not sure that’s really factually true, though it does have a certain conceptual unity and coherence. More significantly, we come back to the question of democratic legitimacy. If we’re really going to throw out the votes of millions of people and hot swap the presidential candidate, it can’t just be that we think the new person would run a marginally better campaign or make us more comfortable watching the September debate. It can’t be a close call. And if it isn’t, that’s actually a real reason for him to consider stepping down.

Then there’s the political argument. If this is going to happen, Democrats have to be united and 1,000% all in. Everyone has to be totally united behind it and pulling in the same direction. One of the reasons I’ve been so resistant to any talk about swapping candidates is that incumbency throughout American history really has always been the surest driver of electoral success for Presidents. It’s simply insane to throw it away. My confidence in that has loosened in recent days simply because it seems muddier under these extreme and unprecedented circumstances what counts as incumbency. But if Harris is to have the best shot, make her President now.

Becoming President makes you the President. And no, it’s not as obvious as it sounds. In the U.S. system, becoming President imbues the occupant with a cloak of power and gravity. That is unquestionably an electoral advantage. But we also know what the campaign against Harris will be: that this black woman is a secret far-left radical and if she becomes President she’ll order the forced castration of all white men over 50 and make Cardi-B Secretary of State. You may think that’s hyperbole or funny. But seriously, who are we kidding? The best way to deflate the bogeyman of what Kamala Harris would do as President is to make it no longer theoretical. Make her President.

Again, this is where I think we are. We’re so far from where I’d like us to be I can’t even remember all the road signs on the way to getting us here. But here we are.

Late Update: Since writing the above, a number of TPM readers have sent in emails providing counter-arguments to the proposition that Biden should resign the presidency in favor of Harris if he steps aside as the nominee. There are several different arguments but they seem pretty good ones to me. I may explain them in a subsequent post. But for now let me just stipulate that I think I may have been persuaded to the contrary on the resignation idea. Not certain, but I think so. We’re in one of those shock moments in history in which we need to think through big, big complicated questions more or less on the fly. So it’s unwise to get too dug in on any one conclusion — or at least I will do my best to resist any tendency I might have to do so.

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