Biden and the Democrats Who Are Backing Him Need to Stop with the Self-Righteousness: The Stakes Are Too High

Posted in: Politics

Some Democrats are very upset that other Democrats are calling on President Joe Biden to end his candidacy for reelection. As I will discuss below, the venom seems only to be flying in one direction, with the keep-Biden forces quite angry and the replace-Biden side trying to have a real conversation. Indeed, Biden’s backers are aggressively attacking even those who want to have a conversation but are open to possibly staying the course. That is a shame, because this truly is an essential conversation, and one side should not be shouting down the other.

To put all of this in some perspective, it might be helpful to illustrate the various unknowns that we now face by imagining some alternative realities. Thinking them through will make it clear that the Democrats who are telling everyone to obediently line up behind Biden are, at best, confused about what is at stake. I continue to lean toward the side that says that Biden should not be the nominee, but I remain open to contrary arguments. Either way, however, let us think it through.

Alternative Realities and the Realities of Aging

Imagine that President Biden had not issued his challenge to the Trump campaign to talk past each other in Atlanta on June 27. (I know that most people are calling that event a “debate,” but that is not at all what it was. I thus refer to it as a “non-debate.”) Instead of the non-debate, imagine the following possibilities that could have happened on that date, none of which are at all pleasant to contemplate: (a) Biden died; (b) Biden had a debilitating stroke that left him in a coma; (c) Biden had a health episode that significantly and permanently altered his ability to think and communicate; (d) Biden had a health episode with serious effects, but his doctors declared that he would most likely be back to full strength in six months or so; (e) Biden had a Mitch McConnell-like “frozen moment” but seemed to recover by the next day.

In any of those cases, no sane person would say that it is “too late” for Democrats to decide that Biden should not be the nominee. In none of those cases should anyone who suggests that Biden be replaced be accused of aiding and abetting Donald Trump’s campaign. Even in the least serious of those two situations (choices (d) and (e) above), there would need to be an honest discussion about how to proceed; and if Biden insisted that he wanted to stay in the race even then, reasonable people could argue in good faith that it would be bad—for Biden and for the country—to give him what he wanted. Certainly, no one could say that such a discussion was an attempt to “overturn” the votes from this year’s Democratic primaries.

Moreover, if any of those health events were to happen to Biden the day after the Democratic convention, the party would need to figure out how to respond, even though the convention would be over, and he would already be the official nominee. They would be faced with a similarly stark choice if something bad were to happen a week before the November election, on election day, or on any day between then and—were Biden to win reelection—Inauguration Day. The earlier something like that happened, the more time Democrats would have to come up with a plan for a non-Biden path forward.

As everyone knows, nothing between (a) through (e) happened on June 27. But we all saw what amounts to the next worst possibility, and (f) has a lot of people worried. In the most immediate sense, there is reason for Democrats—and for anyone who cares about the future of American constitutional democracy—to worry that voters who, by a large majority, were already saying that Biden is too old to run for a second term will not ignore what they saw. And what they saw was Biden performing disastrously on that stage, fumbling for words and looking confused and lost behind his lectern.

In one sense, the stakes today are “only” about whether the Biden campaign can somehow pull a come-from-behind win, even after voters saw their suspicions about Biden’s mental and physical acuity apparently confirmed in real time. But in a larger sense, the issue is not only what Democrats must do in response to that disastrous evening—to go ahead and nominate Biden or instead find a process to have him step aside (graciously, one would hope) in favor of someone else—but how they should think about what could happen any day between now and January 20, 2025. McConnell’s first freezing episode was followed by a second, after all, and even the most robust 81-year-old faces an increasing likelihood of negative health surprises, to put it gently.

At the very least, people who worry that June 27 could be followed by one or more episodes of unknowable degrees of severity should be permitted to have an honest discussion about whether now is the time to make some difficult choices. Unfortunately, many on the keep-Biden side have decided that any such discussion must be denounced as pro-Trumpism. That is dangerous nonsense.

The ”Shut Up” Response to Calls for Honest Discussion

Yesterday, I published “Does the Biden Stay-or-Go Debate Matter If We Are Already a Dead Democracy Walking?” here on Verdict. In my most relentlessly pessimistic mode, I noted that the Republicans are simply not going to allow Biden or any Democrat to be declared the winner of this election, and they are laying out careful plans to allow themselves to negate anything that might happen at the ballot box. There are simply too many weak points in our system, and Republicans are attacking all of them.

Supporting that point, today’s Washington Post includes a report under this headline: “GOP jump-starts 2024 election challenges with Trump-inspired lawsuits.” The idea there is that a constant drumbeat of news about “election integrity” legal challenges will embolden Republican officeholders (and potentially Supreme Court justices) to justify reversing a Biden win by saying (again) that it was all a big fraud. The 2020 Big Lie is already being updated, and they are not even waiting until Election Day to get started.

Nonetheless, I argued in my column yesterday that it matters that Democrats make smart decisions and do as much as possible to win this election. For one thing, I might be wrong that the Republicans will be able to hack the system, and it could all turn out well in the end. But my larger point was that this will matter even if the Republicans succeed. The more it looks like Democrats blew the election on their own, the less possible it will be to argue that Republicans have engaged in the coup that they are more than willing to try again. A future anti-dictatorial opposition needs legitimacy, so Democrats have very good reason to make sure that they perform as well as possible in November.

As a companion to yesterday’s Verdict column, I also wrote a twopart column on Dorf on Law titled: “Note to Biden’s Defenders: ‘Shut Up!!’ is not an Argument.” Readers of that piece might have assumed that I was being cheeky, especially because Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” monologue on Monday characterized the keep-Biden forces as using a four-word variation on “shut up” that included an expletive. But because life sometimes validates art, today’s MSNBC clips on YouTube included a segment with this title: “Biden must get his party to ‘shut the hell up’: Michael Steele.” (To be clear, “hell” is not the expletive that Stewart used.)

Stewart was incensed, as am I, that the effort to circle the wagons around Biden amounts to a shutting down of any discussion. Admittedly, Steele’s call might be interpreted as a statement (from the former national chair of the Republican National Committee, who is now very much a pro-Biden voice) as merely saying that Biden needs to say that the time for discussion is limited, that the decision has been made and is not going to change, and that further discussion is therefore simply bad strategy from anyone who hopes that Trump can be stopped.

That, however, is not the vibe that is coming out of Biden’s camp or from his backers in the media. The most egregious smear coming from that group is the idea that people like Stewart—to say nothing of many Democrats, editorial boards, and commentators—have forgotten that Trump is the real enemy. Another MSNBC headline (referring to “Morning Joe” cohost Mika Brzezinski) captures that accusation nicely: “Mika: Democrats questioning Biden need to stay focused on who the opponent really is.”

With all due respect, please show some due respect. No one who is asking whether Biden would be the Democrats’ best nominee has “forgotten who the opponent really is.” The entire point of the discussion is that because the opponent is Trump, and because Trumpism represents an extinction-level event for the rule of law in the United States, it is imperative to take seriously the warning from June 27 and see if a campaign that was already losing can not only make up the lost ground that already existed but fight the new narrative that Republicans are gleefully pushing regarding Biden.

And when it comes to remembering “who the opponent really is,” it is not the people who are questioning Biden who are acting like they are at war with their party compatriots. In a segment titled “A party in civil war,” MSNBC host Joy Reid went on the attack against the Democrats and others who have dared to question Biden’s viability. I should be clear that I have been a big fan of Reid and her show for several years, but this was simply shocking. She began with this:

Over the weekend, the media feeding frenzy over President Biden and his place on the ticket saw elected Democrats tripping and falling all over themselves to have their names appear in stories calling on Biden to quit the race and go be elderly someplace else.

Seriously? If anything, the few Democrats who were willing to say anything against Biden publicly did so at risk of their careers. Far from rushing into a “media feeding frenzy,” only a few of those who had been saying such things privately were willing to say so in front of cameras. But of course, the sneering response to the idea that there were people who were questioning Biden but were not “tripping and falling all over themselves” to get their names in lights would surely be that those people are afraid, so why should we listen to them? This would mean that those who speak out publicly are media hounds while those who do not speak out are sniveling cowards. Either way, the response is an ad hominem attack and not an acknowledgment that there might be a reasonable difference of opinion.

Note also the simple ugliness of saying that the Democrats who are calling for Biden to possibly step aside in favor of someone who has a better chance of beating Trump are telling Biden to “go be elderly someplace else.” That not only slimes them with claims of putting their own celebrity above the needs of the country but also calls them ageist bigots. Who is firing the shots in this Democratic civil war?

It gets worse. Reid then unloaded on her fellow Democrats with this:

But please, please privileged, rich white elected Democrats, you just keep public defenestrating your party leader and president to feed the media thirst for ‘Democrats in Disarray’ stories, because you’re scared for your own seats, and apparently don’t know how to campaign on a surging economy, high-tech jobs, and $35 insulin. I mean, you’re the most important thing here, right? You, and your donors, of course. Not the actual voters in your party base who can’t afford to see prices double on everything they buy due to Trump’s China tariffs and who would be the first ones fired from the federal civil service jobs under Project 2025 or shot in the streets by Trump’s stormtroopers if they protest. You do you. The media’s super entertained, and that’s what’s important.

Again, the claim here is that what these doubting Democrats are doing is helping Trump win. The accusation, moreover, is not simply that they are wrong—Reid could have simply said, after all, that they are earnestly and honestly wrong in predicting that Biden would be a weaker candidate than the alternatives—but that they are being deliberately wrong and are guilty of bad faith. They are, to hear Reid tell it, selfishly guarding their own political careers and protecting their rich donors’ interests, all apparently because they are ravenously camera-hungry.

“You do you”? Maybe, just maybe, these people are Democrats in the first place because they care about the very people that Reid says they are throwing to the wolves.

Note also the assertion is that this is all coming from “privileged, White elected Democrats.” Really? A list of Democrats who had called on Biden to step aside as of yesterday hardly looks like the board of directors of an exclusive country club. Tim Ryan, for example, is a former House member (so much for being “scared for [his] own seat[]”) who was raised by a single mother in the decaying industrial core of eastern Ohio. Julian Castro and his twin brother were raised by a single mother in Texas. Lloyd Doggett is old and White, and for all I know he is privileged, but he is in any case a stalwart of the House Progressive Caucus and is nobody’s idea of an enemy of working people.

But the desire to slander and diminish the people who have questioned Biden’s viability is in no way limited to that one monologue by a cable anchor—one who, again, I have long admired. Biden himself is now claiming that those who doubt him are elitists, saying: “I don’t care what those big names think! … I’m getting so frustrated by the elites … they know so much more.” Reid similarly dismissed the “the editorial board class” that supposedly has aligned its awesome power against the little ol’ President of the United States.

And that is another example of the no-win framing by the keep-Biden side. After all, if the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with some of their columnists, were not calling on Biden to step down while a bunch of lesser knowns were agitating from below, Biden could write all of the doubters off as being unimportant. Again, this is a refusal to engage on the merits and instead simply insults those who have a different opinion.

Congressman Adam Smith from Washington is one of the people who most forthrightly makes the case that Biden is the wrong choice for the nomination, arguing in a recent interview that his party has a “substantially better chance” to beat Trump with any of a number of other potential candidates. In that interview, he was informed that the mayor of Kansas City has said publicly that he believes that Biden is in fact the best choice. To his credit, Smith responded that he respected the mayor’s willingness to argue a clear position. Honest disagreement and engagement should be the goal here.

Smith’s real complaint, he said, is with the people who are not willing to stand up publicly and say what many are grumbling about behind closed doors. But given that the White House and its supporters in the media are so willing to resort to character assassination and indulge in fantasies of being victimized by evil elites, it is honestly easy to understand why some people are not standing up.

So perhaps there is a civil war going on in the Democratic Party. If so, however, it is as unbalanced as any war that I have ever witnessed. One side says, “Can we stop and be sure that this is the best way to beat Trump?” The other side says, “You don’t care about the people who would be harmed by Trump, and you’re a bunch of elitists or worse.”

As I argued above, even if Trump and the Republicans somehow manage to retake the White House through extra-legal means, it will matter how that happens. When one faction of the Democratic Party goes to war with those who share the same goal but differ on strategy, that is a recipe for disaster. The last thing we need is for the history books to say that the constitutional system in the United States died because too many Democrats decided that shutting down an internal debate was more important than listening to good-faith arguments. They must do better.

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