Free Press writers Eli Lake and Joe Nocera debate: Would Biden Dropping Out Save the Democrats?
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris arrive at a Philadelphia campaign event on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman via Getty Images)

Fight Club: Would Biden Dropping Out Save the Democrats?

Can Kamala Harris rescue the party, or is the damage already done? Joe Nocera and Eli Lake debate.

By The Free Press

July 3, 2024

Wednesday was Kamala Harris’s day. As speculation about the president’s future grew—fueled by a meeting with Democratic governors and fresh reporting, furiously denied by the White House, that Biden had discussed dropping out with a close ally—all eyes were on Harris. The world wondered: Is the plot of Veep about to come true? Polling showed her within “striking distance” of Trump. The Trump campaign referred to her as “Cackling Copilot Kamala.” “IT’S HER PARTY NOW,” read the banner headline on Drudge. 

Meanwhile, the Biden camp is desperately trying to tamp down the speculation about the president’s future. “I am running,” Biden reportedly said on a staff call Wednesday. “No one’s pushing me out. I’m not leaving.” Pooh-poohing the “draft Kamala” idea, Democratic adviser Dmitri Mehlhorn reportedly told donors that “Kamala Harris is more threatening to those swing voters than a dead Joe Biden or a comatose Joe Biden.”   

Biden and Harris will be together at the White House for Fourth of July celebrations later today. And while outwardly Harris is staying loyal, the Washington rumor mill is in overdrive. Fueling all that gossip are these questions: Is Joe Biden really the Democrats’ problem? And would his departure from the race really help their chances of beating Donald Trump? 

That’s the subject of today’s Fight Club between Joe Nocera and Eli Lake. Joe says yes, Biden is the problem and needs to go. Eli says the damage is already done. 

Here’s Joe: 

When I followed Nikki Haley around in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year, it was obvious to me that if the 52-year-old former South Carolina governor were the Republican nominee for president, she would crush Joe Biden. Even many Democrats would likely be attracted to her moderate Republican views and her warm personality.

But what about the reverse: How would a fifty-something Democrat do against Trump? He or she would have to be the right fifty-something Democrat, of course—a sensible liberal that independents could warm to—but the result, I’m convinced, would be the same. The Gen Xer would wipe the floor with the 77-year-old Trump, given all his baggage.

That’s why I view this as a moment Democrats should be excited about rather than panicked over. It offers them a way out of the terrible dilemma they put themselves in: saddled with a candidate whose age terrifies Democrats and whose policies—especially the border—turn off too many swing voters. When Biden steps aside, as he must if the Democrats are to have any chance, he will have given them a great gift: a fresh start.

Is it inevitable that the baton will be passed to Kamala Harris to replace Biden on the ticket? No. For one thing, she’s pretty unpopular herself. For another, neither Biden nor anyone else has the power to name her the candidate. The president would have to release all the delegates who are committed to him, which would lead to the kind of convention-floor drama the country hasn’t seen since 1976, when Ronald Reagan duked it out with Gerald Ford.

An open convention, with the drama shown live on TV each night (how I wish Mike Wallace was still with us!), would generate excitement among Democrats—something noticeably lacking during Biden’s desultory run through the primary season. More importantly, out of an open convention will emerge a candidate the party can feel good about, having collectively chosen someone they can rally around with no qualms.

Choosing a candidate via this route might solve the Kamala Harris problem. Despite her low polling numbers, there was never any thought given to dropping her from the ticket; Democratic strategists feared that if Biden ditched her, he would alienate black voters, a core Biden constituency. Assuming Harris decides to run—of course she will!—she will be on the same footing as California governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and whoever else vies for the nomination. If she wins, good for her. But if she loses, voters will see that it was the result of a fair fight. It’ll be unlikely that either women or black voters will hold it against the party for failing to nominate her.

The Democrats have a deeper bench than most people realize. In addition to Newsom and Whitmer, there’s Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, would be a good candidate. So would Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania. An open convention could show how much talent the party has.

A final point: Biden has based his campaign far too much on the danger a second Trump term would pose. But Democrats already know that—they don’t need to be constantly reminded of it. What they need is a candidate who can articulate a bright future for the country rather than stress the likelihood of a dark future under Trump. A candidate who can do that can surely beat Donald Trump.

Or rather, I should say, a fifty-something candidate who can do that. Can’t you just hear the sighs of relief?

Okay, over to Eli: 

There is a good chance that this weekend, President Joe Biden will either resign the presidency or announce that he will not seek reelection. If he does, many Democrats believe they have a good chance of defeating Donald Trump in November.

After all, Trump has been a turnout machine for the Democratic Party since 2016. And the 2020 presidential election proved there are more Americans who loathe the orange menace than love him.

But this greatly underestimates the damage already done to the Democratic brand. To understand why, just consider how so many of the party’s own arguments against Trump now apply to itself. 

Trump is a liar, Biden and his surrogates say. And there is some truth to this. Trump has proven that he has a salesman’s casual relationship to the truth.

At the same time, has there been a more consequential lie in recent American political history than the falsehoods repeated by the White House about the president’s cognitive and physical health? Remember White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre’s interview from August 29 on CNN when she said, “It is hard for us to keep up with this president, who is constantly, constantly working every day to get things done.” 

Trump is a threat to democracy, the Democrats also say. And here they also have a point. Trump’s failure to even acknowledge his defeat in the 2020 election and his encouragement of a riotous crowd that attempted to disrupt the certification of the election on January 6 was a national disgrace.

But the Democratic Party has also cheered the selective and dubious prosecution of Trump by New York district attorney Alvin Bragg. Many Democrats supported the ill-fated attempt of Colorado’s supreme court to strike Trump from the ballot. The response from House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to this week’s Supreme Court ruling, which found that Trump cannot be prosecuted for official acts when he was president, was to promise to “engage in aggressive oversight and legislative activity with respect to the Supreme Court.” This sounds like a rehash of earlier calls from Democrats to expand the court in order to pack it with more liberal justices.

Finally, the most likely person to replace Biden on the ticket is his vice president, Kamala Harris. In her official position, she met with the president for a weekly lunch. If she is the nominee going into November, an obvious question is why she never told the public the truth about the commander in chief.

In this respect, Biden’s replacement is not a clean break from an unfit president, whose mental and physical decline was shielded from the public. Rather it’s a co-conspirator in a big lie. Trump is capable of erratic and self-destructive outbursts. But he is also canny enough to understand that whoever he faces in November will have to explain what they knew about the president’s senescence, and when they knew it.

Joe Nocera (@opinion_joe) and Eli Lake (@EliLake) are writers for The Free Press. To support our mission of independent journalism, become a Free Press subscriber today:

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