There’s no reason to resign ourselves to Biden

Though Joe Biden’s debate performance last week was among the most painful things I’ve ever witnessed, it at least seemed to offer clarity. Suddenly, even many people who love this president realized that his campaign has become untenable.

For years, loyal Democrats have been suppressing their private anxiety about Biden’s decline. In the debate’s miserable aftermath, there was finally space to acknowledge the obvious: Biden is too old for this. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin wrote. The Democratic Party’s predicament is an awful one, but there was a cold, flinty relief in being forced to reckon with it.

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Since then, however, the Biden campaign has quickly moved to squash that reckoning, framing the divide in the Democratic Party as one between naive, hysterical outsiders and savvy, resolute insiders. Biden surrogates fanned out to discount the debate as a single “bad night.” A campaign email slammed those calling on the president to step aside as the “bed-wetting brigade,” and offered tips for responding to “your panicked aunt, your MAGA uncle, or some self-important podcasters,” an apparent reference to the former Obama officials who host “Pod Save America.” On Monday, I listened to a recording of a Zoom meeting with Biden’s national finance committee in which his deputy campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, accused the media of blowing the debate “out of proportion,” and his campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, compared it to Barack Obama’s lackluster performance against Mitt Romney in 2012.

Some allies of the president have even suggested that Democrats learn from Donald Trump’s unswerving followers. “If Republicans are standing lock step” with the 78-year-old disgraced criminal Trump, said MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart, “then Democrats damn well should be standing lock step with their ethical and morally decent 81-year-old president.”

I don’t blame people in the Biden camp for doing everything they can to tamp down an intraparty revolt. That’s their job, and I take some comfort that they’re doing it as well as is possible, since if Biden is the nominee, it’s imperative that he defeats Trump. But as long as there’s time to replace Biden, Democrats should not allow themselves to be bullied into fatalism and complacency.

More than a setback, Biden’s showing at the debate was a revelation, confirming the worst fears of his doubters. Since then, several news reports have made it clear that the Biden we all saw onstage is familiar to those who see him behind the scenes. Axios reported that, according to presidential aides, Biden is alert and engaged from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but not necessarily outside those hours. The Wall Street Journal reported that European officials were worried about Biden’s “focus and stamina” even before the debate, “with some senior diplomats saying they had tracked a noticeable deterioration in the president’s faculties in meetings since last summer.” This is not a fixable problem.

Since Thursday, there’s been talk among Democrats of a comeback. “When you get knocked down, you get back up,” Biden said at a boisterous rally Friday in North Carolina, words that are now part of a new campaign ad. The progressive Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a Biden surrogate, likened the president to the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. But as should be evident, aging cannot be overcome with grit.

I’ve heard hopeful Democrats enthuse about how much better Biden was in North Carolina than he’d been the day before at the debate, but that’s silly: We all know Biden is usually fine reading from a teleprompter. The question is whether he can think and speak extemporaneously, a low bar for a president, and one that Biden can no longer be relied on to clear. After all, if Thursday were just a bad night, he could reassure doubters by doing a bunch of interviews and unscripted town halls. If he’s not doing that, it’s probably because his campaign doesn’t think he can pull it off.

It should go without saying that Biden in any condition is preferable to Trump, especially after the sinister Supreme Court ruling Monday granting presidents immunity for their official acts, an act of civic desecration all but ensuring that a second-term Trump would rule as a vengeful dictator. The stakes of this election are existential; it’s a referendum on whether America will continue to be a liberal democracy. Everyone in the anti-Trump coalition is scared, which is why the argument over what to do about Biden is so heated.

But asking Democrats to show MAGA-style devotion to their leader is a dubious strategy both ethically and practically. There is nothing to admire in the way Republicans have fallen in line behind Trump; it’s been a moral catastrophe and has left their party a hollow shell that keeps losing winnable races. To pretend that Trump is fit for public office, Republicans have had to give themselves over to corrosive denial. If Democrats spend the next four months — and then, in a best-case scenario, the next four years — telling people not to believe their own eyes about Biden, it will come at great cost to their credibility.

Now, it would be worth it for the party to set its credibility on fire to keep Trump out of the White House. But even before Thursday, Biden was losing, and though it’s too early for much reliable post-debate polling, there are already ominous signs.

In data guru Nate Silver’s polling averages, Trump leads by 2.4 percentage points, and Silver wrote that he’s seeing “the beginnings of a tangible effect from the debate on our forecast.” After the debate, the Democratic polling firm Data for Progress asked voters if they were more concerned about Biden’s age and health, or Trump’s criminal charges and threats to democracy. By 11 points, they said they were more worried about Biden. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg surveyed a group of Democratic-leaning voters both before and after the debate, and found that Biden’s vote lead fell by 8 points. On the national finance committee call, campaign pollster Molly Murphy acknowledged that fallout from the debate is also showing up in internal polls.

Some who believe that Democrats should stick with Biden argue that Vice President Kamala Harris would be even weaker, and that the idea of finding a new nominee at an open convention is an airy fantasy out of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” But there’s nothing sober or serious about resigning ourselves to our current disastrous trajectory when viable alternatives still exist.

The Data for Progress poll shows Harris performing exactly as well — or as poorly — against Trump as Biden does, losing to him by 3 points, and unlike Biden, she could campaign vigorously to change people’s minds. Asked who is “fit to run the country,” voters give Trump a 14-point lead over Biden, but only a 3-point lead over Harris. The poll also tests seven lesser-known Democrats against Trump, and shows each of them within 2 or 3 points of the ex-president, though with more voters undecided, suggesting these Democrats could have room to grow.

Finding a Biden alternative would be risky and messy, and there’s no guarantee that it would work better than trying to put on a brave face and drag the current president across the finish line. But the Democratic Party’s leaders — the people, let’s remember, who got us into this mess — have no right to condescend to those trying to find a way out.

James Clyburn, the influential Democratic representative from South Carolina, said Friday that Biden should “stay the course.” Given the course we’re on, that is ridiculous advice. If you’re in a car careening toward a cliff and can open a door, you should jump out.