Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Fair or Not, Biden Must Go

by Neil H. Buchanan

This column addresses the 2020 U.S. presidential election.  Because I have not written directly on this topic for the past two months, I feel the need to begin by reiterating two points that I have made many times over the past few years:

(1) In anything like a fair election (even the ones that have passed for "fair" in this country), Donald Trump would lose to anyone the Democrats nominate; but

(2) Even if he loses, Trump will not leave office.

After updating those two caveats, I will explain why Joe Biden should withdraw from the presidential race -- or , if he will not volunteer to do so, why the Democrats should ease him out involuntarily.

On the matter of Trump's likelihood of winning the election outright, it is beyond the scope of this column to talk about the many ways that Republicans have suppressed voting and -- adding an even bigger question mark -- how the pandemic will affect the way that Americans vote (and which ones will be able to do so).  Beyond those two matters, however, it has struck me as insanity since 2016 for people to talk about Trump as anything but a huge underdog for reelection in 2020.

Yes, there are the advantages of incumbency, but if the standard tropes of political analysis are suspended on one side -- Trump can insult people, praise neo-Nazis, and cater only to his base without sinking like a stone -- then they are suspended on the other.  What makes being the incumbent advantageous (even when the economy was good) is simply not applicable to Trump.  He is too alienating to those who are not in his cult.

The final nationwide popular vote totals in 2016 had Trump at 46% and Clinton at 49%, and that was with low turnout among people who hated Trump but thought themselves too pure to vote for Hillary Clinton, counting on others to keep Trump out of the White House.  Trump's approval ratings in office have been stuck in the range from the high 30's to the low (very rarely mid-) 40's.  In other words, he is exactly where one would expect a person with his base to be.

Nothing Trump has done in the past three and a half years could possibly draw in new voters, and everything that he has done has repulsed those who did not vote for him.  This is why every election since 2016 -- most notably the rout of the Republicans in Virginia in 2017, the blowout of the gerrymandered Republican U.S. House majority in 2018, even the result of Wisconsin's recent Supreme Court election -- has been so good for Democrats.  Trump is poison at the ballot box, and even many races that Republicans have won have been eked-out victories in Trump country.

And sure enough, one of the recent major polls shows Biden with 49% and Trump with 43%.  I do understand why Democrats do not want to be overconfident, having been burned so badly by Trump's odd Electoral College path to the Oval Office in 2016, but that is not a reason to act as if they are underdogs.  Confidence, properly handled, can breed momentum and not complacency.

Second, even though Trump will almost surely lose in November, I still see no reason to believe that he and the Republicans will accept that outcome.  Just to offer one recent data point on this matter, an op-ed in today's Washington Post by the deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) notes that Trump is legally required to be preparing for a peaceful transition of power, but he and his people are flouting that law.  That is by no means the strongest reason to believe that Trump will refuse to leave, but it adds to the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

This rather lengthy preamble is necessary, I think, because any discussion of electoral politics should not proceed as if this were anything like a normal U.S. election.  Trump was and is unpopular and his opponents are highly motivated, but it is likely not to matter at all.  Even before COVID-19, we were probably already in the end times for the rule of law.

That said, Joe Biden has to go away.  I write this, by the way, not because I was among those who thought that he would be a terrible candidate (he is, in fact, so far surprisingly not bad) or because of his uninspired and damaging neoliberal policy views.  Indeed, I have every reason to believe that the Democrats will nominate someone whose broad policy views are similarly repellent to progressives like me.  New York's governor Andrew Cuomo comes immediately to mind (bashing teachers for low test scores, eliminating progressive tax provisions), but there are plenty of non-Bernie Sanders choices out there for timid Democrats to choose from.

And I am also not taking this Biden-should-go position because I think that the analogy between Biden and Brett Kavanaugh is in any way accurate or fair, as I will discuss below.  Instead, I have reluctantly concluded that the Republicans' cynical games combined with the media's mindless habits make it reasonable to conclude that giving in is better than fighting.

As the title of this column suggests, I am in no better position than anyone else to know whether the sexual assault allegation against Biden is true, which means that it is possible that he will be driven from the race by a lie.  Or by an awful truth.

Two op-eds in the last few days -- one by Elizabeth Bruenig in The New York Times, the other by an Iowa-based reporter in The Post --  convincingly make the case that Democrats must not allow themselves to be seen as dismissing the allegations against Biden and that he should not be the nominee.  Neither is gleeful about it, and neither am I.  Although I find their sincere arguments persuasive, my argument here is a resigned response to systemic cynicism.

I was among the people who called for Democrats to force out Al Franken from the Senate, even though his admitted actions -- including the unproven allegations -- were not in the category of Tara Reade's claims about Biden forcibly penetrating her vagina with his fingers.  My argument then was that no one has a God-given right to be a U.S. Senator, and Franken will have lived a good life even after leaving the Senate under a possibly unfair cloud.  I certainly do not buy the revisionism that Franken was railroaded, which apparently led to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand being iced out of Democratic power centers, in punishment for her leadership role in pushing Franken out.

And this is where an analogy to Kavanaugh's situation actually is apt.  There, I argued that even a not-completely-proven allegation of sexual assault should not be viewed as potentially "ruining an innocent man," because never becoming a Supreme Court justice is in no sane world the definition of being ruined.  Biden has wanted to be president forever, and now he might not be. Bummer for him, but not a cosmic wrong against the universe.

It made no sense for Republicans to continue to back Kavanaugh, especially after he melted down in his second appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  They could have put an equally hard-right person on the Court in his place, but without his baggage.  Democrats can do the same with Biden, just as Franken was replaced by the very good now-Senator Tina Smith.

What is the best argument against my suggestion here?  Essentially, one could argue that it is possible to treat Reade fairly without abandoning Biden absent better evidence.  This, however, requires a level of nuance that we do not see in American political coverage.  Over the last year of so, I argued many times that we should not be afraid to defend the label "democratic socialist" (even though I am very much not a Sanders guy), but the people who coalesced behind Biden told us that even Elizabeth Warren's very pro-capitalist messaging was too hard to explain in sound bites.

The Post's always-insightful columnist Paul Waldman (who was also no fan of Biden) noted today that the pundit class is already calling for Biden to be "transparent" by providing access to his voluminous records in the same way that they obsessed about Clinton's email server ("She needs to address this"), which is going to swallow up a lot of the non-pundit press's time with inquiries that will necessarily lead to unsatisfying ambiguity -- but a lot of negative-sounding coverage of Biden.

Noting that the press simply gives up in frustration in the face of Trump's deliberate lack of transparency, Waldman concludes: "Yes, Biden should be transparent. But let’s apply the same standards to Trump that we apply to him."

Good luck with that!  Hey, you reporters should be fair and nuanced -- this time -- rather than engaging in another feeding frenzy against a candidate who will carefully try to balance transparency with reasonable political considerations.  That always works out well.

Waldman's own newspaper has shown that this ship has already sailed.  The Post's media watchdog, Erik Wemple, has somehow decided to treat the Kavanaugh-Biden comparison as obviously compelling rather than requiring more nuance.  Consider, for example, Wemple's praise last week for Fox News's Tucker Carlson:
"The mysterious sequence of events raises the prospect that Reade was the victim of retaliation, something that might anger the Democratic sensibility.
"Carlson pounced on this double standard. 'Just to be clear, we’re not demanding that Democrats assume Joe Biden is guilty. They shouldn’t. No one should be assumed guilty. We certainly don’t assume he is guilty. But it’s a little weird that they don’t take this seriously. That would mean, in fact, we’re starting to conclude that their attempt to destroy Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t based on any genuine belief that he committed those crimes,' said the host.

"'Instead, it’s looking increasingly like a cynical political ploy: Destroy a man and his family, his children, his two little girls in order to get power. It looks like that’s what they did. You should keep that in mind going forward.'

"Not a bad summation, even if it does come from a network that doubled as a sexual harassment hot spot during the reign of late network chief Roger Ailes."
That, in fact, is a terrible summation.  Democrats did not "[d]estroy a man and his family, his children, his two little girls in order to get power."  Again, there was no destruction of anyone, only an attempt to keep an unfit man off the nation's highest court.  And whatever they did, Democrats did not do this "in order to get power," because that seat was (as noted above) going to be occupied by a hyper-conservative in any event.

And if anything is "a little weird," it is the claim (endorsed by Wemple) that Democrats are failing to "take this seriously."  I have not heard or read of any Democrat who dismisses Reade's allegations out of hand or says anything that could be interpreted as failing to "believe women" in the sense of taking allegations seriously and assessing them in the light of all evidence.

The very next day, after Biden denied the allegations in an interview with Mika Brzezinski, Wemple was back, saying that Brzezinski "pressed him on the glaring vulnerability of top Democrats when it comes to sexual assault allegations: their over-the-top, believe-women statements during the confirmation fight over then-federal Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh."

Describing Democrats' "believe-women statements" as "over-the-top" is nothing short of bizarre.  In fact, Democrats did not press forward with some allegations against Kavanaugh by other women, because after taking a serious look at those allegations, the stories seemed unsubstantiated.

Which means that all of this is ridiculously unfair.  And the big problem is that Wemple is not generally a Fox News admirer.  He spends the bulk of his time, in fact, as a Trump antagonist and critic of the dangerous antics of Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the rest.  Wemple, then, is actually a perfect leading indicator of how this will go.  Every Democrat will find himself -- or especially herself -- on defense against illogical claims that they are being hypocrites by continuing to back Biden.  The "to be fair" editorials from The Times and The Post almost write themselves.

Joe Biden might have sexually assaulted Tara Reade.  Even so, he would be a much better president than Donald Trump, who brags about sexual assault and insults his accusers' looks and intelligence.  In the larger moral cesspool of modern American politics, I might even try to understand -- but not in any way endorse -- the conclusion that "one sexual assault should not be disqualifying."

Joe Biden might not have sexually assaulted Tara Reade.  If so, heeding the calls to step aside will deny him his lifelong dream of being president.  Life is unfair, and if a lifetime in the Senate and the Vice President's residence is not enough, too bad.

Paul Waldman is right that there is an equitable and reasonable way for the press to treat Biden and Trump.  Sadly, we know that it will not go that way.  If Biden stays in, I will of course support him against Trump, even though I believe women.  And I will end up writing a bunch of defenses of Biden and his supporters that should be unnecessary.

So if Biden wants to do the best thing for the country, he needs to help find a way forward that does not include him.  If he will not, his party should understand that loyalty to a friend is not in the interest of the nation, the party, or even themselves.

15 comments:

rik99 said...

Just stop. STFU. Our side always does this and the republicans laugh and feast on our stupid angst. This election is so important to defeat trump and his minions that we must unite and show a unified front. Yes, I'm angry. Stop the sniping at democratic candidates until after the election. Repeat after me - democrats good, republicans bad! Post election criticism will be great providing trump is gone. Without defeating trump and as many republicans as possible there will be no constitutional republic left - just a sad amalgam of the PRC,the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and some other authoritarian regime.

Laura said...

If Biden were to step aside, the person who fills his shoes will get the same treatment once a proverbial crack is found in the foundation. Allegation followed by breathless, false equivalency coverage by the MSM ... smear campaigns from the president and his faithful allies. The error the MSM is currently making is by portraying all non-conservative voters and Democrats as somehow belonging to a monolithic “believe all women” club. When I read all the Op-Ed’s and news analysis last week, I kept wondering who they were talking about ... who are the people who say that people should believe all women no matter what? I don’t think that’s going to fly well with voters, nor is calling all Biden supporters hypocrites, when many voters never felt that way or took that position. People are smarter than that.

Joe said...

I'm basically with the first comment, down to the tone.

I'm wary about the last sentence. But, the rest is correct.

Joe said...

I think Laura is right too.

As to "believe women," Sherry Colb over at Justia/Verdict had a good balanced take.

Let me add that the third voice (who at one point was on the "Got to be Michael Bloomberg!" train) I have seen & is connected to this blog has been a tad off base.

Looking the reactions, a few people I respect have to me lost some perspective, but the general reaction is a form of comment 1 or comment 2, including most women.

I wanted someone else, particularly a woman, but it's Biden. Let's be real here.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Two unrelated things:

1) rik99: Whoever you are, that's not how people comment on this blog. The Internet is often a cesspool. This blog is not. Criticize or disagree, but don't be an asshole. Also, you seem to have completely missed the point Prof Buchanan was making, which is that precisely because people--including Democrats--will do exactly what you mistakenly accuse him of doing, Biden is too-damaged goods. But you're entitled to misunderstand and/or mischaracterize what you read here. My main objection is to your "STFU."

2) On the merits, my main concern is that there's no satisfactory process for naming a replacement and thus the process would be a bloodbath. The Bernie supporters will note that he is in second place in delegates. Others will say that Buttigieg was running second in the “moderate lane.” Maybe it should go to whomever Biden would otherwise sensibly pick as his running mate. But who? (Warren? Klobuchar? Harris? Abrams?). Or go off the board and pick Andrew Cuomo? (As a New Yorker, that's my last choice. If Cuomo were actively running for president, Trump would sabotage NY's pandemic response even more than he has so far.)

darrowret said...

This blog says more about Buchanan's delicate sensibilities than it it does about the 2020 election. In the course of this lengthy soliloquy, Buchanan never gets around to telling us exactly WHY Biden should step aside. Specifically, Buchanan does not claim a)that Biden is guilty as charged; b) that the allegations will cause Biden to lose to Trump; or c) that if Biden steps aside, Democrats will nominate someone who will be a better President.

What then? It apparently comes down to the fact that Buchanan will find personal discomfort in supporting a candidate who has been unable to disprove the nasty allegations made against him.
Poor Buchanan, But as he might say, life is unfair and if a comfortable niche in academia is not enough, too bad.

Fred Raymond said...

I'm fearful that this entire controversy is academic: the Host of Celebrity Apprentice will not be leaving the White House in 2021 regardless of the election outcome - - if we do have an election.

Joe said...

Moving past the cursing, "basically" and all that, I'm not sure the first comment is wrong, even after the reply that tries to suggest confusion. Maybe, if the person wishes, clarification can be provided.

The problem of replacement is basic though the "they" (the press included) just doing the same thing with the replacement is also problematic. This is part of the message of the first comment I think -- I respect reasoning things out, but at this point, it's Biden except in some extreme scenario (if not quite the one Prof. Colb references in her essay) & "angst" is not the way to go. Maybe that framing is rude, but I get the idea.

If one moves thru the analysis, the merits also seem confused -- e.g., I'm not so sure even with Kavanaugh it would have really advanced the Republicans' overall ends w/o some difficulty to replace him. If we factor in why he was chosen. And, Biden is a lot harder there to replace. Finally, yes, continual references that basically advance the from what I can tell dubious sentiment that Tara Reade's accusation should be taken in a neutral "some chance she is right" fashion (see, e.g., the USA Today op-ed by a former sex prosecutor) is problematic to me.

CARL D. BIRMAN said...

Dear Prof. B:

For a change I do agree with you wholeheartedly that the allegation by Tara Reade is a disaster politically, morally and otherwise for Mr. Biden. However, I do not think it likely that Biden will back down or be forced out.

Having said those two statements, I am as eager as any of us to get this campaign under way. And I appreciate your thoughtful insights and the effort it must take to remain focused on such seemingly "pedestrian" concerns in the midst of the pandemic chaos.

Cheers,

Carl D. Birman, Esq.
Albany, NY

Greg said...

darrowret, as I read it, Prof. Buchanan is saying b, that the allegations will be used by the right to sully Biden's name to the point that Trump wins the election.

I'll add that, assuming for the sake of argument that the allegation isn't true, or is in some other way exaggerated, this is essentially the same playbook that was used against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Find a potential misstep that plays into the existing narrative about the candidate and then hammer it hard until Democratic and moderate voters stay home in disgust that there are no viable candidates.

In this case it's worse than 2016, because in this case if he DID do it, he's guilty of something that legitimately is disqualifying for many Democratic voters, particularly women. I agree with Prof. Buchanan that if there is an orderly way for Biden to step down and establish someone else as the nominee, that seems like the best thing for him to do, for the sake of the country. However, I also agree with Prof. Dorf that I'm not sure such an orderly process exists, and Democrats may be better off with the devil they know rather than some ugly nomination process that is likely to be accused of being illegitimate.

Michael A Livingston said...

Neil, I’ve been dismissive and even sarcastic toward you, but with this column you display a great deal of honesty and consistency. LIke MIchael Dorf, I am not sure how realistic your proposal is at this point. There is the parallel of Eagleton begin repacked by Shriver in 1972, although this may not be one people wish to emphasize. I do think that, if Biden wins, this whole adventure will seriously reduce his perceived legitimacy which may not be that high among many (Republicans and Democrats anyway). BTW I don’t think Trump would or could refuse to leave office, but he might do more what Berlusconi did when he lost elections, that is begin immediately undermine his successor at every available opportunity and making it all but impossible for other Republicans to do otherwise. In the current environment that is almost, if not quite as bad.

darrowret said...

Reply to Greg. I don't believe that Buchanan did predict that the allegation would sully Biden's name to the point that Trump would win. To the extent he implied that, or if that is your view, I disagree. If there is any candidate who is not in a position to hammer this argument against Biden, it is Donald Trump. If any Democrats view this unproven allegation of conduct nearly three decades ago as disqualifying, they are hopeless and deserve what they get. Unfortunately, if enough of them feel that way, we will get the same thing. But I don't believe that will happen

BARAZION said...

I firmly believe that Buchanan has fully swallowed the Putin disinformation hook, line, and sinker. I will treat all further opinions as such, and disregard them.

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