Note to Biden’s Defenders: “Shut Up!!” is not an Argument (Part One)

I have read and listened to many people over the past 12 days who have said that the best path forward for Democrats now is for President Biden not to seek his party's nomination next month and that he should instead stand down.  Not one of them has argued that Biden is a bad president or that they wanted this to be where we are in July 2024.  Obviously, none have come close to saying that that they would be happy for Donald Trump to win the election.

In addition, I cannot think of anyone among this group, from the editorial pages of both The New York Times and The Washington Post to various lifelong Democratic strategists and center-left commentators, who has accused Biden of acting in bad faith.  It has been an elegiac lament.  The current discussion is not about what we want but what we think should happen, now that we have good reason to worry that Biden is unfortunately not the candidate we hoped he was.

Last week, on the Fourth of July, I wrote a column here on Dorf on Law arguing that the Democrats need to take this moment seriously and think very carefully about what to do, even if that results in Biden stepping aside.  Although I did state my tentative opinion that he should do so, I did not reach a definitive conclusion so much as outline what one would need to believe in order to say that the better path is to stay the course with Biden:

If I believed that voters could be convinced to look past what they saw -- and what they will continue to see on endless loops, even though most of them missed the non-debate -- then sticking with Biden would make more sense than any of the truly dicey alternatives.  And maybe Biden will have a couple of good days this weekend that calm the waters.  Maybe.


[T]his is ultimately guesswork.  Maybe ... the harms from having Biden step aside more than outweigh the benefits, and maybe Democrats can run a campaign that essentially says: "Even if you're not willing to ignore Biden's decline, we have his replacement right here."


There are no certainties.  If Biden decides to stay in, I hope that he will be able to prove that what I thought I saw last week was not what he now has become.  But ... I am very confident in what I saw, which did not appear to be a reversible lapse.  More importantly, I do not see how to convince others to give him another shot.

In a Verdict column to be published tomorrow, I make a slightly less tentative case for Biden to step aside.  There, I summarize my July 4th column (which continues to reflect my current thinking) as follows: "I then argued that the evidence that we now possess suggests – strongly but admittedly not definitively – that the better option for anyone who believes that Trump must be defeated is for Biden not to be his party’s nominee."  I then add this: "Democrats do need to figure out the Biden-or-someone-else problem – and soon.  If it appears that a non-Biden candidate could eke out a close win at the ballot box but Biden would lose – even if that win will probably be stolen from them later – then the answer is clearly to get Biden to drop out, and vice versa."

I quote all of that at length because I think it captures the vibe even of people, like Ezra Klein, who have argued more definitely than I have that Biden should not be the Democratic nominee: This is a difficult and sad situation; no one likes this; but the most important thing is to keep Trump out of power, whether that includes Biden or not.  I have no doubt that there might have been some snarky anti-Biden comments on the slagheap that is the internet, but the most impressive thing since Biden's poor performance in the non-debate has been that the people who are calling for a change of candidate are doing so respectfully and even reverentially.

For example, Post columnist Colbert King noted in a column yesterday that he is 85 years old and admitted how difficult it is to accept the aging process.  Even though he argued that Biden should step aside, he ended his piece with this: “Of course, it’s your call, Mr. President."  That is notably kind, but it is also somewhat off.  Saying to Biden that it is “your call” is only true in the sense that Biden has enough people who will enable even a bad decision.  That is, if Biden refuses to listen to contrary advice and digs in his heels, it is true that the Democrats would be well advised not try to replace him against his will.  But King's wording suggests -- I think wrongly -- that we should all just be happy with whatever Biden decides, apparently because we like him and appreciate him.  That misses the forward-looking nature of this exercise, and it shows just how deferential even those who think Biden should step aside are being.

So that is the state of play from the large numbers of people who have been shaken by Biden's disastrous non-debate performance and his mishandling of so much of the fallout since then.  The strongest words from any of Biden's reluctant detractors have been in response to his statement at the end of an uneven (at best) interview with George Stephanopoulos.  The question was: "And if you stay in and Trump is elected and everything you're warning about comes to pass, how will you feel in January?"  Biden's answer was: "I'll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that's what this is about."  Rightly, a lot of people (including very sympathetic late-night comedians) have said in various ways: "No, that's not at all what this is about!"  Even that reaction against Biden, however, was more of a shocked response to the suggestion that Biden thinks that this is all about him.

At another point, the interview saw this exchange:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you a tougher, more personal question. Are you sure you're being honest with yourself when you say you have the mental and physical capacity to serve another four years?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Yes, I am, because, George, the last thing I want to do is not be able to meet that.

This was stunning, because it was another example of Biden's wishful thinking and stubbornness.  He does not want to fail, so he is confident that he is being honest with himself that he will not fail.  Belief in oneself is a powerful thing, but a person who is trying to tell everyone that what they saw on June 27 was a one-off needs to do more than merely say that he wants to believe that it was a one-off.  And following up by recounting his successes -- to people who are completely aware of those successes -- is not an answer to the question of whether he is the best person to beat Trump.

Indeed, I thought that one of the most important moments in that interview was when Biden defended his place on the ticket, noting the Supreme Court's awful immunity decision from last week, by saying this: "It's about the character of the President. The character of the President's gonna determine whether or not this Constitution is employed the right way."

My immediate thought was: "Wait a minute, does he honestly think that none of the people whom the Democrats could nominate in his place have the character needed to be a good President?!"  He surely did not mean it that way, but his response points to the big non sequitur that is at the center of the Biden team's response: Trump bad, Biden good, so Biden nominee.  No one who is interested in this discussion, however, disagrees that Trump is bad or that Biden is good.  That third step, however, is anything but obvious.

To be sure, "I have character" will be an important thing for Biden to say if he is the Democratic nominee as he fights an uphill battle this Fall, because he would not even need to say "... and Trump does not have good character" (even though he should say that, again and again).  Right now, however, "I have character" is not a response to the question about which Democrat should be the nominee.

All of which brings us to the Biden campaign's response to this internal debate.  Whereas one side is asking for an honest discussion, the Biden side's answer is best summarized in the headline to this column: Shut up!  There is much more to say about that, but this column is already long enough.  I will therefore critique that response at length in Part Two tomorrow, here on Dorf on Law.