Calmes: Step aside, Joe. It's time

If Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee this fall against Donald Trump, my vote for him would be the easiest I’ve ever cast.

And yet, I’ve now joined those who believe Biden should end his bid for reelection. I wish he’d take a well-deserved bow, and help unite his party at its convention next month around a younger, more vibrant nominee who stands a better chance not only of beating Trump but also of serving out a four-year term.

I’d like to be able to say, as some others do, that it’s become absolutely clear to me that the enfeebled president must pass the torch. I can’t. I remain torn. Biden has earned reelection by his formidable record and his restoration of normalcy and decency post-Trump. Also, the risks inherent in the unprecedented, uncharted process of Democrats settling on an alternative ticket are real: The prospect of their disarray and division — all to Trump’s advantage — kept me from jumping just after Biden’s distressing debate performance.

Two weeks later, however, the greater risk seems to be that Biden stays in the race, loses and returns the keys to the Oval Office to a man who should never darken its door again. “God help us,” says retired Gen. John F. Kelly of that possibility, a sentiment echoed by so many former Trump aides. Also, a Republican rout could cost Democrats control of the House and Senate.

That’s not the legacy Biden wants.

The president’s brain freezes, bumbling responses and vacant, mouth-agape visage at the June 27 debate were bad enough, so bad as to overshadow the ever-unhinged Trump’s fusillade of lies. But what’s been maddening, and what made up my mind against Biden’s candidacy, is this: his and his staff’s utter failure since then to fully acknowledge the crisis on their hands — this wasn’t “one bad night” — and to have Biden act accordingly.

Post-debate, we should have seen daily unscripted appearances at the White House and on the campaign trail, not sporadic sightings. A lengthy press conference. Immediate phone calls to leaders and allies in Congress and state capitals. And, not least, a full panel of neurological tests, after which the president’s doctors would go before cameras to describe the results and — we hope — reassure us that all’s as well as can be expected for an 81-year-old man with the most stressful job on Earth.

Biden and his campaign on Monday finally started executing that sort of salvage operation, with some success, but only after some elected Democrats had gone public with calls for the president to forfeit the nomination. The late-breaking Biden blitz included his letter to Democrats in Congress (“Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task ahead only helps Trump and hurts us”); his call in to the friendly hosts during MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show (“I am not going anywhere”); meetings with the House’s Black, Hispanic and progressive caucuses; a conference call with hundreds of donors and announcements of added campaign stops.

But Biden has nixed a neurological examination: “No one said I had to,” he countered when ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked on Friday whether he’d had or would have such an exam. “Look, I have a cognitive test every single day. … Not only am I campaigning, but I’m running the world.”

Just as the Biden brouhaha intensified this week with Congress’ return from a summer break, world leaders also came to Washington for a NATO summit marking the alliance’s 75th anniversary. The dignitaries’ already high anxiety about Trump’s possible return has ratcheted up, along with efforts to “Trump-proof” the organization against threats he could pose to it or to its support for Ukraine against Russia’s war. (Among the debate moments eclipsed by Biden’s meltdown was Trump’s obnoxious response when Biden asked whether he’d pull the U.S. out of NATO: a dismissive shrug.)

Biden may have stanched the bleeding in Congress, for now. Democrats’ scattered calls to step aside were outnumbered by statements of renewed support early in the week. Yet I’m not persuaded because I completely agree with Biden: Democracy is at stake. Where we disagree is on whether he can preserve it by defeating Trump.

The strategists who helped elect the prior two Democratic presidents — Bill Clinton‘s guru James Carville and Barack Obama’s David Axelrod — no longer think Biden can win. Carville, in the New York Times on Monday, proposed a round of town halls for alternative candidates before the convention starts Aug. 19. (First, however, Biden would have to drop out, which is just one reason Carville’s hopedfor caper is unrealistic.) Axelrod, in a CNN column Friday that cited post-debate polls, concluded that Biden is “headed for a landslide defeat to a lawless and unpopular former president.”

Axelrod’s description of Trump pinpoints the tragic irony of the Biden saga. A good man and a good president is being nudged off the stage even as the Republican Party next week will make official its nomination of a bad man who was the nation’s worst president, by historians’ rankings. Or, as Jimmy Kimmel put it (because he can find humor where I can’t): “The media has spent almost two weeks calling on a candidate to drop out of the race, and somehow it’s not the convicted felon.” (Who’s also, I’ll add, an adjudicated sexual abuser and financial fraudster.)

I’m saddened to become one of Biden’s nudges, but this election is bigger than Biden. If he’d step aside, Democrats could rally ‘round Vice President Kamala Harris, the other half of the ticket that Democratic primary voters chose, and the one alternative to Biden who could tap the Biden-Harris war chest. Convention delegates could pick her running mate; my choice would be Kentucky’s impressive two-term Gov. Andy Beshear.

Things could get messy, but I believe Democrats would unite given the stakes. And could they win? Polling of hypothetical races is a crapshoot. But a new, younger ticket drawing from Democrats’ deep bench could inject excitement into a match-up that’s left half the voters unhappy with their choices.

Of course if Biden stays in, I’ll vote for him — bracing for the worst, hoping for the best: four more years.


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