Opinion: Why Democrats are ride or die for Biden

Photo/Susan Walsh/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden speaks after pardoning the national Thanksgiving turkey during a ceremony at the White House in Washington on Nov. 20, 2023.
Photo/Susan Walsh/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden speaks after pardoning the national Thanksgiving turkey during a ceremony at the White House in Washington on Nov. 20, 2023.

Donald Trump has made it increasingly clear that the survival of democracy in 2025 and beyond likely depends on a Democratic presidential victory in 2024. So panic is an altogether appropriate state of mind for democrats, and Democrats, who contemplate the electoral landscape. Joe Biden's weaknesses — his age, his failure to connect with many young voters — are similar to his shortcomings in 2020. The big difference is that he is the incumbent now, and polls consistently show him struggling.

In the FiveThirtyEight aggregate of polls, Biden's approval rating of 38.8% is running 16.7 points below his disapproval, 55.5%. Donald Trump's deficit is bad — but not quite Biden bad — at 14. In head-to-head matchups, Trump is often beating Biden, albeit not by much, and beating him in swing states that will determine each candidate's tally of electoral votes.

There is no politburo for the Democratic Party. No group of heavies convenes to decide who's up, who's down, who gets to be on the ballot next year, or who's off. Running for president, or for any office, is an exercise of free will and hubris — or courage, if you prefer that term. If you fear that Biden may not be up to the task of safeguarding democracy next November, you need do only one thing to supplant him as the Democratic nominee: Run.

So, what should we make of the fact that no credible Democrat has?

The party has an unusually strong bench of governors. It has effective senators and at least one Cabinet member — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — with uncanny political communication skills. None of those people lacks ambition. Each has access to money, quality staff, political networks and news media attention.

"A primary would be fratricidal," said Robert Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future and the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "The party figures it's better off being united and trying to pull it off" with Biden as the nominee.

If Democratic political leaders perceived the Biden reelection effort to be a geriatric train headed clickety-clack off the rails, at least one of them would fashion personal ego and political necessity into a viable primary challenge. Biden, like President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, would then have to decide whether to quit the field or fight for his political life.

But potential challengers also understand that fracturing the Democratic Party in 2024 would presage the breaking of American democracy thereafter. Trump is openly campaigning as an authoritarian and his goons are preparing to transform the federal government into a clubhouse for the MAGA cult. Responding to apt comparisons of Trump's violent rhetoric with that of the fascist dictators of Italy and Germany during World War II, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung told the Washington Post that critics making such a point would have their "entire existence crushed when President Trump returns to the White House." Give credit where it's due: It was a concise, effective way to confirm that Trump's fascist exertions are wholly intentional.

Under a scenario in which Trump wins the presidency, Republicans will almost certainly retain the House, currently under a Trumpy Christian nationalist speaker who is fully committed to Trump's election lies — the table stakes for the party's authoritarians. Republicans would surely take the Senate, as well.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who applied a sporadic brake on Trump's criminal impulses in his first term, would not survive Trump's inevitable assault on his Senate power. The GOP now consists of three factions: conservatives, authoritarians and fascists. McConnell belongs to the first. If Trump wins in November 2024, conservatives committed to rule of law or an anti-Russia foreign policy will be an enfeebled, battered rump by January 2025.

No Democrat wants to be a catalyst for democracy's demise. But many still fear that Biden might fill that role himself. One Democratic consultant, citing what he described as Biden's abysmal poll numbers, told me he believes that whichever party can jettison its aged front-runner will prevail.

Yet neither party appears likely, or perhaps even able, to do so.

Of course, there is no guarantee that another Democrat would ultimately fare better than Biden. He has been a successful president. He ran a successful campaign three years ago. He is highly likely to face an opponent who is growing shriller and more erratic as his trials loom and the enormous bulk of criminal evidence weighs against his future.

It's a political cliché that elections are referendums on the incumbent. Trump is such a hulking figure, at once protean and unchanging, that it's hard to imagine that any election in which he is a candidate can be anything but a referendum on him and the MAGA aggression he has unleashed.

Biden has been unwilling to shift the responsibility for defending democracy to other shoulders. A lot of Democrats are uneasy with that. Some of those same Democrats would be just as uneasy if circumstances changed and a new, untested, candidate suddenly shouldered the cause. Everyone in the party recognizes that 2024 is not simply another round in the yin and yang of liberal and conservative America.

Over the next 12 months, democracy will be walking a high wire. Don't bother looking down for a net. Trump has shredded it.

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