Joe Biden should not be running for re-election. That much was obvious well before the special prosecutor's comments on the president's memory lapses inspired a burst of age-related angst. And Democrats who are furious at the prosecutor have to sense that it will become only more obvious as we move deeper into an actual campaign.
What is less obvious is how Biden should get out of it.
You can make a case that as obvious as his decline has been, whatever equilibrium his White House has worked out has thus far delivered results largely indistinguishable from (and sometimes better than) what one would expect from a replacement-level Democratic president.
If there has been a really big age effect in his presidency so far, I suspect it lies in the emboldenment of America's rivals, a sense that a decrepit U.S. chief executive is less to be feared than a more vigorous one. But when I look at how the Biden administration has actually handled its various foreign crises, I can imagine more disastrous outcomes from a more swaggering sort of president.
The impression the president gives in public is not senility so much as extreme frailty, like a light bulb that still burns so long as you keep it on a dimmer. But to strain the simile a bit, it's whether voters should take this one opportunity to change out the bulb. Every flicker is evidence a change is necessary, and if you force Biden into a normal campaign season role, frequent flickering (if not a burning out) is what you're going to get.
Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that Biden senses this, that he isn't just entombed in egomania, but he feels trapped by his own terrible vice presidential choice. If he drops out and anoints Kamala Harris, she's even more likely to lose to Donald Trump. But if he drops out and doesn't endorse his own No. 2, he'd be opening himself to a narrative of identitarian betrayal — aging white president knifes first woman of color veep — and setting his party up for months of bloodletting, a constant churn of personal and ideological drama.
The best approach available to Biden is a distinctively old-fashioned one. He should accept the necessity of drama and bloodletting but condense them into the format originally designed for handling intraparty competition: the Democratic National Convention.
That would mean not dropping out today or tomorrow or any day when party primaries are still proceeding. Instead Biden would continue accumulating pledged delegates, continue touting the improving economic numbers, continue attacking Trump — until August and the convention, when he would shock the world by announcing his withdrawal from the race, decline to issue any endorsement, and invite the convention delegates to choose his replacement.
Pain would follow. But so would excitement and spectacle, things Biden seems too old to deliver. The proximity of the general election would create stronger incentives for Harris or any other disappointed loser to accept a behind-the-scenes proffer and fall in line if the convention battle doesn't go their way.
Would Trump and Republicans have a field day attacking Democratic insiders for pulling a fast one on the public? Sure, but if the chosen ticket was more popular and competent-seeming, the number of relieved voters would surely outstrip the number of resentful ones.
This plan also has the advantage of being discardable if I'm completely wrong, Biden is vigorous on the campaign trail, and he's ahead of Trump by 5 points by August. Contemplating a convention bow-out gives Biden a way to be responsive to events — sticking it out if he really sees no other options, but keeping a path open for his country to escape a choice that right now seems like divine chastisement.