February 13, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Critics calling on Biden to drop out are not thinking it through

They say democracy is too important to take a chance on an old man. In fact, it's too important to take a chance on someone else. 

Courtesy of the White House.
Courtesy of the White House.

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First, the assumption. The assumption is that the president is “trailing” in the polls against Donald Trump because a majority of Americans is worried that, as an 81-year-old man, Joe Biden might not be up for serving a second term. That is an assumption, not a fact, but the way things are going, it will soon be “a fact” if only because enough people repeated it long enough.

There is, however, no actual link between people’s concerns about the president’s age and his “trailing” in the polls against Donald Trump, because there can’t be. This is a leap in logic, a correlation. There may be a poll here and there that asks specifically “do you think Biden is trailing because people are concerned about his age,” but most don’t. The best anyone can do with these polling factors is extrapolate. 

Second, there’s nothing morally wrong with making this assumption. On a human level, it makes sense that people would be concerned about Biden’s age, and about whether he’s up for serving a second term. It makes sense that this might be a reason why some polls show him “trailing” Trump. And it makes sense, if you care about the future, that this should be seen as a major problem. After all, if people don’t vote for Biden because of his age, Trump wins. That’s lights out for democracy. 

History and common sense suggest that if the president dropped out right now, the Democratic Party would, under pressure to save democracy, descend into chaos. Factions loyal to Biden would go to war with those hoping to succeed him. The nominee would enter the general election compromised, depleted and ready for slaughter.

As Bill Kristol said in The Bulwark:

“It’s a problem because the American public doesn’t think Biden should be running for a second term. Partly as a result of that judgment, Biden now trails in the race for the presidency. It’s a particularly urgent problem when the alternative is Donald J. Trump, whose second term could do incalculable damage to this country. This is not a problem that can be dealt with by happy talk or by exhortations to circle the wagons.”

This is, however, the moment in this essay in which I stop being so charitable and start being so very cranky. Why? Because I’ve run out of patience with people who know better (Kristol has plenty of company here), but who are pretending not to, because circumstances have incentivized them to pretend. Bottom line: they say democracy is too important to take a chance on Biden. They say he should drop out. What they don’t say, because they haven’t thought it through yet, is that democracy is too important to take a chance on someone else. 

Before I go on, let me repeat that this “problem” might be a problem. It is an assumption, an understandable assumption but an assumption all the same. If polls do not turn in Biden’s favor, then it is a problem. If they do turn, then it isn’t. Most people still don’t quite believe Trump is going to be the Republican Party’s nominee. Once they do, the choice won’t be between Old Biden and Maybe Trump. It will be between Old Biden and Fraudster-Insurrectionist-Rapist Trump. Biden’s campaign is betting, as the reality of Trump’s nomination sinks in, that “a switch will turn on.” A few recent polls already suggest the switch is turning.

But even if it were a problem, that doesn’t mean Biden should drop out. Why? This is where people who know better haven’t yet thought it through. Bill Kristol, for instance, said that if Biden dropped out right now, there would be time for his party to pick someone else. The process would be messy and hard, Kristol conceded, but the “nominee would in my judgment very likely be a stronger candidate than Biden is.”

That, my friend, is a staggering assumption, bigger than the one about the president’s age being why he’s “trailing” Trump. That assumption at least has an empirical basis. Assuming the Democratic Party would produce a nominee who’s stronger than the incumbent has nothing, nothing, to back it up. Indeed, history and common sense would suggest that the Democratic Party would, under pressure to save democracy, descend into chaos. Factions loyal to Biden would go to war with those hoping to succeed him. The nominee would enter the general election compromised, depleted and ready for slaughter.

Remember, also, that the Democratic Party has already begun picking its nominee. Biden won New Hampshire on a write-in basis, securing more votes than Barack Obama did in 2012 when there was no other candidate to choose from. And Biden won South Carolina by a huge margin. Missing from the question about whether he should or shouldn’t drop out is the fact that Democratic voters themselves want him to run for a second term. They want him so much that the incumbent faces no competition more serious than Dean Phillips. 

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Which means that the basis for this should-he-or-shouldn’t-he debate isn’t the democratic will of Democratic voters but instead polling that’s currently in Trump’s favor but that will probably turn in Biden’s favor as the public becomes more aware of the fact that a lying, thieving, philandering sadist will again be the Republican Party’s nominee. 

This should-he-or-shouldn’t-he debate is based on the press corps’ reaction to a special counsel’s report that attacked Biden – it called him “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” – and that gave the imprimatur of law enforcement to rightwing propaganda bent on character assassination. These are the circumstances according to which people who know better find themselves pretending they don’t.

Fortunately, the president is not pretending. He knows that if he dropped out right now, he would cause incalculable harm, as there would be no countervailing force strong enough to defeat Donald Trump and the threats he presents to the constitutional order. No one but Biden has the right mix of name-recognition, an incredible record of accomplishment, and party unity that’s needed. Sure, he could have stepped aside a year ago, but it was probably clear to the president that the danger was not going to fade by the time of the next election, and that saving democracy demanded that an old man stick around just a little longer in order to hand it off to the next generation.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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