February 21, 2024 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

Ezra Klein’s plan for replacing Biden is ‘West Wing’ fan fiction 

Why are we even talking about this? writes Stephen Robinson.

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

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Editor’s note: The following essay first appeared in The Play Typer Guy, Stephen’s newsletter about politics and the arts. Please check it out. –JS

In a recent audio essay, Times columnist Ezra Klein insists that “Democrats have a better option than Joe Biden.” The president’s opponents in the Democratic primary were Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, so I immediately question this premise.

Klein’s essay praises Biden at length before prematurely burying him. He notes that Biden “held together a Democratic Party that could have easily splintered,” uniting the party’s moderate and progressive wings and defeating Donald Trump. As president, Biden delivered significant legislative achievements with a narrow congressional majority.

With that almost-impossible-to-hold-together coalition, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats passed a series of bills — the bipartisan infrastructure deal, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act — that will make this a decade of infrastructure and invention. A decade of building, of decarbonizing, of researching. They expanded the Affordable Care Act, and it worked — more than 21 million people signed up for the ACA last year, a record. They did what Democrats have promised to do forever and took at least the first steps toward letting Medicare negotiate drug prices.

And while economists predicted a pandemic-generated recession, “the Biden team, in partnership with Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve, got the rate of inflation back down, and we are still beneath 4 percent unemployment.”

The nation is thriving, so Klein thinks Biden should step down and let another Democrat run for president instead. That’s quite the performance review swerve, isn’t it?

The nation is thriving, so Klein thinks Biden should step down and let another Democrat run for president instead. That’s quite the performance review swerve, isn’t it?

Klein points out that Biden’s approval ratings are “dismal,” and although he’s achieved more in his first term than presidents half his age, he’s still old and only getting older. It’s time to move on. 

Now, those of us with access to calendar technology might observe that it’s way too late to replace Biden, even if we thought it was a good idea, and it’s not. Klein dismisses this logic as absurd “fatalism.” He admits it’s too late to “throw this to the primaries” but it’s not too late to do something incredibly rash and anti-democratic.

The way we pick nominees now is still built around conventions. When someone wins a primary or a caucus, what he actually wins is delegate slots. How that works is different in different states. Then they go to the convention to choose the actual nominee.

The whole convention structure is still there. We still use it. It is still the delegates voting at the convention. What’s different now than in the past is that most delegates arrive at the convention committed to a candidate. But without getting too into the weeds of state delegate rules here, if their candidate drops out, if Biden drops out, they can be released to vote for who they want.

The West Wing” season six syndrome
Klein acknowledges that the last open convention in 1968 was a disaster, and he has to go all the way back to 1932 when a convention chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt over Al Smith and 1860 when a convention picked Abraham Lincoln over William Seward. Biden was barely alive at the time! The nation was also fundamentally less democratic in those days. Lincoln and Roosevelt had at least participated in a robust primary. Klein’s suggesting that the convention cut out voters entirely. Yet when discussing the 2016 Democratic primary, Klein wrote, “Clinton’s campaign made a mistake clearing the field in 2016. Coronation isn’t a good look for anyone, and voters don’t like the feeling that someone is trying to make their choice for them.”

Open conventions in fiction provide excellent drama. I enjoyed Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man, and I often rewatch the final episodes of The West Wing’s sixth season. The audience doesn’t mind the party choosing a nominee through backroom deals because the characters aren’t real candidates. We can enjoy a con movie because we aren’t the marks. Real voters won’t appreciate an anointed nominee.

House Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) enters The West Wing’s imagined Democratic National Convention with fewer delegates and votes than incumbent Vice President Bob Russell (Gary Cole). If you present this scenario to the average person, they would likely say the person with the most delegates and voter support (even if they’re shy of the magic number) should probably prevail. However, The West Wing promoted the Great Man Myth, and Russell was not a great man. He wasn’t a slime ball like former Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), who’d resigned in disgrace, but Russell was exceptionally average and uninspiring.

Russell offered Santos the VP slot, but Santos turned him down. Santos resisted pressure to release his delegates to Russell and instead gave a rousing speech about Democratic Party principles that sends the assembled delegates to their feet. Santos becomes the nominee!

There’s no “unity” ticket either. Santos snubs Russell completely and picks President Jed Bartlet’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry as his running mate. McGarry has never held elected office, so he’s an odd choice. He was also running the convention, and perhaps more implausibly, Bartlet steps in and persuades a powerful union leader to back Santos … over his own vice president. Santos would go on to win the presidency because, while entertaining, The West Wing was consistently less realistic than the average Marvel movie.

Back to reality
When Klein talks about people close to Biden convincing him to step down, he doesn’t suggest that Biden should resign immediately. Instead, he claims that Biden “would be able to finish out his term as a strong and focused president, and people would see the honor in what he did, in putting his country over his ambitions.” 

This is outright fantasy. 

Biden withdrawing from the 2024 election would instantly make him a lame duck. Republicans would suddenly forget all about Biden’s age and argue that he’s cutting and running — just like Afghanistan! Presidents don’t step down from successful administrations. But Biden’s so old, you say! Democrats knew Biden was 78 in 2020 and his current age is the predictable result of time passing, not some shocking progressive disease. Voters tend not to trust a political party that can’t plan four years ahead … or count.

If Biden can’t serve another term, he should resign now so Vice President Kamala Harris can run as the incumbent. That’s the most straightforward process, but Klein doesn’t recommend this, of course, because of what he calls the “Kamala Harris problem.”

In theory, she should be the favorite. But she polls slightly worse than Biden. Democrats don’t trust that she would be a stronger candidate. But they worry that if she wasn’t chosen it would rip the party apart.

There’s no compelling evidence that another, younger Democrat is stronger against Trump than Biden. Back in my corporate days, I would often ask during a meeting, “What problem are we solving?” Klein thinks Biden’s apparent weakness in polls is the problem, but his solution would only introduce more problems — specifically, the insulting and catastrophic idea that Harris should audition for the job she already has. No, you can’t pretend this is like 1988 or 2000 when the sitting vice president competed in a normal primary. This isn’t 1968, either, when President Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to run because his failed Vietnam policy had devastated the nation. Klein contends that Biden’s first term has been successful, so he’s stepping down because of his health. Harris is the constitutional contingency for this scenario — not Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Raphael Warnock or Pete Buttigieg. Klein says Harris is “enormously magnetic and compelling” in private but must prove herself worthy of the nomination.

Still, it is the party’s job to organize victory. If Harris cannot convince delegates that she has the best shot at victory, she should not and probably would not be chosen. And I don’t think that would rip the party apart. There is a ton of talent in the Democratic Party right now: Gretchen Whitmer, Wes Moore, Jared Polis, Gavin Newsom, Raphael Warnock, Josh Shapiro, Cory Booker, Ro Khanna, Pete Buttigieg, Gina Raimondo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chris Murphy, Andy Beshear, J.B. Pritzker — the list goes on. 

Some of them would make a run at the nomination. They would give speeches at the convention, and people would actually pay attention. The whole country would be watching the Democratic convention, and probably quite a bit happening in the run-up to it, and seeing what this murderer’s row of political talent could actually do. And then some ticket would be chosen based on how those people did.

I don’t doubt that there are insiders within the Democratic Party who’ve cast Harris as today’s VP Russell — the bland candidate who must stand aside for The Great Man. The political optics, of course, are horrible: A Black woman is the number two under a white male boss. She’s the most logical to replace him when he leaves, but the white management has other ideas: “Hey, instead of just promoting you, why don’t we have an open, transparent process!” This means the Black number two auditions for a job she’s been training to do for years and somehow loses out to random white people, often from outside the organization. Black women voters (the backbone of the Democratic Party) can see right through this. Many have lived through this.

Look, I’ve been mocked for suggesting we take Biden’s low approval ratings seriously. However, ditching Biden is not a serious response. A Democratic ticket in November that’s not Biden/Harris is outright magical thinking. “Could it go badly?” Klein writes, “Sure. But that doesn’t mean it will go badly. It could make the Democrats into the most exciting political show on earth.”

The West Wing was an exciting political show, but this is reality. Let’s accept reality and work to re-elect President Joe Biden. We don’t have time to engage in pleasant fantasies.

Stephen Robinson is the publisher of The Play Typer Guy, a newsletter and podcast about politics and the arts. Follow him @SER1897.

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