Which way, Scranton man?

Thinking through Biden's options, and ours

I’m writing this from central Virginia, where the temperature is dangerously above normal for what feels like the millionth day in a row. A brief break from the swelter is expected Friday, when remnants of Hurricane Beryl, the earliest formed Category 5 hurricane ever recorded, pass by. Then what has already been a record-shatteringly hot year — one which experts say portends a “large and continuing shift” to a largely unlivable future — will continue.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his allies are plowing on with plans for a wildly more authoritarian second term1 in which they have promised mass deportations and concentration camps, repealing birthright citizenship, climate change and environmental protections, and establishing a Christian theocracy in which LGBTQ rights are rolled back and people can be imprisoned for distributing “pornography” (a category which the 900-page "policy bible” of the Heritage Foundation put out for his transition team, the one known as “Project 2025,” clarifies includes library books that present transgender people as normal).2 And Trump — who himself is awaiting sentencing on his 34 felony convictions for an election fraud scheme3 — is openly promising to imprison his enemies, especially those charged with investigating his attempted coup d’état in office, which culminated in failure on January 6, 2021 — including threatening some with “televised military tribunals.”

Instead of focusing on those existential threats, we are all subjecting ourselves to a different debate, over a third-order and possibly unanswerable question: Is Joe Biden too old to run for/serve a second term as president? (Or, more precisely, will enough voters think he is to make a difference this fall?) And if so, what is to be done?

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I have lost count of all the times and all the different ways in which I have gone over this question over the past week. That (and a family bout with COVID — yes, it’s still with us) is a big part of the reason that I haven’t offered a newsletter since last Monday. Every time I think I’ve come to an answer — “it’s a desperately real situation!” “it’s a media-generated panic!” “it’s too late to do anything about it!” “it’s too late not to!” — I read something else that spins my thinking by several degrees.

The only thing we know for a fact is that Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., is 81 years old, and should turn 82 a few weeks after Election Day. We also can hear that his voice has softened, his speech clarity diminished, and see that his physical bearing has weakened significantly since he came to the White House three and a half years ago. If you don’t believe me, compare his presentation to George Stephanopoulos on ABC this week to Biden at his 2020 debate against Trump. (Or, if you really want to get depressed, to then-Vice President Biden debating Paul Ryan twelve years ago.)

The rest is speculation. Does Biden have Parkinson’s or some other kind of neurological disorder? (An examination by Dr. Kevin Cannard4 , the neurologist whose visits to the White House sparked a media panic yesterday thanks to the New York Times, says no; the White House says that five of Cannard’s eight visits were to see others among the thousands of military personnel on the presidential campus.) Do Biden’s apparent speech deficits reflect a diminishing cognitive capacity, or are they superficial? Speaking personally as a stroke survivor — who experienced a disturbing but thankfully very temporary bout of aphasia several years ago as a result — I also know how infuriating it can be when other people confuse a problem communicating with intellectual incapacity. The human brain is a vast and infinitely complex space.

On the other hand, there have been isolated, but no less disturbing, moments of confusion — moments we all saw, yet again, at the disastrous debate. I still stand by my non-medical assessment of Biden during our brief but eventful encounter at the White House in April: he seemed sharp and intense, if slow-moving and old. (Also, at one point he seemed to confuse Ukraine with Iraq, though not in a way that, as I told my Flaming Hydra colleague Maria Bustillos, was totally out of step with the verbal gaffes younger politicians make all the time.) But, as I wrote at the time, it was one short visit at 3 p.m. on a Friday, at his house, which doesn’t preclude the reporting of other “moments, particularly later in the evening,” as AP and others have reported.

Okay, but what about the political question here: How do voters see Biden’s state? Will it make them more or less likely to vote for the man in what, as I’ve established above, is an extremely consequential election for the country and the world? This is extremely unclear! If you ask the Democratic heavyweights who’ve written for the New York Times guest essay page over the last week, Biden’s debate performance was a kill shot — proof that “the jig is up,” as James Carville wrote; that “we need a new nominee,” per Democratic super-donor and satellite spymaster George Clooney. (Clooney was apparently spooked by Biden’s performance at a $28 million fundraiser for Biden he co-hosted with Barack Obama in Los Angeles last month.)

Polls are telling a different story, for the moment at least. A snap study from Northeastern University showed not only that Biden retained his voter base in the aftermath of the debate; he held onto more of his support than Trump. FiveThirtyEight’s model shows little post-debate movement in either direction — comforting news for the Biden camp, if you ignore the fact that he’s also still slightly less likely to win according to that model, and behind in almost every national poll. (It also requires ignoring that scheduling a presidential debate in June was supposed to erase the deficit between Biden and Trump and jump-start Biden’s so far completely uninspired re-election campaign.)

Biden speaks at a watch party in Atlanta, on June 27, 2024, after his debate with Donald Trump (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

That steadiness may reflect the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans — 86% according to an ABC poll — thought Biden was too old to be president before the debate, compared with 59% for Trump.5 Yet a significant number of those were apparently willing to vote for him anyway. Does that mean his age and possible conginitive decline are already “priced in,” as wonks like to say? Or will a significant number of those think-he’s-too-old-but-voting-for-him-anyway voters follow the elites’ lead later in the year and either switch their votes or sit the election out? Maybe! In which case it might alternately be a self-fulfilling prophecy, or evidence that most Americans weren’t really paying attention to the race in June or July.

(One of the big ironies is that the loudest voices for Biden to drop out seem to be coming from both the reactionary center — columnists like Jonathan Chait, Clintonites like Carville, and swing-state-and-district Democrats like rust belt Rep. Susan Wild and Montana Sen. Jon Tester — and the harder left, like the Chapo Trap House crowd; while institutionalist progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Bernie Sanders himself are sticking with the president-as-nominee. I think that’s a product of the institutionalists having long ago decided to hold their nose and work with Biden as the alternative to Trump. The former group meanwhile converges over a shared need to be both contrarian and demonstrate their hatred for the Democratic establishment whenever possible, albeit from generally — though not always — different points of view.)

Clooney and Carville, et al., are at pains to argue that kicking Biden out of the race will not throw the Democratic Party into chaos: that there’s still time to stage a mini-primary, and that a brokered Democratic convention will not be a repeat of the debacle of 1968 — especially given that this one is, ominously, also in Chicago. They feel the need to make that case because there is very clearly good reason to worry. Throwing open the nomination will exacerbate the already widening fault lines within the Democratic coalition — over support for Israel in Gaza and the response to campus protests; the influence of Wall Street and major donors; over forgiveness of student loans, funding for police, and the forgotten-for-now issue of Medicare for All.

And while the Dump Biden crowd assures us that the Democratic base will accept a nominee foisted on them by party elites and the media — perhaps after a performative series of televised town halls — that is a big bet to take. (Though the Keep Biden crowd needs to keep in mind that many Democratic voters, especially on the left, already felt Biden was foisted on them in 2020.) The Democratic conventional wisdom that the party’s Black voter base will singlehandedly save his candidacy come October (a mistake, writes Zak Cheney-Rice today) ignores what could happen if Kamala Harris is seemingly pushed to the side.

Making Harris the candidate, on the other hand, brings a host of hard-to-predict intangibles. She may have slightly more credibility than Biden with Arab-American and leftist voters thanks to her reportedly marginal greater sympathy for both Palestinians and campus protesters. (Assuming the left can tactically forget the large portion of 2019 and 2020 they spent calling her a “cop.”) But Harris is plagued by an even lower approval rating than Biden’s and often strange speaking style of her own — one that attracted the loyalty of a rabid online fandom6 but failed to connect with most Democratic voters in the 2020 primaries. And it will be a pure roll of the dice to count on enough Americans in the swing states shifting their support from one of two (or three) old white men to a woman of Black and Tamil Indian descent.

In other words, I don’t know what Biden should do, and I don’t know what the party should do with him. (Though I do suspect that having his allies loudly and constantly shout that Biden is too old and mentally unfit and basically close to death will not do the Biden-Harris campaign any favors if he does stay in the race until the fall.) What would have been the obvious post-debate Plan B — running an energetic campaign, for at least a few weeks, to prove the naysayers wrong — didn’t happen. That raises, and likely answers, the question of whether Biden is capable of doing one.

A Goldilocks option might be for Biden to stay in the race but pivot the campaign to running as a team — putting Harris front and center along with plausibly more energetic supporters like Pete Buttigieg, Sanders, AOC, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to work on the campaign trail. This could cement the idea that you aren’t just voting for this one (extremely old) man but a whole administration. That also might draw attention back to the salient fact that the only alternative, Donald J. Trump, would bring with him back to Washington a pack of ravenous, fascist wolves.

Short of that, I don’t have any real suggestions, save one: Whatever happens, we should be getting ready at a local level to address the quickly worsening crises of our time. One national election can make everything worse. But even in the best-case scenario, it won’t save our communities, much less the world.

1   The Racket had the story a year ago.

2  I’m aware that Trump has claimed that he knows “nothing about” Project 2025 and, contradictorily, that he disagrees with unnamed parts of the 900-page plan. The project’s director, Paul Dans, was Trump’s chief of staff of the Office of Personnel Management. The project’s advisory staff also includes Stephen Miller, Trump’s top anti-immigrant consigliere; Russell Vought, Trump’s former head of the Office of Management and Budget, and now policy director for the Republican National Committee; and John McEntee, the YouTuber-turned-personal-assistant-turned-head of Trump’s Presidential Personnel Office, who in April told the Daily Wire that Project 2025 was planning to “integrate a lot of our work” with the planned Trump transition team soon. So I don’t take his claims seriously.

3  Trump was supposed to be sentenced tomorrow. Instead, the sentencing hearing has been postponed until at least September 18, as his lawyers hold a hearing to argue that the recent Supreme Court decision making Trump a dictator unaccountable to law should also give him immunity for actions he took before becoming president. Just insane times we’re living in.

4  An appropriate description for the story he was featured in.

5  It also may reflect that political polling appears to be fundamentally broken.

6  A fandom that as it happens appears to want Biden to stay in the race? What are we doing here.

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