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.
Note that I did not say that Biden should not be the president. 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 American chief executive is less to be feared than a more vigorous one. But suspicion isn’t proof, and 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.
Saying that things have worked OK throughout this stage of Biden’s decline, though, is very different from betting that they can continue working out OK for almost five long further years. And saying that Biden is capable of occupying the presidency for the next 11 months is quite different from saying that he’s capable of spending those months effectively campaigning for the right to occupy it again.
The impression the president gives in public is not senility so much as extreme frailty, like a lightbulb that still burns so long as you keep it on a dimmer. But to strain the simile a bit, the entire issue in a re-election campaign is not whether your filaments shed light; it’s whether voters should take this one opportunity to change out the bulb. Every flicker is evidence that 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 number two, 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 and betrayal, a constant churn of personal and ideological drama.
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