Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 15 February 2024

 

Democrats Are Too Resigned to Biden

If he steps aside, he’ll be a hero to his party. If he stays, his legacy may well be a second Trump term.

Peggy Noonan

Feb. 15, 2024 6:50 pm ET

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President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses the nation in a radio and television broadcast from the White House in Washington, March 31, 1968. PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE

The only time Democrats get excited now is when the subject is Donald Trump. Then they get marvelously worked up. An official of the administration called to let off steam. “Trump says NATO doesn’t pay its bills—has anyone noticed the irony? Donald Trump is the biggest deadbeat in history. How many hundreds of contractors did he stiff through his career, how many plumbers didn’t get paid for their work, and he complains about others? Talk about projecting!”

But when the subject is Joe Biden, they’re depressed. They have accepted that he is the inevitable nominee and explain the reasons. I can’t get myself to buy them. The thinking is too limited, too weary and defensive about life. And so a last stab at why it doesn’t have to be this way.

Mr. Biden is stuck at 39% approval; Mr. Trump is leading; a large majority of the country thinks he’s too old for the job. It’s not that his walk is slow or stilted, not that he occasionally loses his thought. It’s that the presidency is a speaking role and he can’t make a sustained case on Ukraine, Israel, illegal immigration, all the great issues. This leaves things confused, without a central voice, and makes people nervous: there’s too much mystery around this White House. They say he’s fine when he’s well-rested, but events don’t knock softly on the door and ask if you’re ready for them.

This is what Democrats argue: There is nobody else. But there is. Here we summon the usual names, starting with the Gs—Gov. Gavin Newsom, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Add Jared Polis, Josh Shapiro, all the candidates of the 2020 primary. There is no Biden movement within the party that would bolt without him, no Biden cult that must be appeased.

The Democrats will never be able to agree on anybody. Then they aren’t a party. A party’s function is to yield up and secure the election of candidates who fulfill its mission and meaning. The Democratic Party is a mess, but its constituent parts don’t want it to die, they have too much invested. In the end they’ll make a choice.

It would be bloody. So what? It would be vital, not as if the party is in some somnambulistic shuffle toward a dark, inevitable fate.

It’s too late.Lyndon B. Johnson, the last president to decline to seek a second term, dropped out on March 31, 1968. There was still time for contenders to launch and fund races. The primary rules have changed since then, and ballots have been printed up. Mr. Biden can free his delegates, either from the day he steps aside or at the convention. Only political romantics think an open convention is possible. You can’t know it’s impossible. Now and then in life you have to say, “History, hold my beer.”

But the American people would see chaos. Americans appear to enjoy chaos. It will only help Trump. His campaign is planning on a Biden rematch; he’ll be crowded out of the news cycle for months; it’ll throw a wrench in his works.

What about the Kamala problem? What problem? She can run for the nomination like anyone else.

It’s too big a gamble. Backing Mr. Biden is a gamble. Bookmakers give him a nearly 70% chance of losing.

The family won’t go for it. They aren’t the arbiters of American history; the White House isn’t their candy store.

He will never change his mind.Barack Obama dissuaded him from running for president in 2016. If Mr. Biden steps aside, sacrificing all vanity and need, he is a hero to his party forever. If he stays and loses, he’s Ruth Bader Biden. They’ll never forgive him. His legacy is the second Trump term.

Has anyone had The Talk with him, his family and staff? All the odds laid out, the arguments made, a plea spoken? Has anyone been frank, candid, tough?

If not, why not? Donors love to talk, so do senators and governors.

We end with the famous political intervention that took place 50 years ago this summer, in August 1974. Sen. Barry Goldwater, Sen. Hugh Scott and House Minority Leader John Rhodes went to Richard Nixon to tell him it was over.

Goldwater, in his blunt and gossipy 1988 autobiography, remembered telling a newspaper, in the spring of ’74, that the Watergate scandal reminded him of Teapot Dome. He was summoned immediately after for dinner at the White House. He hadn’t seen Nixon much and was taken aback. The president’s conversation was a stream of “ceaseless, choppy chatter.” He was “constantly switching subjects,” “hunching and quickly dropping his shoulders.” Goldwater drove home and dictated for his personal files: “I have reason to suspect that all might not be well mentally in the White House.” The next day he phoned fellow guest Bryce Harlow, Nixon’s counselor, who offered comfort: Nixon had merely been drunk.

On Aug. 6, as impeachment loomed, Goldwater alerted the White House the president may only have a dozen Republican senators with him. The next day he, Scott and Rhodes saw the president. Goldwater had been asked by chief of staff Al Haig not to demand or suggest resignation—that would leave Nixon defiant. In the Oval Office, Goldwater wrote, “Nixon put his feet up on the desk, leaned back in his swivel chair, and began reminiscing about the past.” Then Nixon’s voice turned hard. He challenged his visitors. Goldwater was direct: “Things are bad.” Nixon was sarcastic. “Less than a half-dozen votes?” “Ten at most,” Goldwater said. He’d taken a nose count that morning. “You have four firm votes. The others are really undecided. I’m one of them.”

Nixon asked if he had any options. None were offered. Goldwater left feeling, “He would make the decision in the best interests of the country. It was going to be all right.”

But after the meeting, Goldwater returned to his office and called Katharine Graham of the Washington Post. He didn’t much like the Post—earlier that day he’d stood on the Senate floor, looked up at the press gallery and declared “You are a rotten bunch!” But he knew the Post’s place in the story and its power with its readers. He had one, Richard Nixon, in mind.

He decided to trust her. “I told Mrs. Graham what had happened in the Oval Office.” Nixon might “go off in any direction, depending on how the media, particularly the Post, handled the story. Could they play it cool for just one day, refrain from saying Nixon was finally finished?” If they got Nixon mad, “there was no telling what he would do. As things stood, I believed he would resign.”

Kay Graham chose to trust Goldwater. “The Post was as circumspect as it could be the following morning.” Afterward she never mentioned it to Goldwater when they saw each other. Goldwater thought he knew why. “Newspapers call their own shots.” But he felt the Post that morning put country over self. “I will never forget their recognition of responsibility as long as I live.”

Nixon resigned that night.

These old stories are always so moving, because everyone was always thinking about America, and thinking imaginatively, too, as if history’s a thing you can personally shape.

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