Democrats risk becoming Trumpified in defending Biden

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If anything unites the Democratic Party today, it is disdain for the “Trumpified” Republicans. Most leading Republican officeholders know that their presidential candidate is unfit for the job, but they won’t say so because they fear Trump’s retribution.

Yet now, weirdly, Democrats are reproducing the same pathology within their own ranks.

The important difference, you’ll respond, is that Biden has had a pretty successful presidency, even if the voters don’t appreciate it. He was better than Obama at getting major legislation through a divided Congress. He has fended off the Russian challenge in Ukraine. And he’s the best climate president the country has ever had.

Yet part of the president’s job is to cultivate voter appreciation. His most urgent task is keeping Trump out of the White House. He is failing at that task. (The Economist estimates his chances of reelection at about one in four.)

Biden wanted these early debates because he badly needed to shake up a presidential race he was losing. Shake it up he did. But now his campaign insists on sleepwalking to its doom. And the most prominent Democrats are lining up behind him.

The party’s quiescence in the face of impending disaster contrasts sharply with the sequence of events that gave Biden the presidency in the first place. At the beginning of March 2020, Bernie Sanders had triumphed in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, and looked like he was on an unstoppable path to the Democratic nomination. He was also seen by most elected Democrats as a weak, extreme candidate who probably could not defeat Trump.

On Feb. 29, Biden won South Carolina, showing that he was the leading moderate. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out before Super Tuesday and endorsed him. And a few weeks later he was the nominee. The party saw defeat coming and headed it off.

That was then. It is too late now for the voters to intervene. Primary season is over. Politico reports that Democratic governors are “feeling no choice but to publicly defend Biden but [are] privately furious at the president and his inner circle.”

Voters are not fools. Most people have experience watching family members age. Biden reportedly has good days and bad ones, and on the good days he is as sharp as he ever was. That person is a very good president. But the bad days will get more frequent. The decline is evident if you compare last week’s debate with the sharp and articulate Biden of four years ago. The White House’s reluctance to hold unscripted interviews confirms the obvious.

Biden is hardly irreplaceable. There is a parallel with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Right to the end of her career, she was producing some of the best work of any Supreme Court justice. She nonetheless ruined her legacy, and will be remembered for her disastrous arrogance, because she refused to retire when Obama took office, which would have prevented Trump from creating the catastrophic court we have now.

More importantly, Biden is losing this election. The Democrats need to change the narrative. There has been a lot of fretting about the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris, the most obvious replacement, is no more popular than Biden. But most of the voters who are going to decide this election — low-information, low-participation voters — don’t even know who she is, even as they have a clear picture of the effect of aging on Biden. Harris could introduce herself anew in a way that Biden can’t. The situation is ripe for a new story.

Lots of writers have been piling on Biden. I don’t like to write columns that say what others are already saying. But the initial post-debate surge of criticism of his performance has subsided. Democrats are becoming resigned to his candidacy. They shouldn’t. More writers on the left need to call for Biden’s replacement on the ballot.

A second Trump presidency would be a disaster, far worse than the first one, because he now has an army of grifters and sycophants to fill the offices that last time were given to GOP “normies.” The appropriate response to danger is the deployment of instrumental rationality. Trump needs to be stopped. Biden is the wrong tool for the job.

Dishonesty about their candidate is now a requirement for any Republican who wants a future in government. It shouldn’t be that way for Democrats.

Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of “Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed” (St. Martin’s Press).

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