The Democratic establishment crowned Joe Biden in the 2020 primary cycle, when the party quickly consolidated around him in the frantic week after the South Carolina primary. Now, that establishment—or at least a portion of it—is trying to dethrone him after last night’s debate debacle with Donald Trump.

Heading into the debate, Biden had a clear goal: show enough vigor to convince swing voters and restive Democrats that he was still up to the job, bait Trump into talking about the 2020 election, and hit some policy talking points to draw a contrast between himself and his predecessor. Such a performance might not have fundamentally changed the trajectory of the campaign, but it would have helped quiet the murmuring dissatisfaction among Democrats.

Instead, the president stumbled through his responses, which were often confused and halting. He even declared at one point—after freezing for several seconds—that “we finally beat Medicare,” setting up an attack from Trump. Perhaps because he has a cold, his voice was thin and scratchy, like he had swallowed a ball of steel wool. The debate rule muting interruptions likely helped Trump here; it put the wandering nature of Biden’s responses on full display, without distractions from Trump’s own interventions, so prominent in their 2020 contests.

Calls for Biden to drop out erupted in the aftermath. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a personal friend of the president, said that he wept while watching the debate and declared that Biden “has no business running for reelection.” Polling guru Nate Silver penned a column with a similar response. On MSNBC, Claire McCaskill, former Democratic senator from Missouri, said that even many elected Democrats “feel like we are confronting a crisis.”

In terms of policy, the debate did offer some insights into the way that both candidates conceive of their respective coalitions. Trump tried to cast himself as the defender of federal entitlements, claiming that Biden’s immigration policies threatened Social Security and Medicare. This is a long way from the “Ponzi scheme” allegations some Republicans would use to attack Social Security during the Tea Party years. At the same time, Trump championed tax cuts and deregulation. The supposed break between Ronald Reagan and Trump on economic policy might be somewhat exaggerated.

As expected, Biden launched attacks on Trump’s character and responded “yes” to moderator Jake Tapper’s question about whether everyone who voted for Trump was “voting against American democracy.” The rhetoric of emergency has been a long-term theme in Biden’s presidency, shaping his strategy in the midterms and his reelection bid. Perhaps trying to appeal to the progressive base, Biden called for sweeping action to address “climate change,” which he characterized as an existential threat.

The exchanges about international affairs were also revealing. Trump referenced the administration’s chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, an inflection point in Biden’s polling, multiple times. The former president pointed to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s attack on Israel as signs that international actors don’t fear Biden and that global instability has escalated on his watch. Biden stressed his alliance-building. In trumpeting his support for Israel, he separated himself from progressive critics of that country, who suffered a stinging defeat earlier this week when “Squad” member Jamaal Bowman lost his primary.

Worries about Biden’s age and faltering performance overshadow these policy issues, at least for now. But some structural factors that have transformed American politics may affect how this issue plays out. Both Biden and Trump have benefited from the politics of negative partisanship. One might compare the current frenzy to replace Biden with the tempest unleased by the October 2016 leak of the Access Hollywood video. Back then, Trump withstood a concerted effort to get him to stand aside—and ended up winning the White House.

Biden might feel inclined to make a similar gamble today. His position within the Democratic Party is much stronger than Trump’s was within the GOP in 2016. Trump was an insurgent presidential nominee. Biden is the sitting president who swept the primaries. Whatever voters think about his debate performance, Biden might believe that he can still win because the alternative is Trump. Biden’s team will keep a wary eye on polls. A complete collapse in his numbers could prompt his campaign to reassess. If the bottom does not fall out of his support—and in today’s highly polarized electorate, it may not—then the president may well decide to weather the storm. 

Biden also might avoid a palace coup of senior aides begging him to stand aside. His lack of vigor has likely widened the spheres of influence for various Cabinet secretaries and White House functionaries. All now have additional incentive to keep him as president and reinforce the bubble of optimism in the West Wing.

Another strategic factor: Biden was anointed in 2020 because his nomination was the clearest path to defeating Trump. That calculus may still apply. Biden certainly lacks the polling advantage he enjoyed in 2020, and he may be trailing Trump slightly. But the race remains close enough that Democrats may yet conclude that sticking with the president is their best bet.

If Biden stands aside, of course, the Democrats’ complications explode. While admittedly sparse, public polling of a matchup between Kamala Harris and Trump indicates that the vice president could perform worse than Biden. Some potential Democratic contenders have prevailed in swing states (Governor Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper), but there’s no guarantee that they could supplant Harris or otherwise win the nomination. A new candidate could help the Democrats pivot away from the dissatisfactions that have soured Americans on the Biden administration, but the potential difficulties of such a shift might prove too daunting.

Ultimately, the decision will not come down to operatives in the Democratic National Committee headquarters on South Capitol Street. Joe Biden still holds all the cards. He has an overwhelming number of the pledged delegates. According to the rules of the Democratic National Convention, these delegates “shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” These delegates are essentially bound to Biden as long as he is running. No one can force him to stand aside.

When the debate ended, Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, a pop-culture ally of the president, shrugged it off and issued a torrent of attacks on “the former guy.” So the president can still count on the support of Luke Skywalker. If he prevails, though, it won’t be the Force that saves him but the Dark Side: revulsion for the alternative.

Photo by Kyle Mazza/Anadolu via Getty Images


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