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US Democrats: From Debate Debacle to Defeating Donald Trump

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Democrats need to quickly resolve the issues arising from Joe Biden’s recent presidential debate debacle, and focus their energies on confronting the looming menace of Donald Trump’s return to power.

By Chudi Okoye

They seem rather befuddled and in a serious funk, following the unflattering performance of Joe Biden, their presumptive nominee for the upcoming US presidential election, which will hold only four months hence in November. There’s deep anxiety within the Democratic Party. Nerves are frayed. Hearts are palpitating. And there’s utter confusion about what next to do: whether to push President Biden – now 81 and long facing concerns about his age and mental acuity – to step aside for a sprightlier substitute, in hopes of potentially improving the odds for Democrats; or allow him to plod on to a possibly disastrous end.

Either option is riddled with risks.

The Democrats are in this predicament because Joe Biden, on June 27, spectacularly flubbed the first of two presidential election debates his party had, rather audaciously, called for. In the 90-minute debate hosted by CNN, Biden looked every bit his age and then some: stiff and seemingly confused, often freezing mid-thought; his voice raspy or inaudible throughout, indeed garbled for the most part and occasionally trailing off mid-sentence. It was painful and utterly embarrassing to watch: prime-time intimations of senile dementia in stark display for audiences across America and the world.

In most other leadership situations, performance like that would be certain cause for defenestration. But it won’t be all that easy in this particular case, for the simple reason that Joe Biden can’t be dislodged as the prospective presidential candidate for his party if he’s unwilling to surrender the mantle. In the lead-up to the 2020 election which he would win, a then 77-year old Biden – seeking to allay concerns beginning to bubble about his advanced age – had hinted he might serve only one term. Subsequently however, the president, buoyed by a string of domestic policy successes, had changed his mind and decided to bid for re-election. Although this caused some dismay in his party and disquiet – going by opinion polls – among potential voters, Biden had gone on nonetheless to win the Democratic Party primary, in a process that seemed at times like a coronation. He therefore now has a clutch of delegates that must vote for him at the party’s convention in August when, if he stays in the race, he will be formally nominated as the party’s candidate for the November presidential election.

This means that although measures – from moral suasion to political pressure – can be taken to persuade Biden to stand down, the decision is ultimately his. He cannot be compelled to exit the contest.

So the Democrats are in a bind. They have cast this as a pivotal election, with nothing less than American democracy on the ballot. In their view, Donald Trump poses a singular risk to America’s democratic traditions with his multifarious mischiefs, his authoritarian ambitions, and his insidious plan – enabled by the extreme right – to overturn the institutions of the American government. The Democrats consider it imperative to stop Trump and the onslaught of right-wing extremism.

But how best to do this? The theory behind Biden’s second-term primary ‘coronation’ was that he might again defeat Donald Trump, having seen him off even as an incumbent president in 2020: a feat that the mighty Clinton machine couldn’t manage in the 2016 election when Trump had been merely a wild-card contender. However, with Biden totally bombing in the first debate, there’s now little confidence he has enough verve in him to vanquish the ex-president who’s only three years younger but appears much spryer. At least that’s the view among some Democratic Party cadres, who think Biden has become a burden. These party apparatchiks want Biden immediately to withdraw from the race, so the party can begin to configure a new ticket led by someone much younger. They also worry about down-ballot drag, if Biden insists on running.

Media Hostility
It’s not just jittery Democrats that are calling for immediate change. There’s now a groundswell of opinion, notably amongst the liberal media intelligentsia, that Biden is no longer viable and that the imperative of preventing Trump’s return requires a more vigorous Democratic ticket. This opinion appears to have congealed in the liberal media, expressed in differing cadences of exasperation and impatience – even, in some cases, impudence. Were Biden, therefore, to insist on staying the course, he’d not only be running against Trump but also against a potentially hostile liberal media. His centrist policies, and especially his unquestioning support for Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, already cause great outrage in progressive media land. And of course he faces downright hostility across the conservative media ecosystem.

This means that, should Biden decide to stick it out, he’ll face unrelenting scrutiny, even from some usually sympathetic media. He’ll not be given any benefit of the doubt. Biden has to be steady and consistently perform from here on out, to calm the jitters in his flank. There is very little margin for error. If he again succumbs to ‘senior moments’ – or whatever it was that caused his doddering and stuttering at the last debate – there’d be no coming back from that!

He not only has to outperform in the next debate (if it holds – canny Donald Trump might duck it, to freeze the debacle of the first debate), he must also turn in more campaign events to shake off the stigma of the last debate.

Can he do it? The call for Biden’s exit is predicated on the fear that his feebleness and inarticulacy in the first debate were signs of an irreversible cognitive decline, implying that they could re-occur in the course of the campaign. Were there to be a reoccurrence, especially closer to election date, there would simply be no opportunity to regroup or change course. Better then, the thinking goes, to revamp the ticket right away. Even now, it might already be a bit late, advocates of change concede. But they insist the Democratic Party has a deep bench, with several political stars who could quickly rig up a campaign and be ready to hit the road right after the party convention.

Among those frequently mentioned are: blue-state governors like Gavin Newsom of California and Jared Polis of Colorado; swing-state and red-state governors such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, and Kentucky’s Andy Beshear; cabinet stars such as Pete Buttigieg and Gina Raimondo; and even, some add, Senators Raphael Warnock from Georgia and Cory Booker of New Jersey. There’s of course vice-president Kamala Harris; though some find her somewhat insipid, and she carries the baggage of the Biden administration. She’s particularly associated with some of the administration’s vulnerabilities, such as immigration and border crisis. Still, she could be in the mix if there’s an open convention in August.

Potential Alternatives to Biden

New Direction, New Problems
The problem however is that, though undoubted political talents, every one of these potential alternatives would need time to ramp up, given the long lead time already built up by Donald Trump, and of course his outsize personality. None has Trump’s or Biden’s profile and even political machinery. It’s doubtful if any has Biden’s funding potential. Besides, a Biden exit might send adverse political signaling to the voters, especially with remonstrations from disaffected Biden loyalists and internal party squabbles as contention builds up towards the August convention. Even after nomination, there might be a lag, to assuage frayed egos, before the Democratic Party can coalesce to face Trump. It’s not clear from the party’s history that it has the discipline or brutal efficiency to whip all forces into line quickly enough.

It is for these concerns, perhaps, that party grandees have spoken up for the Biden status quo. They think a Biden exit could unleash more problems than it would solve, and therefore entails a greater risk for the party.

Will the party grandees prevail? Will Biden in fact agree to step aside? Does he have much more in him, some hidden strength which may yet confound the omens? Was the bizarre spectacle we all saw in the first debate on June 27 a mere fluke which misrepresents the profile of an energetic Biden that staffers and spokespeople swear by, or are their claims mere spin?

There’s no doubt that the Democrats have a real problem on their hands. But I sincerely hope they can quickly resolve the conundrum and get back on their game.

Possible Solution
I am personally mad at Joe Biden for enabling Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. I think he’s been feeble in his handling of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And in so unflinchingly supporting Israeli’s brutality in Gaza, Biden has betrayed a callous disregard for Palestinian suffering that I cannot reconcile with his Catholic confession. Yes, Israel has the right to respond after Hamas heinous attack of Oct 7, 2023; though that attack itself was not unprovoked, contrary to how it’s been characterized by Israeli apologists. Still, Israel has gone way beyond proportionality, as dictated by international law, in seeking revenge. And I am livid that Joe Biden has enabled this atrocity.

It was perhaps for this reason that I had a frisson of schadenfreude observing Biden’s bizarre behavior at the CNN debate and surveying the fallouts. Watching Biden freeze or dodder on the stage, I did wonder, rather playfully, whether he was spooked by the ghosts of Gaza, or tormented by the restless spirits of innocent children whose murder by Israel he has enabled. I briefly recalled the accounts in Shakespeare’s plays – of Banquo’s ghost haunting Macbeth, or the various ghosts that haunted Richard III.

But we must overcome such base epicaricacy. The consequences of a Trump return to the US presidency are ominous, both for the US itself and the world at large. The idea of such a vile character, a convicted felon and unrepentant racist leading America yet again has got to terrify any right-thinking person. The Democrats must therefore quickly overcome the debacle of Biden’s debate performance and get on with confronting the prospect of a Trump return.

I appreciate their dilemma of choosing either to maintain the Biden status quo, or to seek Biden’s exit so they can present a worried America with a fresh choice. Either option is fraught with risks. But there might be a way to reconcile the two options.

Assuming that Joe Biden – backed by his family and doctors – feels he still has pep in him and can go the distance in this campaign, then why not keep him at the top of the ticket but have as his running mate, not Kamala Harris, but one of the political talents being mentioned as a replacement for Biden – perhaps Gavin Newsom of California or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan?

Either would add verve to the ticket, creating excitement on the hustings that a staid Biden/Harris ticket could probably not muster. If a Biden exit is too risky given the political calendar and other factors, then let’s inject excitement into the ticket. This seems to me the most prudent solution.

Of course this would mean, unfortunately, that Kamala Harris would be taking a fall for Biden. But she could be rewarded in other ways, for instance with a Supreme Court nomination, substituting her for the reportedly sickly Justice Sonia Sotomayor who should be persuaded to retire (she needs to go soon anyway, to avoid a repeat of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose refusal to retire – despite her sickness and bench longevity – led to the current lopsided conservative majority in the Court). If neither suasion nor gentle pressure would work with Sotomayor, or it is feared that her forced retirement might alienate the Latino community (especially if she’s to be replaced by yet another Black woman), Kamala Harris could be made Secretary of State, or perhaps US Attorney General, to replace the bland and wimpy Merrick Garland. After a stint heading a huge federal department, Ms. Harris could again run for president, with much improved favorability rating.

This might be one way the Democrats could escape their current dilemma, and then focus squarely on trying to defeat Donald Trump in November.

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