Opinion: The Biden Scenario That Terrifies Big Democrat Donors and Candidates

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Will he stand, or will he stand down? That’s the question Joe Biden is facing as the July 4 holiday weekend begins.

Biden reportedly told “a key ally” that he is considering whether he should continue his run for reelection or not. In Wednesday’s New York Times article, Biden “allies” said the president recognizes that his challenge in the days ahead is to “convince voters, donors and the political class that his debate performance was an anomaly.

In response, White House Senior Deputy Press Secretary and Deputy Assistant to the President Andrew Bates posted on X: “That claim is absolutely false. If the New York Times had provided us with more than 7 minutes to comment we would have told them so.”

Michael Ian Black: This Is a Biden Emergency—He Needs to Exit the Race

At a White House press briefing Wednesday afternoon, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fielded sustained questioning about Biden’s health, claiming his dreadful debate performance last week was down to jet lag and a cold. This was not an “excuse,” she said, but rather an “explanation.” Jean-Pierre claimed the White House had been “transparent,” but she refused to say if the White House would release more of Biden’s medical information. The president, she said, was “strong, resolute” and “as sharp as ever.”

Despite the pushback from the White House regarding the swirling rumors, the hard questions remain. As Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi framed Biden’s challenge, following his disastrous debate appearance last week: “Is this an episode, or is this a condition?”

The problem is that it is virtually impossible to do what the president apparently believes can be achieved through a series of TV interviews, phone calls with leaders, and public appearances over the next few days. He can go a long way to making it appear for the moment that his appalling debate performance was a one-off, but he cannot wipe from the minds of voters or supporters the prospect of a scenario that has terrified many Democrats for months.

It is a plausible sequence of events that has been frequently discussed behind the scenes as the effects of Biden’s very natural and predictable aging has become increasingly apparent.

One of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors put it this way to me in January, “I love Biden. I’ve supported him for years. But the stakes are too high for us to get this wrong. The country can’t endure another Trump presidency.

“That’s why,” he said, “what haunts me at night is the prospect that Biden does fine throughout the campaign, then, in October, days or weeks before the election, he gets sick. Or he stumbles and falls. Or he freezes up like Mitch McConnell did. There will be no coming back from that.”

The fear is that not only would the media and the Trump campaign make a massive deal out of the story—remember Hillary’s emails?—but that it would be the late-in-the-campaign blow from which neither Biden nor the Democrats could recover. It could have a major effect on voters who are sitting on the fence and on turn out—remember the Comey letter. It could easily decide the election in favor of Trump and the MAGA GOP.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden delivers remarks on extreme weather at the D.C. Emergency Operations Center in Washington, DC on July 2, 2024.

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

“The issue is not loyalty to Biden,” as one Democratic strategist put it to me, “It is about loyalty to the country and also to the party. If you see Trump as an existential threat to our democracy then the number one, two and three questions are how do you maximize your odds for beating him. Starting out with a candidate who is clearly not the man he used to be and who may blow up at any minute is a big risk.”

Should the same questions be asked about Donald Trump? Definitely. Pelosi also addressed that when she pointedly concluded the statement quoted above by saying that questions about fitness were reasonable to ask “about both candidates.” Trump has shown many symptoms of mental decline and of instability that have had doctors and commentators buzzing. People have been saying it for years. And earlier this year, after Trump confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, Haley went so far as to say “When you’re dealing with the pressures of the presidency, we can’t…question whether they’re mentally fit to do this—we can’t.”

Of course, Haley subsequently said she would support Trump which no doubt raises some questions about her own mental facilities. But that also brings us to a crucial factor for Democrats to consider. Republicans are not going to step away from Trump. Calling for him to step down because of his manifold flaws is a waste of breath. It will never happen. Condemning well-reported New York Times articles detailing both sides of the argument about Biden’s mental acuity for not spending more time doing the same about Trump—as many Biden defenders have done on social media—is just not fruitful.

So, by all means, Trump’s fitness must become an election issue. But the only way Democrats can make it one is by ensuring there is not a counter argument that targets their candidate. Indeed, because Trump’s porridge-for-brains lunacy should be such a central argument of the Democrats’ Fall campaign, it is critical that from the standard bearer on down, Democrats are seen as credible critics of our once and potentially future malignant narcissist, pathological liar, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs nutjob-in-chief.

It is fascinating and telling that almost every article written or statement made about this issue by Democrats and even by independent commentators begins with a statement noting Biden’s success during his first term as president and often, the admiration or fondness the writer has for Biden himself. This is another key to understanding this story. The concerns about Biden’s seeming decline and the perils of continuing with him as the candidate are coming from active Biden supporters. They are not about a lack of appreciation for him. They are about the nuts and bolts issue of winning in November.

It is similarly revealing that one event—the debate—could have triggered such an uproar and an increasingly deadly serious discussion about whether Biden is the right candidate to lead the Democrats to victory in November. That is, of course, because it is not one event that is triggering it. Rather, the debate, has brought the discussion that even the president’s most enthusiastic supporters were having behind closed doors for many months now into the open.

I personally have countless times, almost daily, heard questions about whether or not Biden should seek a second term since before his first term began—inside the Beltway and far from it, across the U.S. and around the world, from political insiders and from regular people who don’t much get involved in politics. And increasingly, given the risks associated with a Trump victory in November, the questions raised have less to do with whether Biden could be expected to be an effective president in four years when he was 86 years old and more to do with whether or not Biden could become his own worst October surprise.

Is it fair to judge a man of demonstrated strengths and massive achievements by a few off moments that all people who are aging encounter? Perhaps not. But it is a political reality with which Joe Biden, the White House, the Democratic Party and the country are desperately and appropriately grappling right now.

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