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An old man in a dry month


After watching the JWST news conference from the White House last night I was going to write a post that was going to say pretty much exactly what Michelle Goldberg’s column in the NYT this morning says, but I didn’t because I thought what’s the point? But she wrote it, so . . .

I don’t see how anyone can dispute the substance of Goldberg’s argument that Joe Biden is too old to run for president again.

I’ll anticipate some arguments:

(1) Biden’s age isn’t hurting his performance as POTUS yet.

This claim is pretty obviously false. Biden is slowing down mentally and physically because everybody slows down mentally and physically as they age, and this process is exponential not linear. The latter point is crucial, especially in regard to thinking about 2025 through 2029, when Biden will be 86.

(2) Biden is still sharp for a 79-year-old.

This is probably true, but “still sharp for a 79-year-old” is a truly absurd standard for judging the job qualifications of someone for the most difficult and important job in the entire world.

As Goldberg points out, Biden has always been given to gaffes and malapropisms, and these are things that only get worse with age, like everything else. She doesn’t mention that he’s also always been prone to confabulation to a disturbing degree; now I can only imagine what his staff must be doing to try to keep him from making up some rambling story about something that didn’t actually happen in the middle of a summit or what have you.

(3) The Democrats don’t have anybody else who can beat Trump.

This belief is a product of the weird psychological quirk that people have trouble seeing somebody as president until that person is actually president, at which point the person always seems plenty “presidential” (Trump is obviously a massive exception to this rule, as he is in regard to so many others).

It’s also a product of the fact that Biden won a coin flip election against Trump, while Hillary Clinton lost a coin flip election four years earlier, which of course means that it was “obvious” Biden was the only candidate who could beat Trump, while it was equally “obvious” that Hillary was the only Democratic candidate who would have lost to Trump. (Note: This is sarcasm. Random outcomes — coin flips — are random. And everything is obvious in retrospect, which is why retrospect is largely useless prospectively, stochastically speaking).

Be honest: How would you feel if Biden announced after the midterms that he had done what he was elected to do — which is true — and that he was handing over the reins of leadership to a younger generation of Democrats? I realize, by the way, that this frame pretty much eliminates my preferred 2020 candidate, Elizabeth Warren, from consideration. Warren was almost too old in 2020. She will be too old in 2024. That’s unfortunate, but there are lots of potential Democratic candidates who would be excellent choices.

Talent is not in short supply. It drives me nuts that people who are perfectly capable of seeing how insane the argument that talent is in short supply is when RBG announces she has to literally die on the SCOTUS because there’s just nobody out there who could adequately replace her make this very same argument when it comes to Joe Biden, of all people.

Goldberg concludes with a more general point, which is if anything even more unassailable than her argument in re Biden specifically:

There’s a problem here that goes beyond a shortage of presidential speeches and media appearances, or even Biden himself. We are ruled by a gerontocracy. Biden is 79. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 83. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71. Often, it’s not clear if they grasp how broken this country is.

They built their careers in institutions that worked, more or less, and they seem to expect them to start working again. They give every impression of seeing this moment, when the gears of government have seized and one party openly schemes against democracy, as an interregnum rather than a tipping point. Biden’s Democratic critics come from different places on the political spectrum — some are infuriated by his centrism, others worried by his listlessness. What links most of them is desperation for leaders who show urgency and ingenuity.

If there’s one consolation in Biden’s age, it’s that he can step aside without conceding failure. There’s no shame in not running for president in your 80s. He emerged from semiretirement to save the country from a second Trump term, and for that we all owe him a great debt. But now we need someone who can stand up to the still-roiling forces of Trumpism.

There are plenty of possibilities: If Vice President Kamala Harris’s approval ratings remain underwater, Democrats have a number of charismatic governors and senators they can turn to. Biden said, during the 2020 campaign, that he wanted to be a “bridge” to a new generation of Democrats. Soon it will be time to cross it.

I realize of course that there’s a pragmatic problem of the first order here, which springs from the fact that Joe Biden is infinitely preferable to any possible Republican presidential candidate, let alone the quasi-human wreckage that is Donald Trump (Trump is also way too old to be president in the mid to late 2020s, but in his case that’s like mentioning that the buffet on the Hindenburg wasn’t very good).

If Biden is going to run again, then discussing the fact that he shouldn’t is a bad idea — something that I imagine gave Michelle Goldberg pause before she used her real estate on the nation’s leading op-ed page to point this out (We here on the other hand can talk amongst ourselves so it’s all good).

But this kind of calculation can lead you down some very bad roads. Joe Biden shouldn’t run for president again because he’s too old for the job, and he will be way too old for the job by the end of this decade (hi Dianne). That’s the truth and it needs to be said now, when there’s still a non-trivial chance he could be convinced not to do so.

He was the man we needed in 2020: this is also true, and it’s important to be grateful for the fantastically important thing he accomplished, which was to save this country from a second consecutive Trump term. But that moment has passed.

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