I will give Ross Douthat this much: unlike many “Biden must be replaced because he is old” arguments he actually specifies the mechanism by which he thinks it should happen. Before we get to how plausible this is, let’s start with this (also not particularly rare in the context of such arguments) admission:
Note that I did not say that Biden should not be the president. You can make a case that as obvious as his decline has been, whatever equilibrium his White House has worked out has thus far delivered results largely indistinguishable from (and sometimes better than) what one would expect from a replacement-level Democratic president.
If there has been a really big age effect in his presidency so far, I suspect it lies in the emboldenment of America’s rivals, a sense that a decrepit American chief executive is less to be feared than a more vigorous one. But suspicion isn’t proof, and when I look at how the Biden administration has actually handled its various foreign crises, I can imagine more disastrous outcomes from a more swaggering sort of president.
So what we have here is a meta-problem: it’s not that Biden is incapable of being president — let alone that he’s less capable than his manifestly unfit opponent — it’s that the voting public might think that he’s incapable of being president, a conclusion that they have surely come to spontaneously and unmediated by any third-party interpretation of events.
So, anyway, how can the Democrats nominate someone else? By making sure it happens after the primaries are over:
There is no easy escape from these dilemmas. But the best approach available to Biden is a distinctively old-fashioned one. He should accept the necessity of drama and bloodletting but also condense it all into the format that was originally designed for handling intraparty competition: the Democratic National Convention.
That would mean not dropping out today or tomorrow or any day when party primaries are still proceeding. Instead Biden would continue accumulating pledged delegates, continue touting the improving economic numbers, continue attacking Donald Trump — until August and the convention, when he would shock the world by announcing his withdrawal from the race, decline to issue any endorsement, and invite the convention delegates to choose his replacement.
So, we should go back to the old-school top-down convention nomination process for the first time since 1968, which if I recall correctly went off without a hitch for the Democratic Party, which makes you wonder why they radically changed the nomination process before the next cycle — I’ll have to look into that. Anyway, what’s the alternative to Biden that the party should select for its voters? Let’s go back a graf here:
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Biden senses this, that he isn’t just entombed in egomania, but he feels trapped by his own terrible vice-presidential choice. If he drops out and anoints Kamala Harris, she’s even more likely to lose to Donald Trump. But if he drops out and doesn’t endorse his own number two, he’d be opening himself to a narrative of identitarian betrayal — aging white president knifes first woman-of-color veep — and setting his party up for months of bloodletting and betrayal, a constant churn of personal and ideological drama.
I don’t know how Harris would fare as a candidate, but AFICT it’s true that as of now she’s polling worse than Biden. Given that she’s the most prominent Democrat and that Biden not endorsing her would I agree create a huge rift within the party…this seems like a major problem! Douthat’s solution is…a bunch of hand-waving:
Pain would follow. But so would excitement and spectacle, the things that Biden himself seems too old to deliver. Meanwhile any agony would be much briefer than in a long primary battle between Harris and Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmer. The proximity of the general election would create stronger incentives for Harris or any other disappointed loser to accept a behind-the-scenes proffer and fall in line if the convention battle doesn’t go their way. And the format would encourage the party-as-institution, not the party-as-mass-electorate, to do a party’s traditional job and choose the ticket with the most national appeal.
While a lot of people are nostalgic for the old top-down presidential selection process, as I snarked earlier there’s a reason it was abandoned. There are many Democratic primary voters who think that the DNC rigged the previous two primary contests by 1)informing Hillary Clinton that a debate held in Flint, MI would have a question about toxic water and 2)candidates with no chance of winning the nomination taking the surely unprecedented step of dropping out and endorsing their preferred candidate. Imagine how supporters of the losing candidates would react if Democratic Party elites really did directly choose the nominee.
But set that aside. The real issue here is the assumption that it would be unproblematic to select the candidate with the “most national appeal.” We have already excluded Harris, and I have to say when I think of broad national appeal Gavin Newsom doesn’t come readily to mind. Gretchen Whitmer is interesting and I like her a lot. There’s an intuitive idea that a governor capable of winning in swing states must be a strong national candidate. Hence, President Scott Walker!
And this is one of the things that bugs me the most about this whole narrative — the lack of epistemological modesty. It’s now very common to say that Hillary Clinton was always incredibly unpopular and the Democrats were obviously idiots for nominating her in 2016. As Dave Weigel pointed out recently, what has gone down the memory hole is not only that Clinton had good approval ratings after leaving the Obama administration, and there was a cottage industry of punditry devoted to the idea that Democrats should replace Obama in 2012 with white working class whisperer Hillary Clinton:
Now, this was of course mostly dumb, based on obvious misreadings of the significance of Hillary Clinton winning the Democratic primary in states like West Virginia. (This same idiotic argument migrated from the center and center-right to the Jacobin left in 2016.) But the point is that you should be very, very skeptical of pundits who are confident who they know will be successful as a national political candidate. I would be particularly inclined toward modesty if I had spent months believing that Ron DeSantis had a realistic shot of beating Donald Trump.
Ultimately, these are all still arguments that Democrats should just run Johnny or Jane Unbeatable, and the problem with them is that they don’t exist.