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The case against open convention fanfic


A couple goot pieces against the idea that unaccountable Democratic elites picking a new candidate by fiat would be a less risky strategy than just uniting against the guy who’s already beaten Trump once. JMM:

First, will convention-chosen candidate X do better than Biden? As I noted on Friday, polling evidence makes that assumption at least highly questionable. That’s not the only question. Is early 21st century America really ready for a party nominee literally chosen by a few thousand party insiders and activists? I have real doubts about that. Will the convention not become a forum for litigating highly divisive issues like Gaza, Medicare for All and the broader contest between progressives and establishment-oriented liberals? The last half century of American politics has been based on the idea that the convention is a highly scripted unity launch event. This alternative would mean a free for all, in which the choice between a number of quite promising candidates will be made by a group whose legitimacy will likely be highly suspect. Not good!

Then there’s another issue. Okay, say you’ve convinced us. The thunderdome convention scenario is the better bet. How do we get there? Klein is refreshingly candid about this while somehow not being remotely realistic about how wildly improbable it is. You do it by mounting a public campaign to convince the people in Biden’s inner circle — Mike Donilon, Anita Dunn, Steve Ricchetti, maybe Barack Obama and whoever else — to convince Biden to step aside. That’s almost word for word the plan. Let’s drill down on what that means. Your plan is to convince the people who are pretty much by definition the most loyal to and invested in Biden — more than anyone in the entire political world — to abandon the plan they’re already two-thirds of their way through and convince Biden to step aside. We can add the more cynical point that this also means ending their own political careers at the top of the political game. As of today, the right-leaning RCP Average shows Biden 1.1 points behind Donald Trump. Are you really going to point to that and convince them that it’s hopeless? That to me is not remotely a serious plan. It’s not a serious anything.

And what exactly is the plan while you’re executing that plan? Unless I’m missing something, this plan means spending the spring perhaps not campaigning but in the midst of a public intervention trying to make the case that the party’s nominee is too old and frail to be President. On the off chance this plan doesn’t work, that seems pretty damaging to the nominee.


In life we constantly need to make choices on the basis of available options. Often they are imperfect or even bad options. The real options are the ones that have some shot at success. That’s life. Klein’s argument really amounts to a highly pessimistic but not unreasonable analysis of the present situation which he resolves with what amounts to a deus ex machina plot twist. That’s not a plan. It’s a recipe for paralysis.

I think the Democratic Party has thought — or is in the process of thinking — about this, is addressing it, not ignoring it, pick your vague verb. In addition to many strengths, including incumbency, Biden has a big campaign liability: his age. Democrats have decided that even with this liability he’s probably the best shot to defeat Donald Trump. And even if he’s not, there’s no viable path to switching to anyone else. Accentuate the positive, back burner the negatives, and run the campaign.

People arguing that Democrats need to focus in the spring not to making the case for their candidate or against Trump but on suggesting Biden needs to step down seem to ignore the obvious negative effects this will have in the (overwhelmingly likely) chance that it doesn’t succeed in getting Biden to step down.

Lindsay Beyerstein:

A convention fight is a pure pundit’s fantasy. First off, it’s predicated on Biden voluntarily stepping aside, which is not going to happen. Although Linker’s not above a little light blackmail to try to force the issue: 

“For starters, every major figure in the party prevailing on Biden to drop out. That can be done behind the scenes at first, out of respect for the president. But if he refuses to budge, then it will be time for embarrassing leaks to the press. I would like to think that Biden will see the only way to preserve his reputation, record, and self-respect is by announcing, somewhat as Lyndon B. Johnson did in March 1968, that he’s withdrawing from the race.” 

Moreover, a brokered convention is a unicorn, a beguiling chimera that gets conjured by nerds every cycle but never materializes in the modern world because its existence is incompatible with real life. 

Klein breezes past the fact that the last contested Democratic convention was a disaster of epic proportions. In 1968, the deeply unpopular incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, dropped out and threw his support behind his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. The convention became a flashpoint for intraparty conflict so fierce that newsman Dan Rather was beaten by police on the convention floor. Humphrey prevailed, but Democrats were in disarray for real. Richard Nixon won the general election. 

In 2024, a contested convention would become an arena to settle every score from Gaza to Medicare for All. A free-for-all would shatter the fragile Democratic coalition that Joe Biden so carefully knit together. If Kamala Harris won, people would complain that Joe Biden put his thumb on the scale, even if he didn’t. If Harris didn’t win, an equal and opposite faction would be furious that she was passed over. We have no idea who would win this hypothetical battle royale. We don’t even know who might enter. Virtually any Democrat over 35 could throw their hat in the ring. Klein rattled off a list of fourteen potential contenders. A chaotic and crowded race would increase the odds that someone completely unvetted got the top spot. 

By then it would be late August and the Democratic party would have about two months to refocus on beating Trump with whatever nominee came out on top. 

But given that party elites picked the nominee, there’d be no guarantee that the rank-and-file would accept their choice. The pundits are asking a couple thousand Biden delegates to pick the future leader of the free world. They’re also asking Biden to disregard the will of the Democratic primary voters who pulled the lever for him. This is profoundly undemocratic and unlikely to play well in a party where there are still people fuming about the superdelegates of 2016. 

Klein and Linker are well aware that a contested convention would be risky. 

“Could it go badly? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it will go badly,” Klein writes, “It could make the Democrats into the most exciting political show on earth.”

The absolute last thing the Democratic Party needs is to be the greatest show on earth. 

I’ve said this before, but all of the people arguing that it’s not too late for Biden to step aside because LBJ did may wish to consider what happened next in that scenario. (And this was despite the fact that the primaries revealed real ran-and-file opposition to LBJ, while the dude running on a “Biden is too old” platform can’t beat Marianne Williamson.) But the “greatest show on earth” line, to echo what Paul said yesterday, is perhaps the most revealing. Drama and conflict are good for ratings and clicks. They’re not good for winning elections.

In the extremely unlikely event that Biden steps down, we can worry about what to do next then. I the meantime, redundant stories about Biden’s age are pointless and daydreaming believing about getting a bespoke candidate who can definitely beat Trump (actual polling evidence to contrary) is actively counterproductive.

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