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The Seer

Why Biden Shouldn't Withdraw from the Race

· The Lede

The Journal Interview: Walter Shapiro

There is a lot of talk that Joe Biden should step aside. Ezra Klein of the New York Times just called for a Democratic nominee to be chosen at the convention. He acknowledged that Biden is doing a good job but contends that Biden isn’t up to campaigning. You just wrote a column criticizing Biden for his decision to run, but your conclusion was different. You wrote that switching candidates now would be disastrous, partly because presidential candidates have such a steep learning curve. There is no way to exaggerate that learning curve. I was reminded of a dinner conversation I had over the weekend with a top Democratic consultant who just kept saying, "I've been through presidential races. The first six months of a campaign are awful.” Obama was still floundering in October of 2007. And this is Barack Obama. Just because you ran for governor of a state, even in California, doesn't equip you for this. Or even if you ran in a tough race as Gretchen Whitmer did. It is so relentless. It is the best replication of the rigors of actually being president that you can imagine.

Every move is scrutinized, right? Every move is scrutinized. My theory is that the stupidity of all the rituals of a wedding were designed to replicate the stresses of the first 20 years of marriage, things like protracted arguments over china patterns. And that is the justification for a long presidential campaign.

Which most Americans find too long. It is too long, except when you need a candidate to learn how to run. The Democrats who stepped in tomorrow, they would have 5,000 media reporters on them every day. They would be in a desperate race to raise money.

Klein acknowledged that it was too late for a candidate to emerge from the primaries, so a nominee would have to be chosen at the convention. That would allow Republicans nine months to plan a presidential campaign, and the Democrats two months to plan a presidential campaign. And you need vast sums of money. You have to raise the money. That takes time. Money is the major reason why presidential candidates start early.

So this is why it's really too late. Also, going back to the learning curve. The fact is, if you win the nomination the traditional way, running in the primaries and prevailing over, say, eight or 10 opponents, the media is sycophantic for a while because we're always sycophantic on the way up. We're vicious on the way down, but we're sycophantic on the way up. What would happen here is a nominee picked in August would make many mistakes, which would totally, totally erase the honeymoon period, because the combination of how long the learning curve it takes and the short runway is a terrible collision. That's probably a mixed metaphor.

Collision sounds like the right word. Now, let me just ask you about your recent column. I thought it was a little harsh. You wrote that Biden's decision to run for re-election "may prove to be the most self-indulgent act by a Democratic president in modern history." Isn't it possible that Joe Biden’s decision to run for re-election wasn’t purely ego? That he did the math and thought: "There is no absolute slam dunk candidate on the horizon. The work is not finished." All that's true. That's what happened. But the fact is, because there was not a slam dunk candidate in April of 2023, doesn't mean the Democrats would not have had a compelling candidate in February of 2024, had the normal process worked itself out. I'm obsessed with the way that smart people convince themselves they're indispensable. In the fall of 1955, Dwight Eisenhower had a crippling heart attack that had him in the hospital for 80 days. He spent four months recovering. He convinced himself that he was the only person to save the free world and had to run for another term.

And of course, we know Reagan was not even compos mentis for much of the second term. In the best of circumstances, second terms are sad. Just think about it. Nixon: Watergate. Reagan; Iran-Contra and being out of it. Bill Clinton, stymied by Congress and a certain sex scandal. George W. Bush: Iraq coming home to roost and Hurricane Katrina. Even if you're young and vigorous, second terms are really sad.

The prospect of more discord and irresponsible partisanship is, at the very least, disturbing. I'm thinking of how aid to Ukraine is being held up as we speak. Biden has been very exceptional for having such stability in his advisors. Many of those people have gone back with him from the '80s to the 2000s at the top levels of the White House. Most of them are going to depart sometime in the second term. Almost no one sticks around for eight years, and the reasons are threefold. Burnout, desire to cash in, and just wanting to be home with your family, wanting the beeper not to go off at 11 o'clock at night. It's hard to live at that level. But Biden, a creature of stability, will be surrounded in the White House in his mid-80s, by people he barely knows, who are the deputies or the sub-deputies to the current people around him.

Walter, this is sounding worse and worse. Yeah. I wish he wasn't running, but what I'm hoping is that negative partisanship, the idea that Trump is a menace will pull the Biden-Harris ticket across the finish line. But it's not going to be fun. It's not going to be pretty.

Yet we have to see Biden as salvation for the country at this point. In hindsight, if we’d had a president more attuned to the anxiety that income inequality was producing, could we have avoided not just Trump, but Trumpism? If Obama had not had that incredible charisma and we had had more of a bread and butter politician, could we have avoided Trumpism? In 2016 it was too late. And fundamentally, people bought the shtick of a conman.

I'm talking about changing the direction of the country back in 2008, 20 years ago, 15, 20 years ago. You have much greater faith in the ability of Democratic economic policies to totally change income inequality than I do. What you have to remember is there was a limit to how much Obama or anyone could do in 2008, because the economy collapsed, and it wasn't until 2011 or 2012 that we got out of the hole. So once you realize that Lehman Brothers was destined to collapse on September 15th, 2008, regardless of who the Democrats elected in 2008, you had limitations of how life could have been so transformed as to prevent Trump from being elected in 2016.

I might quibble with you, based on a book called Homewreckers, written by Aaron Glantz. What was key in that book was that in the Great Depression the policy on foreclosures was 180 degrees from what it was in 2008. To a much greater degree, they kept people in their homes. Instead we had this enormous transfer of wealth to companies like Blackstone, which is still affecting housing prices. So he could have handled it better. Given the economic realities of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, things could have been handled better, but even if you say economics are what elected Trump in 2016, which I don't think happened, nothing dramatic enough would've happened to prevent that.

Fair enough. It’s macro. Yeah.

As far as the rage enveloping much of the electorate, I’ve noticed that it’s usually relatively affluent white guys who think it's all about race. I don't know if that's what you think, but I don’t. The racism and anti-Semitism that have surged are symptoms, not causes. No, I don't think it was America's racism. I think it was America being taken by a conman. And a lot of it was immigration, going back to an America which was less Hispanic than it is now. It was things like that.

Less Latino, yeah. But also life was more secure. People knew where they were, who they were, they could count on a future. Too much change too fast? Yeah, and a lot of the change was brought on, not by a Democratic president, but by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Good hair has been a major factor for male candidates beginning in 1960.

I might bring it back to Reagan’s neoliberal policies combined with rapid technological change, globalization, all the forces conspiring to weaken nation-states worldwide. But to get back to elections, is the nature of campaigning in 2024 part of the problem? For me, the most telling passage in your column was this one:

The issue, alas, is not how effectively Biden has governed but rather how the octogenarian president will come across as a candidate against Trump over the next nine months.

Apart from the word “alas,” which I associate with New York editors shedding Shakespearean crocodile tears as they reject a book proposal, this was a profound statement. I suspect that we both read Joe McGinniss’s classic book The Selling of the President, which made the case that TV had changed politics, and not in a good way. And TV was nothing compared to social media. I taught it for a while until I realized what he was really upset about. It was shocking at the time, this thing that Richard Nixon was doing, at the suggestion of Roger Ailes, paying to have Nixon on TV in 30 minute segments, answering questions. Nixon faces the panel of voters, and they tried to rig the panel. But the point was, Ailes quickly realized that if the questions were, "Vice President Nixon, how come you're such a great man?" nobody would watch. So they wanted tough questions. So, the insidious plot that Joe McGinniss revealed is that the Nixon campaign wanted to pay for the candidate to be on television to answer tough questions.

Times have changed, haven’t they? Basically, Joe Biden, not to mention Trump, will get through the whole campaign without going on TV answering tough questions, while the Nixon campaign was willing to pay for it.

What I got from the book was that TV was all that mattered and TV trivializes everything, in part because it decontextualizes. That was the message in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death, which I'm sure you've also read, right? Yeah.

So I’m wondering if that odds are stacked against decent candidates. I’m thinking about Sherrod Brown, Jay Inslee. Asa Hutchinson. Unlike Jay Inslee, Sherrod Brown would've been taken seriously.

Even Asa Hutchinson. I may not agree with his politics, but he’s an example of a person with some integrity. Asa Hutchinson was running in the wrong year in the wrong party.

These are people of quiet integrity, and that just doesn't play. Everyone without a partisan ax to grind acknowledges that Biden is doing a good job, and doing it in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But the point he is doing a good job at governing. He's not doing a good job as a candidate, and they're different jobs.

Charisma and the decency don't usually go together, as any woman will tell you. So, is it possible in this insane social media environment, for a decent human being to be a viable candidate? I'll leave you with one thought. 1956 was really the last year where television didn't dominate everything. It was also the last year when both candidates for president, Stevenson and Eisenhower, had hair loss. Good hair has been a major factor for male candidates beginning in 1960.

After stints at Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Esquire, Walter Shapiro is covering his 12th presidential election as a columnist for The New Republic and Roll Call. He writes frequently for The Guardian and is a lecturer in political science at Yale.

I Don’t Believe My Race Is Run ::: Dion

The Race Is On ::: George Jones

Old Man :::: Neil Young

Dignity ::: Bob Dylan

Last Hope’s Gone ::: Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Times Are Tight ::: Brian Cullman

Hard Day On The Planet :::: Loudon Wainwright III

The Dark End of the Street ::: Ry Cooder