I want to respond to some of the comments on my last post and sharpen my own thinking by gaming out some ways the campaign might evolve. I assume our goal is to have a Democrat – very probably Biden – beat Trump. The question is how to maximize our odds of achieving this goal.
Bill Kristol argues today that Biden should step down now and allow an open contest for the democratic nomination. This is debatable advice (as he acknowledges). As Seth Masket notes, it seems likely that voters are down on Biden because they are down on the state of the country, and that if they are down on Biden they are down on Democrats generally. This suggests that switching horses will not help, and Masket points out that it has not helped in the past (Truman and Johnson were unpopular and stepped aside, and their replacements lost). So let’s assume Biden and Harris stay in the race for now, which seems highly likely as well as prudent. What then?
It is possible that Biden will effectively address concerns about his candidacy in the next few months, or that Trump will somehow lose support by the time the democratic convention rolls around, and that Biden/Harris looks like a reasonably good bet for the fall. In this case it seems clear that we should stick with our incumbents.
To make this more likely, we should try to focus on Biden’s accomplishments, and criticize the abysmal press coverage of the special prosecutor’s report (e.g. here, here), and of Biden’s mental state (here). The evidence to me seems pretty strong that he is currently fine; being forgetful, having a soft voice, and being gaffe-prone are nowhere close to being disqualifying, especially given the alternative.
But what if Biden has not dispelled doubts about his competence and capacity to serve effectively for four more years? In this case there are three options:
Option 1: Circle the wagons. Continue to make the case for Biden/Harris, try to persuade voters that Biden is up to the job, that Harris would be a worthy replacement, that Trump is a danger, that Biden has done a good job so far as President (which happens to be true), cross our fingers and hope for a Trump conviction, etc.
Option 2: Nominate Michelle Obama and Adam Kinzinger. This national unity ticket suggested by Phillips O’Brien would be difficult to pull off, in part because Biden would need to be persuaded to step aside, which he clearly is reluctant to do. And if Biden did step aside this ticket would certainly be a crapshoot. How the public would react is very unclear. Michelle Obama might not be all that popular as a candidate for President; remember Clinton had high favorability ratings after her stint as Secretary of State. It’s easy to like someone who is not running for office. We do not know if any unity ticket – with a Republican VP – would be able to attract many cross-pressured Republicans and keep potential Green/Kennedy/West voters in the Democratic fold. In addition, neither of these potential candidates have been properly vetted. We do not know how good a campaigner Obama would be, or what oppo research would turn up about either of them.
Option 3: Keep Biden on the ticket, but replace Harris with a Republican (I suggested Romney). This avoids the need to persuade Biden to step aside. It would probably make it easier for cross-pressured Republicans to support Biden. Romney is old enough that he would likely not gain an advantage he could use in a future election running as a Republican (as Kinzinger would). On the other hand, some democratic voters would be turned off by Romney, or worried that Romney might become president. Some democratic voters might be offended if Harris is dropped from the ticket, although perhaps she could be persuaded to endorse a unity ticket, either for the good of the country or for careerist reasons (replacing Harris with Romney, rather than another Democrat, would not signal a lack of confidence). Biden/Romney would probably be more effective at staving off a centrist No Labels challenge than Obama/Kinzinger, but might be less effective at managing a challenge from the left.
If Biden/Harris are lagging this summer, the reason they are struggling could well influence whether a national unity ticket makes sense. Phillips O’Brien is a war strategy expert and deeply worried about the threat Trump poses to NATO and Ukraine. I share his concerns, but it is not clear that the public shares a sense of external threat that could make a national unity ticket appealing. I suspect most people are worried about problems closer to home. A unity ticket could help if people feel that Trump is an existential domestic threat, but how many people who believe that are really up for grabs?
Given where we are today, the right approach is for Biden to make his pitch to the American people. Maybe this will work. If it doesn’t, there will be hard and uncertain choices to make this summer. A unity ticket may make sense, but it is far from a panacea.