This is not going to blow over.  It’s time for Biden to step aside.

Biden has been slightly behind Trump in the polls for months.  Still, until now it was easy enough to discern a plausible path to victory.  Democratic voters disappointed with Biden would gradually return to the fold as the choice between Biden and Trump became clear.  Memories of inflation would fade.  Trump would say outrageous things.  A few decent breaks and Biden could pull it out.

The debate has changed the math.  Biden has been badly hurt by his debate performance.  A vigorous response by the President over the past week might have allayed voter concerns about his fitness for office.  As a result, the fact that he has avoided situations that would require verbal dexterity is strong evidence that he is unable to talk publicly without a teleprompter.  The press will cover this relentlessly.  Even low-information voters will get the message.  The focus on Biden will keep attention from shifting to Trump’s unfitness for office, and it seems clear that Biden will not be able to prosecute a vigorous case against Trump. 

Biden could still turn this around, and it is always possible that a new candidate would stumble, but at this point the risk of changing horses mid-stream seems worth taking.  The critical questions are how to get Biden to step aside, and how to orchestrate the selection of a new nominee in a way that excites Democrats and draws in some Republicans and Trump-curious voters.

Commentators have endorsed two possible paths forward if Biden steps aside.  First, Biden could endorse Harris, or even resign now and let her take over as President.  Second, there could be some kind of compressed primary process culminating with the convention. 

The case for going with Harris can be summarized as follows:  1) Biden should step down now because he is not competent to be president; as the incumbent Harris would grow in stature and be difficult to push aside.  2) Harris has the most name recognition of plausible candidates.  3) Failure to get behind Harris would alienate blacks and women, key democratic constituencies.  4) Harris would have access to campaign funds Biden has already raised, but other candidates would not.  Of course, these advantages are uncertain, and Harris has weaknesses as well. 

An open process with party control

Rather than rehash familiar points, I think it is useful to think about what a more open, competitive process would look like.  If an open process would divide Democrats and end up delivering a wounded candidate, the case for Harris is strengthened, and vice-versa.

The key to a successful open process is for party leaders to exert control over participation and debate structure.

Only well-qualified candidates should be allowed to debate.  This means current or former office holders, not rich business people, kooks, and publicity hounds.  Party leaders need to channel Nancy Reagan “just say no” to Mariane Williamson, RFK, and Andrew Wang and their many doppelgangers.  Weak parties that allow crank candidates onto the debate stage is one of the remediable flaws in our current electoral system.  Debates should be invitation-only.

The debates leading up to the convention should be structured to contribute to the process of selling the country on a relatively unknown Democrat and rejecting Trumpism.  This means concentrating on three tasks.  Moderators should ask candidates to explain why they think America is a great country, why they are qualified to lead, and why they believe Trump is unfit to be President.  That’s it.  Candidates should model how they would take on Trump – with optimism about America and the incisive criticism of Trump that Biden has not been able to provide.  With a bit of luck, the debates can put a positive spotlight on the Democrats and give Trump a well-earned prime-time thrashing for a few weeks. 

Unlike in a normal year, there will not be much time to tack to the center following the “primary”.  An all-out bidding war for the progressive vote would be damaging in the general election.  Democratic voters understand this, which is why they coalesced around Biden in 2020.  Presumably Biden’s delegates understand this as well.  This will help to discipline the process.

I have been critical of Harris in the past (here), but I am quite open to the possibility that she is the best candidate.  I am genuinely agnostic on how well she will do under an open process.  Harris would be the favorite, but if she faltered, I think Democratic voters would enthusiastically support an alternative.  Everyone agrees that winning is critical.  Just like Biden himself, Harris deserves a fair shot, not a coronation.  James Clyburn, the respected black congressman who endorsed Biden in the 2020 South Carolina primary seems to be moving in this direction.  He initially seemed to throw his support to Harris as Biden’s natural successor, but more recently may have signaled openness to a more competitive process (his comments are ambiguous but suggestive).

It seems to me that Biden should step down, and that if he does so an open process with party control should be on the table.