Podcast / Start Making Sense / Jul 3, 2024

What Is to Be Done About Joe Biden?

On this episode of  Start Making Sense, Marc Cooper and Harold Meyerson argue the case for a new candidate and review the risks.

The Nation Podcasts
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What is to be done about Joe Biden? w/Marc Cooper and Harold Meyerson | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Marc Cooper argues that the narrative for Joe Biden’s presidency has now been set – he’s “too old.” And the Supreme Court decision on immunity for Trump makes it essential that he be defeated. Kamala Harris would be the choice of the Party establishment, if he agreed to step aside; at the convention, she might be nominated by acclamation, without a vote among alternative choices.

Also: Harold Meyerson analyzes what it would take to get Biden to decline the nomination: polls about the opinion of the Democratic rank-and-file; the views of Democratic senators and House members– those in danger of losing their seats and political careers; and Biden’s own circle–the crucial factor for them will be their assessment of Biden’s legacy.

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President Joe Biden participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

President Joe Biden participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Marc Cooper argues that the narrative for Joe Biden’s campaign has now been set: he’s “too old.” And the Supreme Court decision on immunity for Trump makes it essential that he be defeated. Kamala Harris would be the choice of the party establishment, if Biden agreed to step aside; at the convention, she might be nominated by acclamation, without a vote among alternative choices.

Also on this episode: Harold Meyerson on what it would take to get Biden to decline the nomination: polls about the opinion of the Democratic rank-and-file; the views of Democratic senators and House members–those in danger of losing their seats and political careers—and Biden’s own circle, for whom the crucial factor will be their assessment of his legacy.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Politics After the Assassination Attempt | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Will the assassination attempt change Trump’s campaign—make it more a call for unity and less a demand for retribution? Harold Meyerson reports on the evidence from the Republican National Convention.

Also: The Nation’s Joan Walsh has been following Kamala Harris for months, as she campaigns for Biden — but also provides evidence of her own potential as a presidential candidate.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Today: What is to be done – about Joe Biden? Later in the show, Harold Meyerson says “Biden Must Go.” But first, comment from Marc Cooper.  That’s come up, in a minute.


Where we stand today with Joe Biden – despite his disastrous performance in that debate with Trump last Thursday, despite calls from commentators for him to step aside, and despite polling showing that most voters think he should not run, Biden is insisting that he’s staying in the race. And all of the most important Democrats, at least as of today, are supporting him as the candidate: the Obamas, the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi. There’s no obvious replacement candidate. Kamala Harris would be next in line. It is crucial that we defeat Trump on November 5th, so what is to be done?

For comment we turn to Marc Cooper. He’s a journalist who’s worked for everybody from The Nation, to The LA Times and The Guardian, from The Progressive to Harper’s and The New Yorker, to The LA Weekly and The Village Voice. He’s produced and reported TV and radio documentaries for PBS Frontline, CBS, Pacifica, BBC, others.  He’s published three nonfiction books including Pinochet and Me, a LA Times bestseller. And for 15 years he taught journalism at the USC Annenberg School. He’s also known for his youthful work as translator for Salvador Allende, and for his escape from Chile eight days after the 1973 coup under UN protection. We talked about it here 50 years later. His terrific weekly column, The Coop Scoop, appears at Substack. Marc Cooper, welcome back.

Marc Cooper: Thank you, Jon, for such a nice introduction.

JW: Where do you stand today on the big question, “Should he stay, or should he go?”

MC: I stand in the middle of the road, hoping that a Greyhound bus comes barreling down and runs me over. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision. It’s easy to sit on the sideline and make it either way. I think it’s a terribly difficult decision to make. And we could talk about the fairness or unfairness of it, the reality versus perception. But the truth of the matter is that politics is only about perception, and the perception was as bad as it could be.
You could make arguments as to why it wasn’t so bad. And those arguments are, for example, that millions of people did not see this, though 50 million people did, that’s a lot of people, and tens of millions more will see parts of it.

JW: The worst parts.

MC: The worst parts. They will hear the commentary, which looks at the worst parts. It’s true that by November maybe this is one of six incidents on both sides that have great significance but was not determinative. That’s possible. But I think what that argument doesn’t understand or what that omits is that there are overarching framing narratives that get attached to every election. And by default, the incumbent president running for reelection always faces, it’s conventional wisdom but it’s true, faces essentially a plebiscite, a referendum. You know, do we want to keep this guy after four years or not?

The problem with the denialist argument, the problem with “this will all be forgotten and go away,” is that the evening of the debate might go away, that’s true. But the narrative has been set. That’s not going to go away in a day, or a week, or in 10 days. The narrative has now got Joe Biden on the defensive. The referendum is now on him as he should have avoided or should have been avoided, because the person he’s running against is so godawful and represents such a direct threat to our democratic system enhanced by this week’s unbelievably radical ruling by the Supreme Court essentially giving him absolute immunity.

We know that this case will not come to court this year and it may never come to trial. But even if he’s not elected it may not come to trial because there may not be enough left for Jack Smith to prosecute. Coming back to Biden, the point being that the stakes of this election have now been greatly escalated. Now, I will say what I’m sure you’re thinking and what a lot of your listeners are thinking, which is that there’s a really gross, ironic injustice here.
That this convicted criminal who is also visibly an ignoramus and an imbecile, who is open in his threats of retribution, et cetera, he’s the one who gets to stay. And Joe Biden, whatever one thinks of him politically, and I have mixed feelings, but I think we can say that Joe Biden certainly comes off as a well-meaning, decent person regardless of what his politics may or may not be, he seems like a decent guy, that he has to resign and quit the race really is extremely difficult to swallow.

JW: The big question is, “Is there an alternative to Joe Biden who could do better than he could do in defeating Donald Trump?” That’s the question that Democrats have to be able to answer.

MC: Well, as I said, if you know the answer to that, write it on the back of a $20 bill and mail it to me. I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows. What I do know is this: I do know that Joe Biden’s chances of winning the election are greatly diminished. I think that there are alternatives. The question is the process, the procedure, and Joe Biden’s disposition.

JW: And so what has to happen is that Biden has to release his delegates in order for another candidate to be selected. Let’s just say that in the next few weeks as more and more polls come in they are so bad that they convince Obama, and the Clintons, and Nancy Pelosi, and the power brokers, and the money people, that Biden really has to go, and Biden agrees to do this, and then we have an open convention August 19th to 22nd.
The obvious successor is Kamala Harris. And the polls show right now she has by far the most support among Democrats to be the successor, more than twice as much as the person who’s in second place. Let me get out the poll just conducted by Data for Progress, a very good polling company. Kamala Harris is the choice of 39% to succeed Biden as the candidate if he withdraws. Gavin Newsom 18%, and everybody else has under 10%. Gretchen Whitmer has only 6%. That’s right now. What do you make of this landscape?

MC: Well, first of all there’s two or three different ways that this transfer of power could take place. Biden could simply announce that he’s not running again, could finish his term and not endorse anybody, and the convention will be open. And there would probably be a move – I would imagine if there’s an open convention that the powers that be, that run the convention and run the party, I think would initially make a move to proclaim Kamala Harris candidate by proclamation and not even have a vote. Just have a voice vote, the ayes have it whether they do or they don’t. She is definitely the candidate of the party, of the establishment. I think there are better candidates.

JW: Who do you think are better candidates?

MC: Actually, I think an impossible ticket because it would require Harris to remain as vice president, but I think a Whitmer-Harris ticket that emphasized reproductive rights and abortion, and really hit that very hard and was very upbeat. And Whitmer’s a very upbeat politician. Given the Supreme Court decision today, which without any hyperbole, paves the way for dictatorship, it’s a life and death issue as to whether the Democrats can stop Donald Trump.
And I think that Joe Biden is an extraordinarily weak candidate. Biden had a really good first year, year and a half, and then ran into Manchin, Sinema, and his own old worst instincts. So I think that while it is painful, and it seems unfair, and it seems humiliating to have to do this to cut off Trump, I think we need a better candidate or we risk the election of Donald Trump, which we risked with Joe Biden as well.

JW: The poll that we have right now, the one conducted right after the debate, a highly rated poll, this is the day after, flash poll, Biden would lose to Trump 45 to 48. Kamala Harris would lose to Trump by exactly the same, 45 to 48. And the other potential candidates would do a little worse but not a whole lot worse because about 44% of people will vote for any Democrat, and we need more than 44%. Of course, that’s in the shadow of the debate. A lot of things are going to happen between now and August 19th.

MC: I think these things are impossible to predict, right? I mean, we have no idea what’s going to happen over the next four months in terms of the health of both of these candidates. We don’t know what effect the sentencing of Donald Trump is going to have on Donald Trump. As to Harris, I think this is really unknown territory. I mean, the conventional wisdom is that she’s a clunker.

JW: She did run for president once before in 2016. Remember how many delegates she won that year? Zero. She withdrew from the Iowa caucuses after getting the results of the California poll which showed that she was going to lose her own state. So that’s not a promising start as a presidential candidate.

MC: I’m speaking on personal terms only. Being a Californian and having watched her run a couple of times up close and personal, I’ve never thought she was a very good candidate. And I didn’t think she was a very good public official either. She was okay but nothing to write home about. I think that right now the Democratic electorate is bewildered, and depressed, and fearful.
My theory would be that the naming of her as the candidate and the fact that Democrats are willing to put her up, and that she was a younger, fresher face, even to those who respond negatively to some of her baggage, might feel a little bit better about the whole prospect thinking, “Well Jesus, at least maybe now we’ve got a chance.” She’s not my favorite. But of course, Biden wasn’t most people’s favorite either, right?

JW: Yeah.

MC: So maybe this is the practical candidate that will do the job even though I’m not that crazy about her.

JW: Do you think America is ready to elect a Black woman, any Black woman, as President?

MC: Well, there’s many Americas out there that I’m aware of. Clearly there’s a big part of America that is not and would say so in private. There’s another part of America that would adamantly say the opposite in public but in private would say the opposite of what they were saying in public. And I think there’s also a large percentage of Americans that wouldn’t have any problem with a Black woman as president. I don’t know. In strict political terms, it’s a deficit.

I mean, even the election of Barack Obama was sort of a miracle aided by the oligarchic presence of Mitt Romney. And Obama was a fantastic candidate. Harris, she has a lot of trouble as a candidate. Now, as we’ve seen in America the role of presidential candidate is basically a television role. You perform in front of the TV camera for 90 minutes which has nothing to do with the job itself. So it’s a crap shoot. I mean, Kamala Harris is an experienced politician and she’s been around.

JW: And she’s been working very hard for the last year for the campaign.

MC: Yes, we’ve seen a little bit more of her than we have in the past. I don’t know. All I know is what I see. And what I see is that Joe Biden is a very weak candidate at the moment and risks a thumping by a man who should be nowhere near the White House ever.

JW: Marc, any closing thoughts?

MC: Yeah, I think this week has been a showcase of the dysfunction of the system, of every aspect of the system. At the debate we saw the radical dysfunction of the Republican Party and its candidate. That party is no longer a political party. It’s an extremist movement that has representation in Congress and might actually take a majority in Congress. We saw their dysfunction.

We saw the dysfunction of the Democrats in their inability to produce an attractive candidate. While Biden’s missteps might have been more exaggerated than people, even his closest advisors maybe might have expected this could not have been a surprise to the people closest to him. So there’s been some deception over the past couple of years and it’s come back to bite them very big.
We also saw the dysfunction of the media. I thought the debate format was a nightmare. Why even bother to have two journalists there if they’re not allowed to ask the hard follow-up questions? They don’t have to fact-check everything. But when fundamental big lies are announced on the network’s platform, doesn’t the network journalists have the responsibility to tell the American people that babies cannot be aborted after birth, for example?

JW: I’m shaking my head here, no.

MC: I have nothing but scorn for CNN, and there was no reason to have the two pseudo- journalists there. They could have used cue cards or bunny rabbits to hold up the questions because the journalists had no role. In fact, they could have used a computer monitor. Why even have human beings there? And then fourth, the rulings of the Supreme Court over the last week, last week and this week, are historic. And the ruling on Monday morning on immunity will be in the same category historically as the Dred Scott ruling. This is an open, engraved, embossed, gold-lettered invitation to dictatorship.

And what the Supreme Court did, what it has done with this case, it has done consciously, deliberately, and with great zeal. And that is to make sure that Donald Trump does not go to trial. And they have accomplished their goal. It is a very, very sad day not only because Trump will not meet the justice that he deserves, but the door has now been opened by the Supreme Court for any future administration, including a very possible Trump Administration that would take office six months from now, to establish a dictatorial regime.

JW: Marc Cooper. You can read his terrific political column, The Coop Scoop, at Substack. Marc, thanks for talking with us today.

MC: Sieg heil!

Jon Wiener: We also asked Harold Meyerson, what is to be done – about Joe Biden? Harold, of course, is editor at large of The American Prospect. Harold, welcome back.

Harold Meyerson: Always good to be here, Jon.

JW: Back on December 14th on this podcast, you said the Democrats were “sleepwalking towards a Trump victory by refusing to replace Biden with another candidate.” But then his performance at the State of the Union address in March made it seem like maybe he was a strong and effective candidate. Now, of course, we’ve seen him debating Trump. Would you say the Democrats are still sleepwalking toward a Trump victory?

HM: Well, I would say that, immediately following the debate, that changed, and it’s taken a while for the private sentiments of Democrats in the immediate aftermath of the debate to become publicly voiced. Now, of course, among rank and file Democrats, it’s been publicly voiced since about three minutes into the debate.
I should add, I started hearing from old friends and old girlfriends and what have you, they were texting me five minutes into the debate, some of them saying, “Well, you were right last December,” and others saying, “Oh my God, I can’t watch this anymore. I’ve got to turn it off.” So that was, I think, pretty much the visceral reaction of everyone.

But it’s taken Democratic officials a little while to catch their breath, look around. Note that on Monday the Supreme Court essentially gave Trump – not just made it clear that he won’t face trial before the election, but also made clear that he could run amok as president and they certainly wouldn’t do anything about it.

JW: I believe the word you’re looking for is “unqualified immunity.”

HM: Yes, yes. That is exactly what Trump got, which raises the stakes even more. And so on Tuesday, the dam began to break and significant Democrats began to voice, in the case of the first Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a heartfelt request that Biden step down.

JW: Well, the only question that really matters is whether Biden is right, that he is the only Democrat who can beat Trump. And of course, that’s an empirical question. The polls will help us think about that. The latest poll on Tuesday says the debate helped Trump, but not a lot. This is USA Today, pretty good poll, had the candidates in their previous poll a couple months ago tied at 37 to 37. After the debate, they have Trump ahead 41 to 38. It’s a little. It’s not a lot.

It’s within that poll’s margin of error. Probably it would take a much bigger shift to move the party establishment to replace him. And of course, everybody’s asking whether there’s any data that suggests another candidate would do better against Trump. We have a pretty good poll from Data for Progress that was taken right after the debate. If Biden were to step down, Kamala Harris is by far the current favorite among Democrats.
39% would support Kamala, 18% Gavin Newsom, everybody else under 10. And in the head-to-head matchups in that Data for Progress poll, there’s basically no difference among the candidates opposing Trump. Biden and Harris got the same. They’d lose 45 to 48. Everybody else got 44 or 43. Of course, none of them have campaigned yet. What do you make of the polling data we have right now?

HM: Nothing. It’s meaningless. Look, people like Gretchen Whitmer or the Governor of Kentucky Andy Beshear or the Governor of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro – aren’t known on the national stage yet. But I suspect any one of them who is, I mean, they’re all about three decades younger than Joe Biden, would be welcomed if they made a reasonable presentation of themselves before a national audience.
None of them had really been afforded that opportunity yet in the case of there being an open convention where the delegates are free to choose. I think also an open convention would really rivet the public’s attention. I mean, the networks have been saying for decades that, well, look, conventions are mere coronations and we’re going to cut back coverage. When I was a kid, it was wall to wall consistent coverage with the conventions.

Now it’s pretty limited to one hour on the Thursday night of the acceptance speech by the networks. A real convention I think would be welcomed and a candidate who is not superannuated would be welcomed by not just Democrats, but I think a lot of voters other than the MAGA hardcore across the board.

JW: The obvious candidate to replace him is Kamala Harris, the vice president. You have suggested several other names. Wouldn’t passing over Kamala Harris bring a disastrous split to the Democrats with the Black voter, Black base being outraged and withdrawing?

HM: Well, that’s not clear. Would it be problematic? Yes. Would it be problematic to the extent of guaranteeing a Trump victory? We don’t know that. This is one of the things I think the Democratic delegates should be free to decide. I think that there are two problems with Kamala Harris. One is that she ran a really awful campaign, more or less failing to define herself and certainly failing to rally anything resembling a Black base of support when she ran in 2019 and early 2020.

And then she dropped out. Actually, she didn’t make it into 2020. She dropped out when it was still 2019. So that is not exactly a recommendation. And the Biden campaign has pretty much kept her under wraps or assigned her to thankless tasks like defending the immigration situation. So that has not exactly helped her in her years as vice president. I think she’s a more-or-less able politician, but whether she is the most likely to defeat Trump among the various possibles is not at all clear.

JW: What would it take right now before the convention to persuade Biden to step down?

HM: It would take the groundswell of Democratic rank and file sentiment that he step down to expand to Democratic officials, which it did on Tuesday afternoon with the first member of Congress, an old hand, Lloyd Doggett, to call for that. Democratic governors are supposed to meet with Trump later this week. And it would take the beginnings of the groundswell reaching the superstructure or whatever are –

JW: The establishment. The establishment.

HM: The groundswell reaching the establishment. Now, Nancy Pelosi already said that it’s a legitimate question to ask whether Biden had a bad night or whether this is actually a reflection of his condition. That’s not exactly a vote of support per se from the person who may be on the whole a second-best known Democrat and the most respected Democrat in the Democratic Party.

JW: So we would need Democratic electeds, the candidates who are facing reelection, to step up. Of course, their careers depend on this election, and they have a direct stake in party leader success. Certainly if I were a candidate and the leader of my party was unable to articulate anything the way Biden failed during the debate, I would want a different candidate. So far, as you’ve said, only one incumbent Democrat up for reelection has said he should step down. Your view is he’s probably just the first.

HM: And my view is also that he probably didn’t do this alone. There were reasons why Lloyd Doggett should go first. He’s not known as a marginal Democratic figure. He’s not a newcomer. He’s been in Congress for 30 years, and he could say, as no other Democrat could say, “I represent the congressional district, formerly represented by Lyndon Johnson, who made a similar painful choice to withdraw in 1968.”

I mean, the fact that I think a politician with those kinds of bona fides went first is probably not an accident. Probably a lot of Democrats wanted someone with that kind of background to go first before they then opted to opt in. So we will see if that happens.

JW: Just before we began taping here, you remarked that the Black politician who did the most to make Biden president has also said something significant.

HM: Well, Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina veteran congressman and former number three in the Democratic Party House hierarchy, house leadership, said all of a sudden that, “Well, if Biden steps down, I’m backing Kamala Harris.” And if you’re getting this from Jim Clyburn, to whom Biden attributes his nomination, because Clyburn he views as having enabled him to sweep the South Carolina primary just before COVID descended.

JW: And just after he came in fourth in New Hampshire.

HM: New Hampshire, yes. That is not really a de facto vote of confidence either, just like Nancy Pelosi’s was not a de facto vote of confidence.

JW: And then there’s the legendary past leaders of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. How important is it that they get on board the Biden-must-go train?

HM: I don’t know that it’s that important. I don’t think any of them really personify where the party is at right now. And I think that they probably feel that Biden would feel particularly offended if his predecessor presidents weighed in. And there’s a delicate dance going on, which is that if you make Biden too defensive, what is he going to do? And so that’s part of people’s calculation. But I would have to say we’re talking on Tuesday, and this has been a very bad day for him.

And in a sense yesterday, Monday, was a very bad day for him because as Lloyd Doggett mentioned in his statement, the Supreme Court has just allowed Donald Trump to do anything he damn well pleases and have a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card, which means the stakes of the election, which were already immensely high, have become stratospherically high. Under those conditions, the Democrat’s choice of nominee becomes even more important.

JW: So we’ve been talking about what it would take to get Biden to withdraw before the convention. Plan B is Biden won’t withdraw and goes to the convention. Are there ways he can be challenged at the convention?

HM: That is a damn good question because we’re moving here onto previously unexplored ground. I think certainly the convention is certainly free to pass a resolution asking him to step down. And if that were to pass with a sizable majority, I just don’t think he could plausibly hang on to the nomination.

Many of those delegates are bound by party rules and some by state law to vote for the winner of their state’s presidential primary, who in every case was Joe Biden, but I think there are enough ways that the convention delegates if this is what they feel they need to do to stop him from being nominated, there are ways that that can de facto in any event be done.

JW: The party rules say that delegates to the convention “shall in all good conscience vote for the person they were elected to represent.” That’s a little bit different from saying they must vote for the person.

HM: It is. I think Elaine Kamarck, who is a scholar of such matters, has made that point. In all good conscience, we cannot give the country over to Donald Trump. And if that’s what their conscience prompts them to do, then yes, they’re free to do what they want.

JW: So we don’t have to decide this week, July 4th weekend. We have some more time to see what the polls say, what the candidates say. What I wonder is how much time do you think we have?

HM: Well, it’s not just a question of time, it’s a question of shifting public sentiment. So it’s kind of indeterminate. But obviously if the Democrats are going to have an open convention, it would be better if this happens sooner. And the various potential replacements for Biden are given a real chance on the national stage to make themselves known and to make what they stand for known and therefore to inform the delegate selection. So there’s no hard deadline, but it would behoove the party if this would happen sooner rather than later.

JW: Should Biden stay, or should he go? There are giant risks either way, and the stakes are immeasurably higher now that the Supreme Court has granted Trump unqualified immunity for official acts. Harold Meyerson, you can read him at prospect.org. Thank you, Harold. We need you.

HM: We need more than me, but it’s good to be here.

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Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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