Biden and Clyburn embrace

President Joe Biden, then running for the office, in an embrace with Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) as Clyburn announces his endorsement for Biden at Trident Technical College February 26, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Who Has the Courage to Tell Joe Biden Not to Run?

Biden should bow out gracefully, and soon. It’s time to trust the Democratic rank and file to select the next presidential candidate.

In 1971, I worked as a paid staff member for Vinnie Sirabella, a charismatic labor leader who was running for mayor of New Haven, Connecticut. After personally conducting a voter-registration canvas in an area that Vinnie assured me was his stronghold, I found that he was universally disliked by his would-be supporters because he led a strike against the city’s most respected institution —Yale University. His lack of support turned out to be the case in neighborhood after neighborhood. When I reported this troubling situation to Vinnie and suggested he consider bowing out of the race gracefully, the staff became furious and ran me out of town. I learned it’s nearly impossible to bring bad news to a geared-up campaign -- the momentum to continue is just too great. Vinnie stayed in the race and received three percent of the vote.

It appears these days that the Democratic Party establishment is refusing to face up to bad news. Many, if not most, Democratic staff and operatives realize that Biden, at this point is his career, is a weak candidate. They understand that the risk of losing to Trump is very real, putting all of democracy in danger. But very few are willing to say that to Biden. And those who do, like former Obama advisor David Axelrod, are quickly denigrated.

The failure of Democratic operatives to act may be connected to Upton Sinclair’s astute observation made in 1935 made when running for Governor of California: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

In a real sense democracy is at risk in two ways.

Nevertheless, multiple polls show that somewhere between 50 to 70% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters don’t want Biden to run. Their only choices so far, however, in the opening primary in South Carolina on February 3, 2024, are little-known Representative Dean Phillips, of Minnesota, and self-help guru Marianne Williamson.

Why are the Democratic leaders not listening to their base? Isn’t this what democracy is supposed to be about? And where are all the other more established contenders? Why haven’t popular Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom (CA), Gretchen Whitmer (MI), J.B Pritzker (IL) or Phil Murphy (NJ) thrown their hats in the ring? And what about Ohio’s Senator Sharrod Brown?

No one is jumping in because that’s not how this game is played. As sitting president, Biden, and Biden alone, gets to make the decision, and he has chosen to run. The rest of the Democratic establishment is obliged to follow. Anyone who doesn’t will see their access to presidential power greatly reduced or eliminated, which raises serious questions about the role of grass-roots democracy within the Democratic Party.

The Democratic establishment, like the rank-and-file, certainly knows that Biden is too old, not just in years but in the way he moves and acts. His staff keeps him away from unscripted press events for fear he will struggle with his language. Instead, we hear rationalizations galore about how this really doesn’t matter. Here are more than a few:

  • Polling data now is irrelevant. Election Day 2024, is the only poll that matters. Recent elections show that the Democrats are strong.
  • Trump is almost as old and is even more unpopular than Biden.
  • Criticizing Biden in any way would be helping Trump.
  • As the recent 2023 election results prove, abortion will make people come around to Biden at election time.
  • Any serious primary challenges will only weaken the Democrats and help Trump get re-elected. (See Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.)
  • Even if Biden were challenged in the primaries, he would be the best candidate and would win anyway. So why waste resources on primary fights?
  • The Biden economy really is doing well – inflation is coming down and unemployment is miniscule. All that really is needed is more messaging to help the public realize that.
  • It’s really too late for new candidates to enter the race, so it does no good to talk about Biden not running again.
  • Biden may not be popular in polls, but when there is a real choice on the ballot, Biden or Trump, the base will rally around Biden.
  • Biden is the most liberal, pro-labor candidate since Roosevelt. Progressives must support him.
  • Biden has done more than any politician to combat climate change. Environmentalists must support him.
  • He won the popular vote last time by more than 7 million votes. He has plenty of room for error in 2024.
  • Another Democratic candidate might do even worse.

Or as John Nichols put it in The Nation, “The current obsession with polls revolves around two basic premises: Biden is old and a lot of voters would prefer a younger alternative. Fair enough, but that doesn’t have much meaning if Biden is committed to running—and he is—along with the almost equally old and more bedraggled Trump.”

Multiple polls show that somewhere between 50 to 70% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters don’t want Biden to run.

In a real sense democracy is at risk in two ways. First, Trump is a clear and present danger if re-elected. But also, Democratic Party democracy, to restate Nichols, “doesn’t have much meaning if Biden is committed to running…”

Biden should bow out gracefully, and soon. It’s time to trust the Democratic rank and file to select the next presidential candidate. By refusing to do so, the Democratic establishment and its many progressive allies are playing with fire. They are not listening to their voters, and they are running the very real risk that a substantial portion of those who voted for Biden last time around will either sit home or cast their votes for a third-, fourth- or fifth-party candidate. The willful disregard of grass roots democracy within the Democratic Party could very well lead to the demolishment of democratic norms under a vengeful President Trump.

This is no time for collective cowardice. It is time for Democratic Party leaders to say out loud what they are saying to themselves: “Joe, for the sake of democracy, please don’t run!”

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