It’s not Biden’s age, although that is certainly a net minus. Indeed, many of us recall how in the 2020 campaign Biden would half walk and half trot the last 10 yards to podiums at campaign stops – having undoubtedly been counseled by his handlers to act “youthful” and “energetic.” Which he isn’t. Making that bit of theater both sad and a reminder of how elderly Biden was two years ago. He is 80 now, will be 82 in 2024, and if re-elected to one of the most demanding jobs on the planet would be 86 when his second term ends.
Neither is it Biden’s policies, which are arguably a draw. If you lean to the center it is hard to justify much of his Administration’s 1.9 trillion spend on the American Recovery Act – passed after much of America had already recovered. Or trying to use hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out adults who took out college loans to earn (and keep) more money. Plus the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could not have been more poorly done. At the same time, Biden (and his team) has done a superb job reclaiming American leadership in the continuing struggle with Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. As well as passing much needed legislation on infrastructure and, however haltingly, climate change (as part of the almost bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act).
Nor is it Biden’s personality, which is probably a net plus. In truth, it must be difficult after 50+ years in politics to be able to find yourself as a person. But Biden is not an obvious narcissist. He has empathy for other people. He seems, for the most part, to be fact based. And appears to mean well.
The biggest reason why Biden should not run in 2024 is rooted in the fact that our democracy now rests on the thinnest of margins. I know those words sound alarmist, and even overused. But don’t skip over them. They are grounded in objective facts – however unwelcome.
Those facts are a QAnon former president on a vengeance tour dressed up as a re-election campaign. A House Speaker whose hold on the gavel depends upon election deniers. And powerful Congressional committees stacked with members that, not so very long ago, would have been unemployable as entry level support staff.
To much of the world what makes America exceptional is the depth of our institutions. Unlike many countries, our civil servants do not serve at the pleasure of elected officials. Their jobs are protected by law. This independence is the plumbing which assures that drivers who speed are not charged with robbery unless they pay a bribe, that landlords can collect rent from their tenants, that last wills are enforced, that citizens can obtain passports to travel, and that all of our votes are counted. Pedestrian? Yes. The very fabric of our freedoms? Also, yes.
Millions of Americans, however, lack this understanding. They view our institutional strength as a core weakness; that is, the mythical “Deep State.” Which they mindlessly undermine, and in so doing damage the very reality that actually does make America great.
It is American Exceptionalism turned on its head. Leaving the continued functioning of Biden’s 80-year-old carotid artery as a primary buffer between order and chaos. And all of us in a place far too vulnerable to far too many things that can change the arc of history.
One of those things is foul balls. I speak here not of mistakes or policy disagreements. But rather, unforced errors. And, unfortunately, Biden is all about those.
As far back as 1987, Biden misappropriated as his own speeches of a British Labor Party leader named Neil Kinnock. And badly damaged himself politically.
Less remembered is Biden’s reaction (while Vice President) to an unsuccessful attempt by the “underwear bomber” to blow up a plane. Rather than say our vigilance foiled the plot or urge people to remain calm, Biden instead mused that he wouldn’t want his loved ones to be flying right now. I recall being surprised – stunned, really – when I heard this during a live interview, and remarking to my wife that it was time to sell our airline stocks.
More recent is the continuing debacle at the border. The unforced error here is not political gridlock. It is pretending that this serious problem actually isn’t one. That the borders are not, essentially, wide open, and that the hundreds of thousands who are crossing it in record numbers don’t exist.
And, of course, there is the already mentioned withdrawal from Afghanistan. Again, not as a matter of policy. As a matter of pretense. Hearing the administration, and the President, laud the way it was handled as we watched desperate Afghans falling to their deaths from the wheel wells of departing aircraft.
Some of you may be thinking, well, everyone has failings and, on balance, Biden’s are no worse than those of many others. You are right.
One of the hard things about living on the razor’s edge, however, is that it is driven by absolutes. Not comparisons. With no do overs. A moment is presented by history. And then it is gone.
Here is what I mean.
Trump’s now well-known mishandling of classified documents was almost certainly purposeful, as was the refusal to even acknowledge his responsibilities as a former President. The people at the DOJ and the FBI did not want to risk their careers by searching Mar-a-Lago; they were forced to do so by this caricature of a former President whose naked misconduct left them with a stark choice. Either enforce our basic laws or write them out of reality. They made the right choice.
Biden should have known that he possessed classified documents – but probably did not. And has cooperated in locating and returning them.
We do not speak here, though, of relativism. Our focus is on absolutes. Even in normal times, the DOJ always assesses “jury appeal” in deciding whether to bring otherwise provable cases. Meaning, will a jury of twelve feel that the misconduct proven at trial is serious enough to conclude that the defendant is a criminal? Otherwise stated, under the circumstances of the case, will jurors feel that justice – and not just the legal elements of the statutory violation charged- is served by a conviction?
The DOJ has, by all appearances, a very provable criminal case against Trump that is substantively distinct from, and much worse then, Biden’s document failings. Yet those very failings by Biden have driven a stake into the heart of a case against Trump. Because in our divided country, the jury is the nation. And once you divorce – as the DOJ now must – Trump’s act of wrongfully possessing classified documents from Trump’s stubborn refusal to return them, the thrust of the case becomes Trump’s personality. Those who don’t like him will say Trump was flouting the law in a way that is intolerable. They will be right. Those who do like him will say it is a vendetta. They will be wrong. Either way, indicting a former president is a grave and unprecedented act. If the DOJ does so here not enough of the nation will believe that our system of justice is working because, superficially, Biden did the same thing as Trump. And we are plainly living in superficial times.
Otherwise stated, the DOJ’s strong factual case against Trump has weak jury appeal. It is therefore very unlikely to be brought. That opportunity was taken away by Biden’s unforced error. A moment to uphold the rule of law was at hand and now is gone. Never to return.
Don’t get me wrong. I will vote for a fire hydrant over Donald Trump.
But what America needs is a different paradigm. One in which we do not repeatedly have to vote for the least-worst choice. It has been argued by others, including me, (https://www.insidernj.com/its-time-to-say-a-very-unwelcome-thing/) that any real centrist – Democrat or Republican – will win the next Presidential race going away. There are centrist Democrats out there who want to run, but they will not do so against Biden.
As president, I believe that Biden has tried to do his best (by his own lights) to serve this nation. But he commits too many unforced errors, which can only become more frequent as he moves into his eighties. Now is the time for Biden to perform what may well be one of the hardest aspects of that service. Tell us what we already know. That America needs a new generation to choose from. And then tell us that for love of country, he wants to help make that happen by not seeking re-election.