Joe Biden Needs a Better Argument Than This

Joe Biden

Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press Wire

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

On Monday, after a week and a half of public and private clamoring from members of his party to reconsider his reelection bid, and perhaps even step aside from the presidency, Joe Biden sent a defiant two-page letter to Democrats in the House of Representatives vowing to do nothing of the sort.

“We had a Democratic nomination process and the voters have spoken clearly and decisively,” Biden wrote.

He continued: 

I received over 14 million votes, 87% of the votes cast across the entire nominating process. I have nearly 3,900 delegates, making me the presumptive nominee of our party by a wide margin.

This was a process open to anyone who wanted to run. Only three people chose to challenge me. One fared so badly that he left the primaries to run as an independent. Another attacked me for being too old and was soundly defeated. The voters of the Democratic party have voted. They have chosen me to be the nominee of the party.

There’s a case Biden can make for himself to stay in the race, but this is not it. The fact of the matter is, as he would say, that the 2024 Democratic primary was a joke. 

As Biden acknowledges in the letter, Democratic voters didn’t really have any serious alternatives. The Democrat who “left the primaries to run as an independent” was an anti-vax crank who has spent the last week fending off allegations that he ate a dog. The other two challengers were Marianne Williamson, a wellness guru who put out a lengthy statement asking people to stop calling her “crystal lady,” and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a back-bencher whose campaign devolved into a prop for billionaire investor Bill Ackman. 

Biden wants Democrats to view that lack of serious competition as a demonstration of his mandate. It was really just political gravity. 

No president has been defeated outright a primary since primaries became the standard way of deciding nominations, and no incumbent president has faced a truly viable primary challenge since 1980, when Sen. Ted Kennedy lost to President Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan lost to President Gerald Ford four years before that. Lyndon Johnson did drop out of the 1968 presidential race a few weeks after New Hampshire (which he nonetheless won), but before that, the last time an incumbent president wanted his party’s nomination and didn’t get it was Woodrow Wilson in 1920. In that case, the president’s support collapsed after he was incapacitated by a stroke and his signature accomplishment, the Treaty of Versailles, failed in the Senate. Winning re-nomination is not a sign of strength; it is what has happened to just about everyone who wasn’t dead or dying since the 19th century.

If you think it was a real primary, I guess I would ask: When were the debates?

That’s not a minor question. Biden’s inability to effectively make his case in front of 50 million people is the reason we’re all talking about this right now. Nothing Robert Kennedy Jr., Marianne Williamson, or Dean Philips said or did could really have challenged Biden’s standing among Democratic party primary voters—only Biden’s own debate performances might have. The Democratic National Committee did not schedule any. Because its members unanimously endorsed Joe Biden. (Philips and Williamson did, separately, debate twice in January.) The same DNC also changed the primary schedule, at the request of Biden, to make the calendar as hostile as possible to any hypothetical challenger. I’m not blowing the lid off some huge conspiracy there—this was all reported at the time, and, again, party institutions generally throw their weight behind their incumbent. But that’s the point. The 2024 Democratic primary had none of the trappings of a real primary. It was so not a real primary that Florida didn’t even hold one at all!

To Biden, though, his success in the virtually uncontested primary was about something greater. “How can we stand for democracy in our nation if we ignore it in our own party?” he asked. “I cannot do that. I will not do that.” In case the implication wasn’t clear, he returned to the subject of “standing up for American democracy” later on, in the context of President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election on January 6.

More than anything else—more than his industrial policy, more than his green energy programs, and certainly more than his support for abortion rights—Biden is running on the idea that democracy is on the brink and Trump could end it all. He talks about Charlottesville, seven years after Charlottesville, because it is a symbol of the moral urgency that, he says, compelled him to run. He talks about January 6th with genuine anger. 

Comparing sincere and well-meaning pleadings from his allies to step aside to the anti-democratic faction that controls the Republican party is not just insulting—it cheapens the central message of his campaign.

No one is attempting to overturn the results of the election. No one is arguing that the 2024 Democratic primary, such as it was, can simply be reversed if Mike Pence has the courage. No one is plotting to send fake delegates to Chicago. While Biden, the most powerful man in the world, declares that “elites” are attempting to cynically drive him from power, it is, as far as I can tell, mostly a lot of people without real political power who really don’t want Trump to win. They are pleading with the man who failed the biggest political test he has faced in four years, at the only debate he has participated in four years, to reconsider his decision to accept the nomination and to elevate his own running mate.

If he stays in, the best way for Biden to get past this is to stop fighting his allies and do the thing he didn’t do before: Aggressively prosecute the case against Trump. Take a question about age and pivot to Dobbs. Take a question about sleep schedules and pivot to Dobbs. Take a question about a verbal slip and pivot to Dobbs. Talk about Dobbs with the intensity of literally any state legislature candidate in a red state. Hype up near-full employment and rising wages for good measure, too. He should save his attacks on people who would overrule the democratic process for the people who are actually threatening to.

That’s all easier said than done for someone who, in the most generous interpretation of recent stories and events, has far less stamina and is far less adept at articulating his message than the Biden of four years ago (let alone 12). But if this is the path he and his party’s leaders have chosen, the least he can do is start.