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The Democrats Who Care More About Their Careers Than Beating Trump



The Democrats Who Care More About Their Careers Than Beating Trump

It seems obvious to me that the threat of a second Donald Trump presidential term, with its authoritarian inclinations unchecked, poses a civic emergency that supersedes any other normal political consideration. Because it is so obvious to me, I had long assumed the Democratic Party would consider it equally obvious.

But it is no longer clear to me that the party’s elected officials actually share that assumption. They very much wish for Trump’s defeat. But to the extent that goal conflicts with other, more mundane imperatives, more than a few Democrats seem to view beating Trump as a secondary objective.

I want to clarify that I am not assuming that my view of how to defeat Trump is the correct one. Some Democrats truly believe President Biden is the strongest possible nominee. I find that conviction absurd, given Biden’s persistently abysmal approval ratings and faltering health, but people believe absurd things. Other Democrats join me in wanting to replace Biden and have different ideas than I do about whom to nominate or how to go about it. I can disagree with their plans without doubting their desire to defeat Trump.

What I’m describing here is not a disagreement about the best way to beat Trump. I am referring more narrowly to a category of arguments that has emerged within the party that either imply or state directly that there are more important considerations than maximizing the odds of denying Trump a second term.

Over the weekend, Jonathan Martin reported on schisms within the party over how to handle the nomination crisis. House Democrats, he reports, suspect that numerous Democratic governors are focused on maximizing their chances of winning the presidency in four years. That’s impossible if Kamala Harris is the sitting president. “The path for the ambitious governors is clearer if Harris goes down with a Biden-led ticket this year — if she is, to put it in blunt terms, Dan Quayle by 2028,” observes Martin.

Of course, congressional Democrats have incentives that also don’t align perfectly with the goal of saving American democracy. Martin reports that House Democrats “know they can’t overcome [Biden’s] drag if he’s losing their seats by 15 points rather than mid-single digits.”

Is the goal to contain the drag on the ticket? Or to maximize the odds that Trump loses? Those are not the same thing. If you’re the coach of an underdog, you’d follow different strategies if you’re trying to pull the upset than you would if you’re only trying to beat the point spread.

John Harris observes a different but related dynamic. Numerous Democratic officials privately wish Biden would leave, but don’t want to say so publicly, because their party would blame them if the replacement candidate loses. “What if efforts to push the incumbent out succeed, and Trump wins anyway?,” he asks, “Who owns that failure?”

It is true that elected officials who participate openly in an attempt to change the nominee are putting their own reputations at risk. If they hesitate, they are saying they would rather lose than take the blame for defeat.

Another story by Martin reports, “One House Democrat from a competitive district who is furious at Biden and was poised to call on [Biden] to drop out of the race decided to remain quiet after detecting little appetite for such a demand from local unions and rank-and-file voters.”

It is true that the Democratic Party’s rank and file is divided over Biden’s fitness to serve. Speaking out to change the nomination will alienate some of those voters, while saying nothing at all will bring little cost. Again, if you think keeping Biden reduces the chances of defeating Trump, but you refuse to say so because you don’t want to anger some of your own supporters, then you are explicitly deprioritizing the goal of defeating Trump.

Biden is a politician’s politician, and he understands very well the petty calculations that go into his colleagues’ minds. His emerging plan is not to convince Democrats he’s the best nominee but instead to dare them to go public with their desire to replace him and to maximize the personal and professional discomfort they face by taking this stand.

An element of this strategy is to exploit the party’s commitment to racial justice. Biden is emphasizing his continued support among Black voters. It’s a strange argument given that Biden’s anemic support among Black voters is one of the most important reasons why he is losing. In any case, while Black voters are less critical of Biden’s cognitive abilities than white voters are, they’re hardly enthusiastic. A majority of Black voters said in a recent poll that Biden is “too old to be an effective president.”

If Democrats truly believe Biden is their best chance of stopping Trump, they should stick with him. But if Biden holds on because his fellow Democrats refuse to speak up, I am going to have serious doubts as to whether they simply miscalculated or whether they decided to save their own skins at the expense of their country.

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