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Democrats need to face the unavoidable truth about Biden

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Thursday ought to have been a good day for Joe Biden. America’s Supreme Court heard arguments that Donald Trump was unfit to hold office because he fuelled an insurrection; the former Fox anchor Tucker Carlson released an interview with Vladimir Putin making the case better than anyone else could that Trumpians adulate Russia’s autocrat; and news broke that the Biden special counsel Robert Hur would not charge him for having retained classified documents.

Then the White House saw Hur’s Semtex-packed wording. Biden’s “diminished faculties and faulty memory” meant that no jury would convict him, Hur wrote. The US president was a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory”, who could not even recall which year his son, Beau, had died. 

News of this legal counsel’s version of a drive-by shooting instantly turned Thursday into the worst day of Biden’s presidency. His hurriedly scheduled appearance to rebut Hur’s language suggested there will be more bad days in store. Biden’s reference to Egypt’s leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as “president of Mexico” did not help his case. His four words, “my memory is fine”, may not equate to Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” but they could enter US political lore just the same. A measure of the climb facing Biden is that he broke news by saying that Israel’s actions in Gaza were “over the top”. But the assembled reporters had only one thing on their mind — Biden’s declining powers. 

It is all very well pointing out that Trump’s recall also appears to be just as faulty. Trump recently confused the former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi with his Republican opponent Nikki Haley. He also described Hungary’s President Viktor Orbán as “the leader of Turkey”. It is also more than reasonable to underline that Biden has not been charged over the classified documents, while Trump faces 40 criminal charges on the same issue and another 51 alleged felonies on, among other things, trying to overturn a democratic election.

Nor is it wrong to point out that Hur was a Trump-appointed US attorney with an axe to grind. Having failed to unearth sufficient legal evidence to try Biden, Hur scattered some political ammunition as a gratuity. All of these rejoinders are true. Yet the unavoidable truth is that most US voters, including a majority of Democrats, see Biden as too old to run again. Trump actually leads Biden by double digits on which of the two is more competent to govern. In electoral terms, Biden’s age will be front and centre. It is not going to get any better. 

It has been clear for a long time that whichever of the Democrats or the Republicans drops their candidate would have a far better chance of winning in November. Trump owns the Republican party so his exit can be ruled out. Were Biden to do so, on the other hand, there would be a collective sigh of Democratic relief. In public, Democrats have sustained tight-lipped support for Biden’s candidacy. In private, they say things like “it’s time to take the car keys from grandpa”. In addition to Biden’s deeply-held conviction that only he can beat Trump, the main argument against Biden pulling out is based on history. The most salient example of a sitting president declining to run for a second term was Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1968. His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, went on to lose the presidential election to Nixon. 

But that citation raises more questions than it answers. LBJ pulled out on March 31 1968. He did his best to undermine his vice-president’s candidacy by refusing to call a bombing halt of North Vietnam. This all but guaranteed that a conflicted Humphrey, who still felt loyal to LBJ but badly needed to distance himself from the Vietnam war, would face a lethally divided convention in Chicago. That riot-besieged gathering did not disappoint. Biden, on the other hand, is not saddled by a faraway war that is taking thousands of young American lives. The US economy is humming along. The only real problem is his age. If Biden addressed the nation today with his prayerful decision not to run again, that would give his party six months to find a nominee before August. As it happens, the 2024 convention is also in Chicago.   

The other case against Biden’s retirement is that his vice-president, Kamala Harris, is even less popular than he is. That would put Biden in a dilemma. If he endorsed her, he could be handing the election to Trump. If he did not endorse Harris, who is both the first woman and non-white person ever to become vice-president, he could divide the Democratic base. Instead of being split over a bloody war, Chicago this time could be racked by identity battles.

The choice is unenviable. Those close to Biden say that the only person who could persuade him to quit is the first lady, Jill Biden. She continually tries to limit her husband’s public exposure. But scarcity is not a strategy. In 2020, Biden was able to campaign on Zoom because of the pandemic. This time round he will need to get out there. Literally no one else can make the case that Biden is not too old other than Biden himself.

Mark Twain is said to have quipped: “Age is mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Unfortunately for Biden, US voters do seem to mind. 

edward.luce@ft.com

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