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Frustration versus Anger: Why Joe Biden Must Run Despite the Polling

Max Stearns

Ahead of Biden’s planned announcement to run for reelection, recent polling suggests one thing: neither of major party’s likely nominee, Donald Trump for the GOP and Joe Biden for the Democrats, should be running for President.

Biden would start his second term at 82; Trump at 78. A recent Yahoo!News Poll showed that 65% of American think Biden too old for a second term, with 17% undecided, and 18% claiming he’s not too old. (The linked title says 68%, but the displayed data show 65%). This includes 48% of Democrats who agree Biden is too old, 34% who claim he isn’t, and 18% undecided). By contrast, the same poll shows 45% of Americans think Trump too old, with 20% undecided, and 35% claiming he’s not too old.

Biden is apparently planning to announce his candidacy tomorrow, on the four-year anniversary of his last successful announcement. Donald Trump, despite his indictment—or, as likely, having anticipated it—already has.

In a well-functioning democracy, we would not face the prospect of the two major parties increasingly likely to nominate candidates in their late 70s or early 80s, despite the growing contrary sentiment of voters hoping for younger leadership. But we don’t have a well-functioning democracy. We have a democracy in crisis. In my forthcoming book, Parliamentary America: The Least Radical Means of Radically Repairing Our Broken Democracy (JHU Press 2024), I’ll offer my vision of what went wrong and how to fix it. But for now, we’re stuck with the system we have, and we must soberly assess the dire situation we face.

The ultimate question facing Democrats isn’t whether they like Joe Biden, whether he’s too old, whether there’s a better candidate, or even whether of all the candidates they might imagine, he’s necessarily best poised to take on Donald Trump. The last of these questions certainly matters, but even that misframes the larger stakes. The ultimate question is whether the Democratic party can afford the possibly devasting divisiveness of a competitive primary season in the run up to an election that increasingly centers on Donald Trump.

What Democrats face if Biden runs, almost certainty without a primary, is frustration. What Democrats face if Biden declines to run, inviting a competitive primary season, is intense anger among the warring Democratic factions that include progressives, centrists, and even occasional GOP defectors.

Republican have long held a structural advantage over Democrats. For decades this involved a set of core principles around which Republicans tended to coalesce—small government, free markets, fiscal soundness, traditional values, local policy making, etc. Trump upended much of this with his nationalistic and populist campaign and administration. I won’t bother here with a list of particulars. He will do anything and everything to gain and hold power, including fomenting a violent attempted insurrection and catering to anyone who will support him. We all know this.

Democrats, by contrast, are a loose coalition of disparate groups fighting for priority as to what should be top of mind. The concerns are real, but they compete for money; attention; and other scarce resources, especially time. A partial list includes: criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, racial justice, climate change, working conditions (minimum wage, non-competes), LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, and more. To be sure, Democrats writ large are generally sympathetic to the priorities others hold, even if not their own core priority. As in business ventures, when all goes well, it’s conceivable to imagine everyone gets what they want. But when the vice of competition intensifies, people appreciate that tradeoffs are inevitable. Everyone’s highest priorities can’t occupy the President’s top of mind.

This isn’t just true of policy priorities; it’s especially true in choosing among candidates. Imagine the tensions that will inevitably arise over a race includes Kamala Harris (the first African American woman who would head a national ticket), Pete Buttigieg (the first open gay man who would head a national ticket); Elizabeth Warren (a committed progressive who eyes the presidency), Amy Klobuchar (a moderate who does as well); among others. Of course, there’s also Bernie Sanders, who at 81, is older than Biden and Trump. A competitive primary will sow the seeds of anger; whoever wins will struggle to reassemble the admittedly imperfect coalition that Biden already has.

Primary contests are plurality contests. To win, a candidate must get more votes than any other candidate, sometimes despite a majority in the party wishing for someone else. The resulting anger often feeds third-party candidacies, often with dire consequences nationally, and also harming the very interests of those who support such candidates.

Whether or not he ultimately defeats Disney World, Ron DeSantis isn’t likely to defeat Trump. No GOP contender seems poised to do so. So Democrats must face this simple fact: the problematic nature of the GOP primary is as much the Democrat’s problem as the Republican’s. At least for now, we’re stuck with the structures we have.

If Biden runs, many Democrats will be frustrated. And rightly so. They won’t have had the opportunity to pass the torch to a new generation. And yes, Joe Biden shows signs of aging. But Biden’s a loyal man. He’ll almost certainly keep Kamala Harris. She could still be the first African American woman President. And everyone knows it. Pete Buttigieg is young, and enormously talented. He’ll play a major role in a second Biden administration, and perhaps first Harris Administration. Some day he might be President. Elizabeth Warren is very smart and capable. She’ll wait another round, and meanwhile push her base hard to become Biden’s as well. Amy Klobuchar certainly work hard to help Biden defeat Trump.

The number one goal for Democrats is to hold the badly fraying United States together through another presidential election and term. The risk of a second Trump presidency is too great to bear.

Frustration stinks. Except when the alternative is self-defeating anger.

I welcome your comments.

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