Should Biden Step Aside?
Plus: Trump sneers at NATO in South Carolina and serious Republicans keep retiring from the House.
So. On the 215th birthday of the greatest American, Abraham Lincoln, we ask:
Where do we stand?
Trump’s awful, Biden’s old, and democracy’s on the ropes.
What do we do?
To quote Marshal Foch during the first battle of the Marne: “My center is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.”
We’ll do our share of attacking here at Morning Shots. But we’ll also try to do our share of enlightening, entertaining, commenting, criticizing, and congratulating. And I trust that, following in the footsteps of our estimable predecessor, Charlie Sykes, we’ll do that in good spirit.
Who’s “we”? Andrew Egger—an original Bulwarker now lured back after doing excellent work at The Dispatch—and me. He’s young and energetic, I’m older and have been around, and together we’ll try to keep (reasonably) calm and carry on.
Welcome to the new Morning Shots. Subscribe today for more from Bill Kristol and Andrew Egger. Morning Shots will remain free but to get the full Bulwark experience upgrade now and get the next 30 days for FREE
So Happy Monday. Let’s get to it.
Trust me: I’d prefer to get to it by denouncing Trump or by lambasting Republicans. But today I feel an obligation instead to grasp an unpleasant nettle: Joe Biden’s age.
President Biden is old. He seems frail. He’s running for another four-year term.
Let’s be honest: It’s not obvious he’s up to that.
This is a serious problem. It’s a problem because the American public doesn’t think Biden should be running for a second term. Partly as a result of that judgment, Biden now trails in the race for presidency. It’s a particularly urgent problem when the alternative is Donald J. Trump, whose second term could do incalculable damage to this country.
This is not a problem that can be dealt with by happy talk or by exhortations to circle the wagons.
It’s come to the fore again with the report from Special Counsel Robert Hur, who paired his judgment that Biden should not be charged for unlawful retention of classified documents with damaging remarks about the state of Biden’s memory. But it has come to the fore even more so because of President Biden’s response, a rare prime time press conference that was . . . not reassuring.
I’ve believed for more than a year that President Biden should have chosen not to run for reelection. I’ve believed a vigorous primary competition would have presented risks, but also showcased an impressive next generation of Democrats. I’ve believed such a decision by Biden would produce a strong nominee, one who would enable voters in 2024 to feel they were voting not just against Trump, but for generational change.
I still believe this. And the fact is that such a nominee could still emerge.
All it takes is for President Biden to choose not to run again.
Speaking here for myself (and I have good friends and colleagues who disagree): I still think Joe Biden should make this choice.
Isn’t it too late?
It would have been easier if Biden had stepped aside earlier. But a free and fair race for the nomination can still happen. Yes, most states’ primary filing deadlines have now passed—although there are a few late states where candidates can still file to get on the ballot. In most states, candidates would have to compete as write-ins, which is eminently doable. Meanwhile, there’d be jockeying for the support of delegates who had been pledged to Biden, and for the hundreds of superdelegates who are eligible to vote beginning on the second ballot. Power brokers would emerge, and to the extent that this gave the Democratic party establishment some influence over the nomination, that, too, might be to the good. As we have seen for the last three years, the Democratic establishment is fairly close to the center of American politics right now.
In sum it would, I suspect, be an exciting and invigorating race that would culminate in an open, and perhaps multi-ballot, Democratic convention.
(That convention, by the way, is to take place in Chicago, the site of both the Democratic convention that nominated FDR on the fourth ballot in 1932 and the Republican Convention that nominated Lincoln on the third ballot in 1860.)
The process could, of course, be messier than my sunny scenario anticipates. But in any case, a 2024 Democratic nominee would eventually emerge. And that nominee would in my judgment very likely be a stronger candidate than Biden is. And for that matter, a candidate who would be more likely to be a strong president for the next four years.
With the Democratic convention a full five months away, we don’t simply have to hunker down, close our eyes, and sorrowfully proclaim: “Joe Biden made a decision months ago and now there’s no choice.”
There’s one person who clearly does have a choice: Joe Biden. He owes it to the country to rethink his candidacy. After discussing the matter seriously, including with critics of his running for reelection, he could come to the considered decision that it would be wise for him to step aside—that the way to complete his historic task of saving the country from a dangerous demagogue and anti-American authoritarian is to pass the baton.
Let me be clear: If it comes down to a (seemingly) frail Biden who believes in democracy and the rule of law against a screaming Trump who doesn’t, it’s not a close call. Everyone should rally to Biden if that’s ultimately the choice we face. Trump must be defeated. But precisely for that reason, we can’t spend five months blinding ourselves to Biden’s political vulnerabilities.
Trump in South Carolina
Speaking at a South Carolina Get Out the Vote rally Saturday, defeated former president Donald Trump:
Said that, while president, he told allied nations that he “would encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO member states that didn’t meet alliance defense-spending targets;
Pledged to “begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” on “day one” if reelected;
and Mocked Nikki Haley’s husband Michael, a National Guard officer currently deployed in Africa: “Where’s her husband? Oh, he’s away. He’s away! What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone.”
As you might imagine, there was some pushback.
“President Biden has restored our alliances and made us stronger in the world because he knows every commander-in-chief’s first responsibility is to keep the American people safe and hold true to the values that unite us,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told The Bulwark in a statement. “Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged—and it endangers American national security, global stability, and our economy at home.”
Nikki Haley fired back at Trump’s insult at a South Carolina rally: “Donald, if you have something to say, don’t say it behind my back: Get on a debate stage and say it to my face. I am proud of Michael’s service. Every military spouse knows it’s a family sacrifice . . . If you mock the service of a combat veteran, you don’t deserve a driver’s license, let alone being president of the United States.”
And Michael Haley was even more direct:
‘Normal’ Republicans Keep Bailing Out
The GOP long ago purged the last openly anti-Trump Republicans from the House. But many would-be serious policymakers lingered on in a kind of witness protection program, hoping that by keeping out of direct fights with MAGA they could still do good work stewarding the federal budget, restraining our adversaries, maintaining our military arsenal, etc.
Now, even that class of Republicans is heading for the exits. Mike Gallagher, a defense hawk who chairs the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and was once considered The Future of the Republican Party, announced Saturday he will not seek reelection. This came on the heels of a retirement announcement last week from Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Kathy McMorris Rodgers. Patrick McHenry, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, is retiring too. So is Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger. So are a raft of other powerful Republicans.
In one sense, Gallagher’s announcement, which came just days after he helped spike House Republicans’ impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, was a shock: He had been considered a Republican rising star who some in the party hoped would challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin this year.
But it also made a depressing amount of sense: It’s never been a more miserable time to be a policy-focused House Republican. Our colleague Joe Perticone writes of the current Congress:
Incremental compromise bills are not entertained. The only things that can pass are nakedly political, and that means the only pieces of legislation that get out of the chamber are ill-defined and have no real policy impact.
Beyond failing to pass the impeachment articles its Republican majority brought against Mayorkas, the House’s activities during this session of Congress include passing censure resolutions, stripping members of their committee assignments, and one of the most important congressional duties: renaming post offices.
The only legislation of consequence that has gotten through has required heavy lifting from the Democratic side of the chamber. … These all passed with far more Democrats supporting them than Republicans, and the Republicans who voted for them have experienced intra-party retaliation for their legislative efforts.
The nihilists and MAGA true believers, on the other hand, are having a wonderful time. They don’t need to pass meaningful legislation to give the Republican base what it wants: bottomless pours of conspiratorial infotainment, including endless denunciations of the supposed betrayals of their insufficiently pure colleagues.
Who might end up replacing Gallagher? One Republican who’s already floated his own name is 26-year-old digital strategist Alex Bruesewitz, a specialist in helping MAGA Republicans build their social-media brands. (He’s done this well enough to earn grudging respect from strategists in other factions of the party, like longtime Mitch McConnell ally John Ashbrook.) Bruesewitz spent 2023 distinguishing himself as one of Donald Trump’s most aggressive online attack dogs, mixing it up with supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, mocking DeSantis surrogates’ supposed plastic surgery and sneering at the governor’s rumored high-heeled boots.
“I haven’t made a decision yet. I’m going to be taking some time to meet with local leaders,” Bruesewitz told The Bulwark this weekend. “If I get in the race, I will win the race, period, end of story. I will have a coalition that will be unstoppable to beat in a Republican primary.”
1. 2024’s Fogey Faceoff
Nicholas Grossman of ArcDigital leads The Bulwark today with a different take on Biden’s age and why voters seem more concerned about it than about Trump’s:
Mainstream media organizations, such as the New York Times, place a lot of value on being fair, objective, and politically neutral—which in a practical sense often translates to publishing a comparable amount of negative-sounding coverage about Democrats and Republicans. With Biden and Trump differing on basic questions such as “Is the president above the law, like a dictator?”—Biden says no; Trump says yes, at least if it’s him—this forced balance leads to distortions.
To make the levels of negative coverage remotely similar, Biden’s age and mental acuity have to, on their own, balance out many things (including Trump’s age and mental acuity). Think of it this way:
So coverage in the press often inflates Biden’s age as an issue and effectively downplays the importance of Trump’s malfeasance, since there’s so much of it.
2. ‘What He’s Describing is a Terrifying Police State’
Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration adviser, has publicly declared that they would pursue such an enormous effort partly by creating a private red-state army under the president’s command. Miller says a reelected Trump intends to requisition National Guard troops from sympathetic Republican-controlled states and then deploy them into Democratic-run states whose governors refuse to cooperate with their deportation drive.
Such deployment of red-state forces into blue states, over the objections of their mayors and governors, would likely spark intense public protest and possibly even conflict with law-enforcement agencies under local control. And that conflict itself could become the justification for further insertion of federal forces into blue jurisdictions, notes Joseph Nunn, a counsel in the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.
3. Could RFK Jr. Team Up With the Libertarians?
Independent presidential candidate, environmental activist, and antivax kook Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has a famous name and surprisingly strong support in some early presidential polls. What he lacks is a clear path onto every state’s ballot. Semafor’s Dave Weigel writes that “one weird trick could fix that problem”:
The Libertarian Party, with automatic ballot access across most of the country, will pick its nominee in 107 days. And Kennedy might go for it.
“We have a really good relationship with the Libertarian Party, Kennedy told CNN’s Michael Smerconish last week. “I feel very comfortable with most of the values of the Libertarian Party.”
The ex-Democrat called for the release of Julian Assange at the New Hampshire libertarian PORCfest; he denounced “turnkey totalitarianism” at last year’s FreedomFest. That speech earned him an invitation to this month’s California Libertarian Party convention in Orange County, where he’ll join the party’s presidential candidates in a forum, as a potential challenger.
“I’ve unironically been told that I’m platforming Bobby Kennedy,” California Libertarian Party chairman Adrian Malagon said, with a laugh. “In what universe am I platforming a Kennedy? He’s platforming us.”