Opinion: Biden put Democrats in a pickle. What’s the right way out of it?

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Opinion: Biden put Democrats in a pickle. What's the right way out of it?

Democrats are in quite a pickle.

Actually, they probably wish had pickled their 81-year-old standard bearer — President Biden — to preserve him until November. Biden set off a round of epic hand-wringing following his disastrous debate performance against Donald Trump on June 27 and did little to quell concerns about his fitness in his subsequent interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

Republicans like me are somewhat amused by this newfound concern over Biden’s age, as it has been obvious for the years. But there was a curious lack of curiosity about it until the debate and the dreadful polls that followed showing Biden losing to Trump in a national landslide (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CNN all show Trump winning by at least six points).

There are now serious concerns about Biden’s capacity to function. Axios’ Alex Thompson reports one former White House aide saying that Biden is “staffed so closely that he’s lost all independence.” The New York Times says Biden’s “lapses appear to have grown more frequent, more pronounced and … more worrisome.”

Biden is not just a candidate, of course. He’s the current commander in chief ! And he has made clear that performing the duties of president (an overseas trip that ended nearly two weeks before the debate and a cold) made him too “exhausted” to debate Trump for 90 minutes. Biden is engaged in his job from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.each day, according to Axios, but is less reliable outside that time window.

Never mind the 3 a.m. call that Hillary Clinton once warned about. Americans are now hoping that the world’s bad actors don’t cause havoc in the late afternoon.

But Democrats aren’t responding to the alarm that the current president may be unable to execute his duties. If Biden had simply performed in a middling fashion against Trump and remained within striking distance in the post-debate polling, they’d be just fine sticking with a candidate who will be 86 at the end of his second term.

The Democratic freakout is all political. If you think Biden won’t be up to the job in January, you must believe he isn’t up to it today. So why aren’t there more calls for Biden to resign instead of just stand aside as a candidate? As of this writing, the Biden family appears dug in deeper than an Alabama tick. But Democrats are openly wondering: Would we be better off with Vice President Kamala Harris in November?

It’s a good question. Biden never trailed against Trump in 2020, but today he is consistently behind, suffers from a job approval in the high 30s, and faces an electorate that knows he cannot fulfill the duties of the office for four more years.

Let me stipulate that I don’t think Democrats can shift to anyone but Harris. She’s the first Black female vice president of the United States, and Democrats aren’t going to pass over her for another white male. Please. To skip her would be to admit she wasn’t qualified for her current job, the one Biden chose her for in 2020, and that’s simply not going to happen.

A Harris candidacy might have some appeal — she is far younger, which takes the fitness question off the table. She will get a blast of energy from a political media that hates Trump and has clearly moved on from Biden. And she might have the capacity to reenergize the minority voters who are souring on Biden in poll after poll.

But let’s not sugarcoat this — Harris is not a great politician. Her own approval rating is 37%, about where we find Biden. Her presidential campaign in 2020 was a complete flop, the high-water mark coming when she implied that Biden was a racist during a debate. And her weird speeches featuring the phrase “the significance of the passage of time” and “unburdened by what has been” have become the laughingstock of the internet.

Part of Biden’s 2020 appeal was that he at least he faked the idea of being a genial, middle of the road dealmaker who could resist the extremes of both parties. With Harris, you get an unapologetic, card-carrying progressive who embraces whatever bubbles up from the liberal fever swamps.

It would be reasonable for Democrats to conclude that they’d be better off with anyone but Biden. All of the party’s voters who would pick a stuffed buffalo over Trump will come to a new nominee, and a fresh face would remove the Biden age baggage.

But Biden did beat Trump once (by roughly 44,000 votes in three states) and did win the Democratic nomination in 2024. To remove him now may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to a nation craving strong leadership. There’s some chance Biden could win again, albeit a dwindling one if you believe the data-crunching forecasters. And it would be sort of comical for the self-appointed party of democracy to strip the nomination from someone who won it fair and square in a series of primary contests.

My money is on Biden remaining the nominee. His wife is on the cover of Vogue in August and his son Hunter gets to hang out at Camp David and the White House while preparing for his felony tax evasion trial in September. Something tells me you’ll have to drag the Biden family out of the White House by the fingernails.

Scott Jennings is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a senior CNN political commentator. @ScottJenningsKY

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