Analysis: After bad debate, pundits call for Biden to withdraw

Donald Trump and Joe Biden
From left, Donald Trump (Photo: Flickr) and Joe Biden (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Starting mere minutes after the first presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump, mainstream media pundits, former Obama strategists and New York Times sinecure columnists expressed dismay at the president’s abysmal performance. Within a day, there were calls for the sitting president to be removed from the campaign in an unprecedented act reminiscent for some of the Watergate days and the efforts by Republican members of Congress to urge Richard Nixon to step down.

Biden’s crime of a bad debate caused the New York Times Editorial Board to issue an editorial ultimatum of sorts: “To Serve His Country, President Biden Should Leave the Race.” A few days later, the Philadelphia Inquirer countered with an opposing view, changing up the Times’ headline: “To serve his country, Donald Trump should leave the race.”

The Inquirer acknowledged “Biden had a horrible night Thursday. But the debate about the debate is misplaced. The only person who should withdraw from the race is Trump.”

What the Inquirer did that no other paper has done is state what should be obvious: Donald Trump is a liar of pathological proportions, a convicted criminal, an adjudicated rapist and an existential threat to democracy. The editorial was written prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling granting Trump immunity for criminal acts, which only underscores the looming threat posed by his possible return to office.

The debate has been deconstructed repetitively since last Thursday. What has arisen out of that failure to perform for Biden is an escalating question about his fitness for office because of his fumbling answers and seeming disorientation at times. The rapid-fire adherence to time constraints by CNN moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper while putting no checks on Trump’s repeated lies and misrepresentations of facts, just served to allow Trump to seem in control of the room and Biden not.

Biden’s debate performance may also have fueled the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee to sue Attorney General Merrick Garland to force the release of audio tapes of Biden’s interview with special counsel Robert Hur in his classified documents case. Hur said Biden had memory issues in his summation.

Biden has gotten support from major Democratic voices from former president Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Black Caucus kingmaker Jim Clyburn. Vice President Kamala Harris has been full-throated in her support. 

Calls for Biden to leave the race — which he has categorically refused to do thus far — and drop some other Democrat into his place don’t take into account the chaos that would ensue for the party and the election. As MSNBC contributor Molly Jong Fast noted Monday on “Morning Joe,” “There’s a reason why Republicans want Democrats to have a brokered convention — it’s because the last time we had one, we elected Richard Nixon.”

That was in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for another term, throwing the party into chaos. Then in June, just two months prior to the August Democratic National Convention, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, adding to more conflict within the party. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was chosen at the convention as the candidate over Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) and Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), who unlike Humphrey opposed the Vietnam War. 

Humphrey only lost by a half million votes and a half a percent, but the loss proved devastating to the Democratic party overall and to the nation as Nixon escalated the war and then crashed the presidency with the Watergate coverup.

Yet in March 1968, Johnson withdrew and left time for national campaigning by candidates (it was on a campaign stop that Kennedy was assassinated). With only four months until the election, the idea that an entirely new candidate be fielded is as unwieldy as it is potentially disastrous.

And the Inquirer laid out the pivotal issue that does not go away if Biden leaves the race: “Trump told more than 30 lies during the debate to go with the more than 30,000 mistruths told during his four years as president. He dodged the CNN moderators’ questions, took no responsibility for his actions, and blamed others, mainly Biden, for everything that is wrong in the world.”

The Inquirer wrote, “Trump’s response to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection he fueled was farcical. He said a ‘relatively small number of people’ went to the Capitol and many were ‘ushered in by the police.’”

What about these lies and the pathological arbiter of them who also refused to say if he would accept the election results in November after repeating the lie during the debate that there was fraud in 2020 and that he really won the election.

Should the August Democratic Convention — eerily set in Chicago — be brokered, who ends up the nominee and how? At a brokered convention, only the delegates choose the candidate. If the candidate chosen is someone other than Vice President Kamala Harris, the likelihood of meeting the 80% threshold of Black voters needed to win in November is nil. So too is the likelihood of matching the necessary 65% of Latin@ voters. Yet polling odds favor a white male nominee, despite the Democratic base being minority white and majority Black and brown. Names suggested have been Hillary Clinton, California governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro and Kentucky governor Andy Beshear. On Sunday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — currently running as an independent — said he was available to fill Biden’s spot on the ticket.

For an alternative to be chosen, Biden would have to release his delegates to allow them to vote for someone else, even Harris. But FEC rules mean the money in the campaign would go solely to Harris. What if a different candidate other than Harris were chosen and she in turn decided to run independently. Would voters split? As was noted in a viral post on Twitter/X, “In case you forgot, the thing that scares people most about Joe Biden’s age is Kamala Harris’s race and gender.”

This is a key point. Harris was chosen as VP out of a retinue of stellar choices in 2020. Biden had committed to a Black woman running mate. Black women are the foundational base of the Democratic party — smiting them by leapfrogging another white candidate over her could cause an irreparable rift in the party.

This is particularly true because there is no specific definition of what it is that Democrats want other than Biden-Harris. Potential 2028 candidates like Newsom and Whitmer likely don’t want to get involved in a lightning campaign to angry voters that could mean a disaster for a future run.

Biden-Harris Regional Political Director in Virginia, Natalie Louise Shorter, who is Black, wrote on Twitter/X: “Calling for the President to step down after filing deadlines and as the Democratic nominee is dangerous because it undermines the democratic process and stability. Such a move risks chaos within the party, jeopardizing the election’s integrity and giving an advantage to opponents. Media bias against the president isn’t coincidental; it reflects deeper systemic issues and prejudices.”

Shorter addressed the ableism inherent in the attacks on Biden, something Sen. John Fetterman has spoken out about since the debate.

Shorter wrote, “Ableist comments against the President starkly contrast with the Democratic Party’s values of inclusivity and equality. This issue isn’t just about age; it’s also about race and gender. The prospect of a Black female VP becoming president highlights society’s discomfort with breaking traditional power structures….Upholding our democratic values means rejecting these prejudices and supporting leaders who have dedicated their lives to democracy.”

Fetterman said of his own failed debate with Mehmet Oz in 2022 after his stroke, “We had a difficult debate, and yet we still managed to go on to win. Now, everybody was calling that — that was the end of my career, that was the end of this race and everyone was predicting that I was going to lose actually by 2 points or more. And I smoked Oz by 5 points.”

Fetterman said. “And that’s what I’m saying. It — it’s like one debate is not a career.”

This content is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support for Every Voice, Every Vote in 2024 and 2025 is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Comcast NBC Universal, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Henry L. Kimelman Family Foundation, Judy and Peter Leone, Arctos Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, 25th Century Foundation, and Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.
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