The following story is co-published with Freddie deBoer’s Substack.

You are being inundated with post-debate commentary on Joe Biden ‘s performance. (My take: it wasn’t great!) I’ll try and spare you debate specifics and just make this point about the dilemma facing the Democrats.

In 2016, the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was particularly ugly — not so much because of the animosity between the candidates and the campaigns, though there was plenty of that, but because of that between the supporters of each. You probably don’t need this rehashed: Clinton was an emissary from the centrist, triangulating wing of the party who (while serving as the most involved first lady in American history) had been a constant champion of her husband’s conservative policies on crime, gay marriage, “welfare,” and more. And the Barack Obama years had, for many voters, gone from being a beacon of hope and change to a reminder of the inescapable institutional capture of the Democratic party. Sometimes, worthwhile reforms escaped, but they did so only in the most meek, corporate-friendly way. The Affordable Care Act was the apogee of what could be accomplished under those conditions: some good reforms that were utterly insufficient to fix a notoriously broken healthcare system which were passed only because the health insurance industry had essentially been given veto power over the bill. Meanwhile, Obama had not even tried to meaningfully reform the banking sector that had broken the economy or help out ordinary homeowners who faced foreclosure after the financial crisis.

If the Democrats are going to run somebody else out there, it’s going to be because Biden voluntarily steps aside.

Of course, there was another core reason to oppose Clinton’s candidacy: she was a uniquely unpopular figure in American history. Generic Democrat was beating Trump handily in many 2016 polls, and Bernie Sanders, the left-wing challenger to the Clinton dynasty, clobbered him. Clinton had always been divisive, going back to her husband’s first 1992 presidential campaign; this was frequently said to be the product of sexism, which may have been true but was irrelevant to the outcome of the race. Meanwhile, Clinton had what remains perhaps the most potent advantage in a Democratic presidential primary, that the party perceived it to be Her Turn. She had dutifully served as a senator and as Secretary of State and, after Obama swooped in and took the nomination in 2008, Democratic party leadership was intent on giving her the nod no matter how vulnerable she proved to be. And her foot soldiers online and in the grassroots had a potent weapon to wield against Sanders supporters: accusations of racism.

You might find this a little odd; Hillary Clinton may have attempted to embody the spirit of every slice of the Democratic coalition, but I’m fairly sure she’s not Black. And you’d think, given that she is a woman, that the usual tactic would be to allege sexism of Sanders’s supporters. Certainly there was some of that. But easily the most common insult against Sanders supporters was that we were racist. This says something about the essentially postmodern nature of such accusations in the 21st century. Mostly though it said something about what worked in the mid-2010s — calling something racist was the most powerful rhetorical weapon you could wield, so people wielded it shamelessly. And to the extent that any of this mattered, it worked; the entire Bernie Bro narrative became a sufficient albatross around Sanders’s neck that he not only had to answer for it in 2016, he had to answer for it again in the primary in 2020. (Thanks, Robinson Meyer!) There’s a slice of my readership that just delights in insisting that nothing that happens online matters, at all. (By posting comments on an online newsletter.) But I just don’t think that reflects how elite opinion formation works in the 21st century. The Clinton-Sanders war became news in 2016 because of things that happened on Twitter, which then became questions that the candidates had to answer in meaningful contexts. It mattered. It just did. (Thanks, Robinson Meyer! Feel free to express regrets!)

It’s not like Republican primaries are models of comity and good faith. But a) Trump is the dominant leader of the party in ways that Biden simply wasn’t before he secured the nomination in 2020, b) the madness of contemporary Republican politics has a way of making these within-coalition fights less comprehensible, and c) left-of-center culture is still a place where accusations of identity bigotries are potent and where people are absolutely shameless about lobbing them. The exhaustion of the Trump years, the backdoor lobbying of Obama, and the lack of a credible challenger of color helped to dampen these dynamics in 2020, but there was still a lot of really bitter recriminations from one group: the “KHive,” Kamala Harris’s notoriously aggressive fanbase. They were, and are, absolutely ready to destroy comity within the party in defense of their candidate, and their weapons are mass accusations of racism and sexism. Even in 2020, the height of public fear over appearing to transgress identity dictates, they were openly discussed as an unusually toxic force in Democratic politics. So here’s the question: if you try to replace Joe Biden at the top of the ticket in 2024, how do you push aside sitting Vice President Kamala Harris without destroying the party? Because if you thought 2008 or 2016 were ugly….

I doubt that Biden will stand aside and be replaced on the ticket this fall. He can’t just be removed; the convention could be contested, but that’s very unlikely to happen. (It would have been nice to have an actual primary in which his infirmity might have been evaluated and subject to rigorous review, but again, the Democratic machine decided that such a thing wasn’t going to happen, so it didn’t.) If the Democrats are going to run somebody else out there, it’s going to be because Biden voluntarily steps aside. But okay, suppose that happens: if that means handing over the nomination to Harris, are we in better shape? Harris dropped out in December of 2019, which is often represented as her being some sort of great soldier for her party. But of course she dropped out in the face of a deeply embarrassing performance in the primary. Six weeks before she dropped out, Harris was polling at 8% in that primary… in her home state of California. In contrast, in the same poll the supposedly unelectable Bernie Sanders stood at 21%, in a virtual three-way tie with Elizabeth Warren (23%) and Biden (22%). This was how the entire race went for Harris, as she sat around fifth or sixth place behind those three candidates and Pete Buttigieg. Say whatever you will about Warren or Sanders, they had actual, organic support bases. That was never true of Harris. Her primary campaign always seemed like the product of market research and Democratic party consultant bias.

Real Clear Polling

But she was an appealing running mate for Biden, particularly in 2020, when the convulsions of that year made the optics of the old white establishment guy winning the nomination of the Democratic party a little unfortunate. It was weird for an unusually aggressive prosecutor to be part of the ticket in the year of George Floyd, but that’s politics, and she did well enough at raising cash and shaking hands, and California connections are useful even when there’s no chance you’ll lose the state. So now she’s the VP. Ordinarily, you’d expect Biden to either win or lose this fall and for the party to have a standard presidential primary in 2028; Harris would certainly enjoy a leg up as the sitting VP, but if she was truly unpopular the primary would sort that out. But if the dreams of so many pundits come true and Biden falls on his sword, stepping aside for another candidate, you have a woman who has every reason to expect to be the nominee — every reason except a case that she would likely win the contest. For years head-to-head polls against Trump have not looked good for Harris. Like, really not good. Here, 57% of all voters polled and 62% of independents say that she would lose. If you care to look around you can find all kinds of numbers to that effect. Worse, Harris shares a core weakness with Biden: she is very prone to malapropisms, garbled speech, and senior moments, just without the excuse of being a senior.

If party leaders tried to choose someone other than Harris to replace Biden should he step aside, how would that go down within the party?

Indeed, her manner of speaking is so consistently confusing that you get this kind of defensiveness from admirers in the media. Typically, if people feel like they have to constantly apologize for you in that way, it means that you’re not an effective speaker, and voters simply won’t care whether you have a good excuse for that problem or not. She doesn’t poll well, she performed very badly even among Democrats in the primary, she’s gaffe-prone, she’s a bad candidate. It’s not clear that running her out there instead of Biden would even help.

But she has a very loud, angry, and vengeful fanbase, and Harris herself is an explicit fan of the KHive. If party leaders tried to choose someone else to replace Biden should he step aside, how would that go down within the party? Gavin Newsom is a name you see a lot, and while I find the man a slimy huckster, he’s exactly what you’d want to run out against Trump: a standard-issue Democrat who’s not Trump, an experienced and skilled politician, coherent and slick and capable of bringing up abortion and Trump’s felony conviction. He’d probably have a good base of support and cause your average Democrat to breathe a sigh of relief. But the optics of a white man replacing a Black woman who is the sitting Vice President of the United States … from an identity lens, that’s as bad as it gets, right? That’s exactly what liberals always complain about, right? That’s an insult to everything the part has said that it stands for in recent years, right? Can the party’s poohbahs like Obama and Bill Clinton and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi make a switch from Biden to someone other than Harris, should Biden step aside? Would it destroy the party if they tried to?

Guess we should have had a primary, huh!

I suppose the rejoinder is that 2024 is not 2016 or 2020; the identity screaming that so defined left-of-center politics in the recent past have really run out of steam lately. Yelling on Twitter was never directly powerful, after all, it just had influence on the basic tenor of how conversations happened within the Democratic Party, which had knock-on effects. Maybe Harris would go quietly. But I doubt it, and I can guarantee her followers wouldn’t. I don’t think Biden will give up his spot regardless, and I will have mixed feelings if he does. The bar for “best president” is like the bar for “smartest of the Three Stooges,” not exactly hard to clear and not a ringing endorsement even if you do. Still, Biden is the best president of my lifetime. But … he does not look well. He does not sound coherent. Voters will be scared to vote for him, and they have reason to be. I can’t say I feel at all that good knowing that he’d be running the country in another four years. So if he isn’t the nominee, who will be? Can party leaders really try to draft anyone other than Harris? If they don’t, every indication is that she’ll lose, too. If they do, will she go quietly? Will we have an explosion of rage over representation and chances and choices and whose turn it is? Or has the page really, firmly turned from the era of Yelling Social Justice, sufficiently that the KHive can’t sting anymore?

I don’t know! But maybe we’ll find out.

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