What's Tony Thinking

Pass the Baton?


Several of you asked what my take was on Ezra Klein’s podcast/ column of February 19, which is titled “Democrats Have A Better Option Than Biden.”

Well, I thought it was very good. For a couple of reasons. He was very positive about Joe Biden and his presidency. He indicated how much he liked Biden personally, pointed to the huge legislative accomplishments his administration has had, and said he thought he had been a good President. I agree with all that and thought it was exactly the right starting point. We are in your debt, Joe. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

But . . . there’s always a but, especially after so much positivity.

And this is where Klein made a key point that hasn’t been much discussed, maybe not discussed at all. There are two things Biden, if he continues to seek the nomination, must do. He must be able to function effectively as President now and in a possible second term. But that’s not all. He must be able to conduct a successful campaign. Even if you think he can do the first, and serve effectively as President for another four years, can he pull off the demands of a Presidential campaign over the next eight months? Klein registered doubt about the latter. Campaigning is grueling. And Biden will be under not just a spotlight, but a magnifying glass — especially for any miscues, slips or gaffes.

And his staff seems to be protecting him, limiting his public appearances and the circumstances in which they take place, which gives the unfortunate impression that he can’t handle that sort of exposure.

I have read accounts from several people who have had face time with the President and argue that he is handling the job, that he is in charge in the White House, that his judgment is sound. That’s good to hear. I believe them. But will that be the case two years from now? Four years from now?

Meanwhile, the immediate and overriding concern is defeating Trump. Can Biden overcome the polls that now consistently show his favorability rating below 40%? Can he overcome Trump’s current lead in head-to-head polls? Can he convince voters that he is up to the job? Beating Trump is the bottom-line.

So, let’s say that the President takes the advice of Ezra Klein (though hardly Klein alone) and bows out, throwing the nomination to the Democratic Convention. The optimistic scenario is that a real convention stirs huge interest and that the Dem’s come up with a winning ticket, including a younger nominee who puts the spotlight on Trump’s age by contrast. The pessimistic scenario is, as they return to Chicago — scene of the crime in 1968 — the convention veers off course, division and chaos ensue for all to see. Personally, I am less worried about that latter scenario than I am about the Democrat’s capacity to come together and settle on a winning ticket.

In his podcast of 2/19/24 Klein quotes Senator Charles Sumner addressing the convention that nominated Lincoln. Sumner told the delegates that “it is their duty to organize victory.” I do worry that the Dem’s might not understand that job #1 and “their duty is to organize victory.” They might instead wish to make a statement about race or gender or ideology.

I worry that they might chose someone who isn’t the strongest candidate but, as in Hillary Clinton’s case, is felt to be somehow “owed” the nomination. Such reasoning might apply to Vice-President Kamala Harris. Delegates might feel somehow obligated to support her rather than taking as their task and duty asking, “who can win this election?” That’s my main caveat to the Klein proposal for letting the party convention chose the candidate. At times the Dem’s have had a penchant, with winning within their grasp, for losing.

Just two days after Klein’s column/ podcast arguing that Biden should pass the baton, the NYT had an extensive interview with the eminent novelist, Marilynne Robinson. While the interview wasn’t mainly about politics, the header on it was, “Marilynne Robinson Considers Biden A Gift of God.” 

Well, as you readers know I’m a big fan of Robinson and her work, both novels and essays. And I take her thoughts and opinion seriously. She is herself just about Biden’s age. Here’s what she has to say.

“Frankly, I’m less than a year younger than Joe Biden, so I believe utterly in his competence, his brilliance, his worldview. I really do. You have to live to be 80 to find this out: Anybody under 50 feels they’re in a position to condescend to you. You get boxed into this position where people who deal with you are making assumptions about your intellect. It’s very disturbing. Most people my age are just fine. What can I say? It’s a kind of good fortune that America is categorically incapable of accepting: that someone with a strong institutional memory, who knows how things are supposed to work, who was habituated to their appropriate functioning is president. I consider him a gift of God. All 81 years of him.”

Her summary of Biden’s strengths — “strong institutional memory . . . knowing how things are supposed to work . . . and habituated to the appropriate functioning” of the Presidency is compelling. It reminds me of the observation made a generation ago by author, rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman, that religious congregations make a mistake in typically wanting a young “go-getter” for their rabbi or pastor. Friedman argued that at age 65 (that was the age then for being put out to pasture) people finally had just about enough wisdom and experience to actually do the job. Moreover, they were no longer captives of a hungry ego.

Maybe we who worry that Biden is too old to win are being ageist? Maybe Biden can beat Trump again? As Klein acknowledged, Biden has proven him wrong on more than one occasion.

Somewhere along the way I remember chatting with a guy who was a track and field and Olympics expert who observed, “Americans have never been good at relay races.” “Why,” I asked? “We just never seem able to handle the passing of the baton.”


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