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Opinion | The Nomination Crisis Is Far From Over

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July 11, 2024, 5:04 a.m. ET
A young woman in a crowd holds up a small American flag and a sign reading “North Carolina for Biden Harris.”

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

What I am hearing from congressional Democrats about President Biden is this: He has done little to nothing to allay their fears. But his defiance — and his fury — has been enough to stay their hand. The caucus meetings House and Senate Democrats held this week were an airing of grievances and despair, but they didn’t chart a path forward. Democrats are drifting toward a grim march to defeat led by a candidate they’ve lost faith in. What they need is a process through which they can gather the information they need to make a final decision. I think one is in reach.

Let me try to offer the most generous version I can of the positions the key players hold, beginning with Biden. “I wouldn’t be running again if I did not absolutely believe I was the best person to beat Donald Trump in 2024,” he told congressional Democrats in a forceful letter that was released on Monday. Take him at his word. He disagrees with the pessimism about both his chances and his capabilities. He feels he has been underestimated before and is being underestimated now. He thinks the polls are wrong. He thinks the media is biased against him. He believes that his performance at the debate was a reflection of a bad cold and an off night rather than a general diminishment. And in the conversations he is having, and the cheering crowds he is seeing for himself, there is no groundswell begging for him to step aside.

There are two main camps among congressional Democrats. One believes that Biden should not be running again but fears there is nothing it can do about it. If Biden won’t withdraw, then criticizing him only weakens him and down-ballot Democrats. Representative Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is among those who told his colleagues that Biden should step aside. But faced with the president’s resistance, he backed off. “Whether I have concerns or not is beside the point,” Nadler said on Tuesday. “He’s going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him.”

The other camp remains genuinely uncertain about whether Biden is capable of another campaign and another term. The debate shocked these Democrats. They hadn’t seen him like that before. But to call for the incumbent president to withdraw from the race is a severe and unusual act. Maybe it really was just a bad night. Maybe the reports of Biden’s worsening lapses are untrue or overblown. These senators and representatives are asking the question Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, asked: “Is this an episode or is this a condition?”

What Democrats need to admit to themselves is that Biden is denying them the information they need to answer that question. Since the debate, he has done a small handful of short interviews. He called into two radio shows where the hosts would ask preapproved questions. His interview with George Stephanopoulos lasted 22 minutes. He called into “Morning Joe,” which has been the friendliest place for him in cable news, for less than 20 minutes. He has not gone to the Hill and talked, in a lengthy and unscripted way, with either the House or Senate Democratic caucuses. It’s not nearly enough.

In my conversations with Biden aides, I’ve come to believe that they see interviews and town halls and news conferences as bizarre media obsessions. They don’t trust Biden to perform in those settings, but they also don’t think it matters. They’ve persuaded themselves that the job of the president is the job of making good decisions, and they think Biden is still capable of making those decisions. Whether he can survive 60 minutes with Chris Wallace, to them, is akin to whether he can do 20 push-ups: interesting, but irrelevant.

They’re wrong. Even if you harbor no doubts about Biden’s fitness for the job, it’s indisputable that he cannot govern well if he loses to Donald Trump. And what Biden and his aides have refused to grapple with is that most voters thought Biden was too old to be an effective president long before the debate. Biden’s emerging line that this is an elite obsession — or plot against him — gets it backward. Democratic elites have been trying to ignore what voters have been telling them in poll after poll after poll. In fact, voters now believe that Democratic elites have been actively covering up evidence of Biden’s deterioration — and they may well be right.

Biden needs to persuade the country — not just Democrats — that he is up to the job he seeks. The best, and perhaps the only, way to do it is to put himself in the situations that voters now doubt he can survive. That means doing town halls and news conferences and lengthy interviews — lots of them, starting right now. He could go further: If Biden is as capable as he claims, he should consider accepting Trump’s challenge of additional debates.

This is what congressional Democrats should demand of Biden: a schedule of events that shows them, and the country, that he is fit for the office and can hold onto it. Yes, Biden has a news conference scheduled for Thursday and an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt next week. There need to be more, and these and other events need to be serious and sustained. Biden needs to prove himself in public, under pressure, repeatedly. He needs to talk to Hill Democrats in private, without a teleprompter, until they are confident in his capacities. This is not too much to ask of a president running for re-election. It is the bare minimum.

Many of Biden’s staunch allies have suggested something like what I am suggesting. “I think what he has got to do is get out there, interact with people, turn off the teleprompter, and people can make a judgment for themselves how well he is doing,” Senator Bernie Sanders told CNN. All I am adding to Sanders’s proposal is that the senator, and his colleagues, insist on it. If Biden won’t get off the teleprompter and prove he’s up to this campaign, then congressional Democrats should defect en masse.

Though Biden and his team might resist it, they, too, should welcome this test. Biden might believe he’s the best qualified candidate to beat Trump, but he has done nothing this year to prove it. He, too, does not have enough information to make the decision he needs to make. In avoiding situations in which he could fail, he’s putting his legacy, and the entire country, at risk. And if he’s right about his own capabilities, and the debate simply was a bad night, then he’s also denying himself what he richly deserves: the possibility of a comeback.

Ezra Klein joined Opinion in 2021. Previously, he was the founder, editor in chief and then editor at large of Vox; the host of the podcast “The Ezra Klein Show”; and the author of “Why We’re Polarized.” Before that, he was a columnist and editor at The Washington Post, where he founded and led the Wonkblog vertical. He is on Threads

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