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From the Center

“In politics, good gets better and bad gets worse.”

Loyal Democrats may dismiss that adage, since it was coined by a Republican Party chairman in the late 20th century. But reflexive partisanship is not a reliable substitute for time-tested accuracy, and as of this moment, it’s difficult to see how Joe Biden’s current troubles are going to improve anytime soon.

As growing numbers of Biden’s allies move away from him, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if the president does continue his campaign for re-election, he would do so as a compromised candidate atop a deeply divided party. But if he is going to be replaced as the Democratic nominee, there is only a tiny window of opportunity for his party to choose a successor or even decide upon a process for making that decision. 

Biden’s most prominent supporters appear to be inclined to give their president due deference – at least in public – to afford him the dignity of concluding his candidacy on his own terms without appearing to be pushed out against his will. But the president’s Friday night interview with George Stephanopolous demonstrated the downsides of that respectful but flawed strategy. Biden’s performance was not strong enough to reassure his nervous backers, but not so weak as to convince his family and closest advisors that he should step aside. Barring a cataclysmic presidential meltdown or a near-instantaneous stampede of party leaders away from him in the next few days, it’s unlikely that a withdrawal is coming anytime soon. 

There are now six weeks until the Democratic National Convention. Which means that there is a little more than a month for the party to decide who they are going to run against Donald Trump this fall. That’s a very small amount of time to make a very large decision. Unless they accelerate their pace very quickly, the decision is going to be made for them.

If Biden were to step aside, one of three scenarios would unfold. In the order of likelihood, they are:

1)   Biden withdraws from the race and the party rallies around Kamala Harris: This is the smoothest transition, both logistically and politically. As Vice President, Harris is the most obvious successor and might also motivate young people and minority voters in a way that Biden has not. But Harris’ poll numbers are roughly comparable to Biden's, and many Democratic professionals worry about her ability to compete effectively against as combative and pugnacious opponent as Trump.

2)   Biden withdraws from the race and several competitors emerge: This is an alternative that would be much more unwieldy, as the party would have only a few weeks to establish a process for candidates to come forward and be heard by Democratic voters and delegates, but also brings a potentially much greater payoff. The upside is an exciting and battle-tested nominee (possibly Harris) emerges. The downside is ensuing chaos that unsettles the electorate and demoralizes the party base if a black woman is passed over.

3)   Biden not only withdraws from the race, but steps down from office: This would allow Harris to seek re-election as an incumbent, but such a rapid and dramatic transition could be even more jarring to voters seeking consistency from their government. The promotion would certainly elevate Harris’ stature (except for Trump, no incumbent president has lost re-election since 1992). But it would be an immensely rapid ascension for someone who was California attorney general only eight years ago.

The first and third options guarantee that Harris would be the Democratic standard-bearer against Trump. It is entirely possible that she would motivate party progressives in a way that Biden has not, and use the abortion issue much more effectively to convince female voters in swing states to support her candidacy. But it’s also worth remembering that the Democrats’ rationale for nominating a centrist like “Scranton Joe” four years ago was his ability to connect with the culturally conservative blue-collar voters in Rust Belt states who Trump had taken from Hillary Clinton. This might be a more difficult challenge for Harris, a lifelong progressive who is the former district attorney of San Francisco.

The party’s most advantageous option might be a competitive primary and debate process in which Harris competes for the nomination rather than having it bestowed upon her. At the very least, this alternative deserves serious consideration, but it is also the most complicated and most time-consuming of the possible paths forward. And the Democrats are in desperate need of the best solution, not necessarily the speediest.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Specialist (Center bias).