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Entering Uncharted Waters

There is no precedent for such a last-minute scramble for a presidential nomination in the television era.
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July 3, 2024
U.S. President Joe Biden pauses during the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Those of us who follow presidential politics recently witnessed the worst and the third-worst presidential debate performances of the television era. Without a doubt, Joe Biden was the least effective and most alarming debater that any living American had ever witnessed in a presidential contest. By the time the dust had settled, pollsters found that almost three-quarters of Americans now have doubts about Biden’s mental and cognitive capabilities.

But Donald Trump’s night was almost as bad. The former president’s numerous falsehoods have been well-chronicled, but Trump was also notable for his inability or unwillingness to answer numerous questions about various matters of public policy, his ongoing defense of his and his supporters’ actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and his refusal to commit to honoring the outcome of this year’s elections. Had he not been sharing a stage with Biden during the worst night of that man’s political career, the former president would have been pilloried for his own abject failure to make a case for his own election.

In the annals of presidential debates, previous disasters were either a result of stylistic shortcomings (such as Richard Nixon’s lack of makeup or Al Gore’s condescending sighs), glaring substantive errors (like Gerald Ford’s gaffe regarding Soviet domination of Eastern Europe or Rick Perry forgetting the Cabinet offices he had promised to eliminate) or overall attitudinal misalignments (Ronald Reagan’s vagueness or Barack Obama’s emotional distance). 

But most of these failings were fleeting moments or isolated incidents that overshadowed otherwise credible presentations. By contrast, Biden and Trump both embarrassed themselves throughout their entire 90 minutes. Only their most loyal supporters were able to point to moments where the two men rose briefly to instances of adequacy. But neither of the nation’s two most recent presidents was able to coherently offer a defense of their records or attempt to outline an agenda for the future.

Biden’s failures were worse than Trump’s, and the challenges he faces going forward are more difficult. Biden became the Democratic nominee four years ago because his party’s members made a cold-eyed strategic decision to set aside their emotional allegiances to more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and select Biden as the best candidate for them to run against Trump. Trump has an emotional hold on his party’s true believers that Biden will never match. As a result, Trump’s loyalists see his weaknesses as strengths. Most Democrats see Biden’s weaknesses as … weaknesses.

The party’s decision process today is cold and calculating: Do they stand a better chance of beating Trump with a deeply flawed incumbent or an equally risky replacement?

At the moment this was written, the risk-averse faction of the party leadership appears to be holding firm. For the first few days after the debate, Biden’s team did an admirable job of projecting strength and continuity. But the doubters are not going away. And while few of even the most audacious gamblers see Vice President Kamala Harris as a wager worth making, there is no shortage of Democratic donors and pundits willing to roll the dice on an even less-tested governor or Cabinet member.

It would be surprising if the Biden doubters prevailed. There is no precedent for such a last-minute scramble for a presidential nomination in the television era (even the convention fights of 1960, 1968 and 1976 featured candidates who had been running against each other for months). Add the cacophony of cable news, digital platforms and social media and it’s impossible to overstate the potential for chaos. For American voters who crave stability, such a fracas might not send a reassuring message.

Every day between now and Nov. 5 is a potential senior moment for the senior president. Another unsettling performance could be catastrophic. 

But if the risk of entering such uncharted waters is significant, the potential payoff is even greater. Every day between now and Nov. 5 is a potential senior moment for the senior president. Another unsettling performance could be catastrophic. Biden must now prove to the American people that he is cogent. If he demonstrates that attribute every day for the rest of the campaign, he will win reelection. If he falls short again, even once, the odds against him grow more daunting.


Dan Schnur is the U.S. Politics Editor for the Jewish Journal. He teaches courses in politics, communications, and leadership at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the monthly webinar “The Dan Schnur Political Report” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall. Follow Dan’s work at www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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