Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Sunday Q&A

There is one subject dominating the world of politics right now, and one subject dominating the questions and letters. And you know what that subject is.

Whither Joe Biden?

J.B. in Britt, IA, asks: You generally say that a week is a long time for something to last in the political world and I tend to agree. However, President Biden's debate performance seems to have a life of its own. Now he is working hard to prove that he has the stamina.

What is your take on all that has happened in the last week? Do you think eventually the media will move on to the next crisis or hot topic?

My own personal opinion has always been that the person running for President needs to be younger than me, currently 72. I was in Mayor Pete's camp 4 years ago. Whatever happens, I will never vote for the other guy.

(V) & (Z) answer: Biden's debate performance has continued to dominate the news cycle for several reasons. First, because it played into a narrative that has been building for many years. Second, because it's the dog days of summer, and there hasn't been another story to dislodge it (the Supreme Court's "imperial president" ruling could have been that story, but wasn't). Third, because the Biden campaign has made things worse on a near-daily basis with its mismanagement of the damage control.

One day, and that day is not terribly far off, this story will fade from the headlines because it will have been beaten to death and there will be nothing more to say. The question is whether Biden has lost some voters for good. Maybe so, but you simply cannot be sure. Remember, for example, how very upset many Republicans were with Donald Trump after 1/6, with folks like Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell going so far as to publicly lambaste him. And yet, that pair and nearly all the others who were upset came home pretty quickly. They did so because it was clear that Trump was still the leader of the Party and would be the 2024 candidate, and in their eyes, the worst Republican president is still better than the best Democratic president.

T.K. in Boston, MA, asks: I remember hearing that Barack Obama's campaign worked hard to frame Mitt Romney in the eyes of voters as an out-of-touch billionaire. Which Romney then reinforced. Has Donald Trump's campaign, with a big assist from Joe Biden's debate performance, successfully framed Biden as too old?

(V) & (Z) answer: Every presidential campaign tries to frame its opponents as [BAD THING], whether that is "out of touch," or "too liberal" or "corrupt" or "budding fascist" or... whatever. The modern Republican Party just happens to be particularly good at it, in part because they simply have to be (as the minority party) and in part because the Party is backed by a very powerful and very disciplined right-wing media establishment.

In 2000, Al Gore was branded as an out-of-touch technocrat. In 2004, John Kerry—a bona fide war hero—was branded as a spineless coward. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was branded as thoroughly corrupt. It is fair to say that this messaging was, in at least two cases (Kerry and Clinton), and maybe in all three cases, the single biggest factor in the Republicans' presidential victories in those years.

Mind you, the GOP batting average since 2000 is not 1.00. The Party labored mightily to brand Barack Obama as "not a real American," using the unsubtle dog whistles that he was secretly a Muslim and that he wasn't actually a U.S. citizen. Those lines of attack simply did not land with enough voters outside the Republican base, and he won both of his elections handily.

Is "old and feeble Joe Biden" another success for the GOP messaging machine? At the moment, it certainly looks that way, since the only story in politics right now is "old and feeble Joe Biden." But, as everyone knows, winning one battle does not necessarily guarantee winning the war. If Biden drops out, or stays in and is defeated, then Scranton Joe joins the Gore/Kerry/Clinton list. If he stays in and wins, then he joins Obama as a duo who won mulltiple terms despite the Republicans' propagandizing.

W.S. in Tucson, AZ, asks: Is there an argument to be made that a replacement candidate chosen at the convention is the closest the blue team can come to running the "generic Democrat" (who often outpolls specific Democrats)? It gives the red team minimal time to do oppo research and puts the general public in a place where (much as many of us did with Obama) we can all see in them what we want to see?

(V) & (Z) answer: There is certainly an argument.

First of all, and just to get this out of the way, the Republican Party has mountains of oppo research on every plausible Democratic candidate. The GOP's leadership is not going to get caught with their pants down, unless it's by a porn star.

However, there is a version of events where the Democratic National Convention takes on an unofficial theme along the lines of "saving democracy." After a spirited discussion of candidates, they pick the ticket that has the broadest support, and the convention and the nation hear speeches from the presidential nominee, the VP nominee AND Joe Biden explaining that this is bigger than any of the three of them and that it's all-hands-on-deck time as the Party strives to keep USA 2024 from becoming Germany 1934. Backed by a grassroots who feel a sense of purpose and of unity, the presidential and VP nominees mount a whirlwind campaign in which there isn't time for them to make any big missteps, or for the enthusiasm left over from the convention to die down, or for the Republicans to effectively brand the new ticket as [BAD THING].

This is a plausible version of events, and it's pretty much what the "dump Biden" crowd is hoping for. But it is certainly not the only plausible version of events, and there are outcomes that are far less rosy than this for the blue team if they cannot unify behind Biden.

K.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: While I'm furious about the unfair beating Joe Biden has been taking in the "liberal" press, maybe it's time after the George Stephanopoulos interview to face realities. So, what are your thoughts on Joe and Kamala swapping president and VP roles in the upcoming election? It would be like Vito Corleone serving as consigliere to Michael. Would this be doable? Or would it be suicidal for their prospects?

(V) & (Z) answer: We think this would be a very bad idea. The Democrats would effectively be conceding that Biden is too old and infirm to remain as president, while at the same time putting him one heartbeat away from resuming the presidency.

If this general plan is something the Democrats really want to try, then they would need to find some other job for Biden. He could be a senior adviser to the president, or something along those lines.

D.T. in Columbus, OH, asks: If Joe Biden intends to stay in the race, why doesn't he just follow Donald Trump's example: Find himself a Ronny Jackson/Johnson type of doctor, who is willing to write a report declaring that Biden's cognitive test scores are flawless?

Maybe something more subtle than "best scores of any President in history." But given the subjective nature of many parts of cognitive screenings, surely it wouldn't be difficult to find someone to produce the results Biden needs.

Whatever the potential downsides are, wouldn't this still be less bad than the narrative, "Biden refuses to take cognitive screening"?

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, while Trump has vast experience in this kind of chicanery, Biden does not. And Democrats in general, including Biden, tend not to be very good at it.

That said, even if Biden's team could find an amenable doctor who would not spill the beans, a glowing report from that person would not do much good, since there would be much carping and speculation that... Biden had simply found a doctor willing to engage in home cooking.

If Biden wants to pursue a cognitive test as a means of demonstrating he's still capable, there's really only three paths we can think of that will make the results believable to at least some of the skeptics. First, he could recruit someone of extremely high reputation who would not want to risk their career to put forth a lie. We're talking someone like the head of the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurology. Second, he could recruit a team of doctors to administer the exam and report the results. Far less likely that six doctors would conspire than just one doctor. Third, Biden could challenge Donald Trump: They both have workups from the same, mutually-agreed-upon physician. If they mutually agreed upon the administrator of the tests, it's not especially plausible that physician is in the bag for Biden.

A.L. in Tigard, OR, asks: Thank you for your analysis of the reasons why Biden won't commit to taking a cognitive test. At my house we have been having a very similar discussion as to why he won't take one. My question is: If Biden knows the results already and the results are not good, and if some of his staff also know the results aren't good and then they withhold these negative results, isn't this election interference? Doesn't the public have the right to know? Or am I missing something?

(V) & (Z) answer: That would be an extremely novel definition of election interference, and certainly would not stand up in court. Political candidates and campaigns have no duty to share adverse information about themselves.

Election interference is really limited to actions specifically meant to disrupt the proper functioning of the electoral process. Pressing state secretaries of state to "find" more votes, or trying to block the electoral votes from being tallied... things like that.

V.L.G. in Alphen aan den Rijn, Netherlands, asks: It's fairly common knowledge that some U.S. presidents had health problems while in office. It seems to me that a competent team of VP, cabinet secretaries and expert advisors can mitigate (have successfully mitigated?) these issues. It seems to me that an incompetent president who is not interested in governing does more damage. Can the staff historian give insight into this?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are many cases in U.S. history where a president was effectively out of action for some extended period of time, and things kept operating just fine, since the "machine" is big and powerful enough to operate even without its biggest cog.

The example that most readily comes to mind, for most people, is late-term Ronald Reagan. However, it's still not perfectly clear exactly how compromised he was during the latter part of his second term. Much more clear-cut examples are Dwight D. Eisenhower (who spent much of his second term in Pennsylvania recovering from a heart attack) and Woodrow Wilson (who spent the last year of his presidency severely limited by a stroke).

The risk posed by Trump is not that he's an incompetent president not interested in governing. The U.S. has survived presidents like that, too, without much damage (Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, etc.). No, the risk is that he's a malignant president interested in doing things that will harm many Americans and will harm democracy.

We have written versions of this a couple of times in the past week or two, but if: (1) Joe Biden remains the Democratic nominee, and (2) confidence in his mental abilities remains low, then Democratic surrogates are going to need to get out there with the message "Look, even if you think he's a vegetable, history shows that a vegetable does far less harm than a cancer."

B.B. in Little Rock, AR, asks: This was posted on a local community forum: "Just because you think that Alfred is too old and feeble to take care of the Bat Cave, is that really a good reason to fire him and hire the Joker instead?"

Also, when do you think that the Republicans will come out in public and actually admit that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes?

(V) & (Z) answer: As we note above, if Joe Biden remains on the ticket, this is an argument that Democrats should be (gently) making.

And the Republicans are never, ever going to come out and admit that, because Donald Trump is going to remain a cult hero to the base for the rest of his life, and beyond. They may try to move the party beyond Trumpism, but they are not going to come out and announce that is what is going on.

A.M. Eagle Creek, OR, asks: The Heritage Foundation has prepared plans to tie up any switch of Democratic candidates with endless litigation should Joe Biden make it to the convention and then withdraw or be forced out. How realistic is this?

(V) & (Z) answer: We think it is not realistic at all. Parties are allowed to choose their presidential candidates in whatever manner they see fit, and to change the rules for making that decision in whatever way they see fit. This is backed by hundreds of years of American political history and tradition. All the Heritage Foundation would be doing is creating some headlines meant to make the Democrats look shady, and forcing the Party to waste some resources on spurious legal claims.

J.G. In Atlanta, GA, asks: In "Happy Birthday, Sonia," you make the case for Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor stepping down now and Joe Biden appointing Kamala Harris to the Supreme Court. Wouldn't Harris have to recuse herself from her own confirmation vote, leaving a party-line vote deadlocked at 50-50?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, note that we were not "mak[ing] the case" in that piece. We rarely make a case for anything. We were merely discussing possibilites and passing along an idea that is floating around. But we weren't advocating for or against it.

As to your actual question, a newly minted federal judge, regardless of the level, does not have to resign their current post until they receive their judicial commission, approved by Congress and signed by the president. So, Harris would still be VP while the Senate was considering her nomination, and would still be eligible to vote on the question.

Also, note that Ketanji Brown Jackson was approved 53-47, even in these polarized times. So, Harris' vote might not even be necessary.

J.E. in San Jose, CA, asks: If Joe Biden resigns and Kamala Harris becomes president, who breaks the tie on a 50-50 Senate vote?

(V) & (Z) answer: Nobody, until the Congress approves a new VP. That means that any 50-50 vote taken while the vice presidency is vacant is a failed vote, since a majority is required for legislation to be adopted or for a person's appointment to be confirmed.

If Harris does vacate the vice presidency, don't expect the Republican-controlled House to approve anyone to replace her. First, because the vacancy would leave Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) next in line to become president. Second, because the vacancy would leave the 50-50 Senate without a tiebreaking vote, making it much harder to approve judges. For these reasons, Democrats should think long and hard about how enthusiastic they really are about the "Biden resigns" scenario.

A.G. in Scranton, PA, asks: My therapist said that I should be comfortable with my emotions yet I find myself asking: Is it okay to be pissed at the President and those who hid all this, knowing full well the perilous times we are in? Did they think they were helping, and this is all a well-intentioned mistake, or is this just hubris?

(V) & (Z) answer: To start, we do not believe that Biden's infirmity has been demonstrated conclusively.

But, for purposes of discussion, let us assume that he is unacceptably compromised. If so, we can see three scenarios. The first is that Biden and his team are/were in denial. It is not easy to confront mortality, and in particular it is not easy to accept the loss of one's mind. The second is that Biden and his team knew, but were honestly persuaded that he is the best/only chance of beating Donald Trump, and that hiding the truth was thus in the best interest of the nation. The third is that Biden is an ego monster who said "America be damned, this is my job, and I'm sticking with it no matter what."

From what we know of Biden, option three doesn't seem too likely, so we'd be inclined to say it's probably option one or two, and that he's deserving of a pass. But your conclusions may vary.

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