Can Democrats Force Joe Biden Off the Ticket?

Some Democrats are wishfully thinking Uncle Joe would head off to a rest home.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Now that Joe Biden has appeared on MSNBC to address Tara Reade’s accusations against him and Reade herself is reparing a response, we’re at a whole new phase of the Biden-Reade story — or scandal, or brouhaha, or however you choose to describe it. And because nobody’s really “ignoring” the allegations anymore, the question must arise, particularly for those who believe Reade’s accusations (we’ll get to the dilemma facing those who don’t later): How is this saga to be resolved, assuming no evidentiary “smoking gun” appears?

There appear to be some people (including Reade’s California friend Lynda LaCasse, who says Reade told her in 1995 about the alleged 1993 assault) who are satisfied with elevating someone they believe to be a sexual assailant to the presidency on grounds that he is nonetheless a better choice than the incumbent, himself credibly accused of multiple acts of rape or sexual assault. Others will probably accept that calculus if they are driven to it.

But as Alex Pareene (who has a healthy habit of getting people to talk about unlikely but plausible scenarios like this) argues today, those who believe Reade or who simply think Biden is damaged goods do have another avenue to pursue:

Biden is the presumptive nominee in large part because the party leadership coalesced around him, signaling clearly to voters that he was the right man. The most respected and admired figures in the party could now coalesce around another path: Biden bowing out and the presidential contest continuing.

The idea here is that Biden is principally the creature of the Democratic Establishment and that what it giveth it can taketh away. The actual voters who made Biden the presumptive nominee might have something to say about that, as might the 1,421 delegates he has won and those he will probably win in the very near future. But let’s say for the sake of argument that some combination of adverse evidence, elite pressure, party loyalty, patriotism, and perhaps even guilty feelings leads Biden to “bow out.” Pareene is right that the presidential contest could continue with the back-loaded schedule of primaries that were delayed after the coronavirus struck.

But the idea of suspended candidacies being revived to walk the campaign trail again is much easier said than done, as nomination-process guru Josh Putnam told me today:

Candidates cannot have their names placed back on the ballots where they have been withdrawn by the campaigns. Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and Steyer have all withdrawn their names from most remaining primary ballots.

States themselves might remove other candidates. And then there’s the disputed count of delegates still on the table: New York has canceled its primary, which could lead to that state losing all 274 delegates (about a fourth of those remaining). Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New Jersey are — under the current rules — supposed to be sanctioned with lost delegates for holding primaries after a June 9 deadline. Even if all this gets cleared up, it illustrates the complexity of a situation that Pareene describes as an elegant matter of elites proposing and voters disposing.

If Biden were to drop out, the dominant bloc of delegates might well be his own, who would instantly become free agents. They may or may not choose to support the “winner” of the rump primaries, if there is one. I doubt they’ll go rushing to runner-up Bernie Sanders. More likely they’d lift someone near Biden’s ideological wheelhouse to the nomination, even if it meant deadlocking the convention on the first ballot and then joining forces with newly liberated superdelegates on a second.

Pareene doesn’t directly discuss the alternative scenario of Biden actually losing the nomination in the remaining primaries, but that’s probably even more far-fetched, particularly considering the deal his campaign just struck with Sanders’s, which will give him reallocated statewide Sanders pledged-delegate slots in exchange for placing Sanders supporters in them for purposes of representation on convention committees. Biden is much closer to the nomination than ever, and even if he loses the remaining primaries badly, proportional representation will make it very easy for him to grab the brass ring.

As Putnam says, there’s an element of wishful thinking here:

It is a bit like the Republicans who tried to find ways to derail an inevitable Trump nomination after he won Indiana on May 3, 2016. Were there ways to do that? Sure, but to organize and successfully implement such a strategy was next to impossible given the same sort of coalescing around Trump (and it was more reluctant than it is now for Biden). Yes, the calendar is a bit more backloaded now because of the virus, but that is not some silver bullet for any effort to get Biden to step aside or to replace him. This sort of thing moves slowly — really slowly — and even though it is May 1, it would move slow enough to be impossible before the convention. That’s the bottom line. 

So Joe Biden’s probably not going anywhere — unless his performance on the Reade allegations and other fronts begins to deteriorate so rapidly that his own supporters get worried about November. It would take something of a coup not by Sanders people or by Me Too activists or by party elites but by the very people who have gotten him so far: the rank-and-file Democrats who think he’s the most likely winner against Donald Trump. If his enhanced exposure to daily public scrutiny begins eroding his poll numbers, and he begins to look less electable or unelectable, his one great strength could become his one great weakness. But even in those dire circumstances, those trying to yang Uncle Joe off the stage had better have a king-hell replacement in mind to which both Biden and his supporters could gracefully (in his case) and gratefully (in their case) take refuge. And by that I don’t mean a scenario climaxed by Bernie Sanders beating Pete Buttigieg in Connecticut this summer but something more like the emergence of a genuine dark horse that excites the whole party.

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