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Opinion | What Democrats owe Biden

President Biden’s theory of the election is unchanged — that he gives the Democratic Party its best chance of defeating former president Donald Trump. He might be right. But that argument can no longer be accepted and parroted by party elders whose judgment Biden trusts and respects.

For one illustration of the incredible stakes in this election, look at Monday’s Supreme Court decision giving Trump broad presidential immunity from criminal prosecution — a kinglike status found nowhere in the Constitution.

If Trump wins in November, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., both in their mid-70s, might well retire. That would allow Trump to appoint younger replacements and solidify the court’s 6-3 conservative majority for decades to come.

The implications for reproductive rights, voting rights and other freedoms that once were guaranteed would be catastrophic.

It is irresponsible for leading Democrats and the Biden campaign to blithely pretend last Thursday’s presidential debate never happened. We saw what we saw and heard what we heard. Magical thinking does not win elections.

Biden was alarmingly frail and struggled to complete his thoughts, let alone his sentences. And Trump confirmed every fear about what giving him another four years in the White House would mean for the nation and the world.

Before the debate, polls showed the race essentially tied, with Trump narrowly leading in some decisive swing states. If Biden now falls significantly behind, the party must consider alternative candidates.

The window for starting an orderly process to choose a new 2024 candidate was slammed shut roughly 14 months ago, when Biden, then 80, announced he was running again. Changing horses midstream would be chaotic and likely divisive.

The most relevant precedent in 1968 — when President Lyndon B. Johnson decided against seeking reelection — is not encouraging. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with rioters battling police in the streets amid clouds of tear gas, delegates gave the nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t won a single primary. (Humphrey lost in the general election to Richard M. Nixon, and the rest is history.)

This year’s Democratic convention is in Chicago. History’s sense of humor can be cruel.

But, as we’ve learned in the past decade, nothing is impossible anymore in U.S. politics. Not if Trump could win in 2016. Not if he is a viable candidate now, even after fomenting the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection and being convicted of 34 felony charges stemming from a hush money payment to an adult film actress.

The Biden campaign’s response to the debacle has been unconvincing. Biden’s forceful speech at a rally Friday was good, but, of course, there is a difference between the thrust-and-parry of a debate and scripted remarks. It takes time and repetition to erase the kind of impression Biden made at the debate.

One statement from the Biden campaign described those questioning whether Biden should stay in the race as the “bedwetting brigade.” I’ve never had patience for Democrats looking for reasons to freak out. I’ve always believed that voters, in the end, would find Biden’s diminished vigor and record of accomplishment preferable to Trump’s energetic narcissism and record of failure.

They still might. But I wasn’t counting on a spectacle like that debate.

What about the argument that Biden’s replacement would likely be Vice President Harris, and that she would be more likely to lose to Trump? Neither premise is necessarily valid. The party could rally around Harris. The nominee could also be Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Georgia Sen. Raphael G. Warnock. It’s not as if the party lacks a bench.

Biden is determined to stay in the race, and reportedly he has the full backing of his family and inner circle. I can understand why the president might bristle at calls to step aside from a bunch of know-it-all columnists and commentators who have never run a campaign for student council.

But there are voices he respects. It is understandable that veteran Democratic warriors such as Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.), as well as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), would repeat the Biden campaign’s talking points right now.

But they cannot unsee how feeble and unsteady Biden was Thursday night. They owe it to their party and their country to watch the polling trends with cold eyes. And if Biden’s numbers head south, they need to organize an intervention.

Democrats can hope — and, at this point, should hope — that Biden reassures the nation and his reelection gets back on track. But this is…

Read More: Opinion | What Democrats owe Biden

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