The Worst Argument in Favor of Keeping Joe Biden

As Democrats debate whether to replace President Joe Biden, an ill-conceived argument for retaining him as the nominee is alarmingly common.

Its premise is that Biden has earned voters’ loyalty—as if the question that confronts Americans is what we owe an individual politician rather than what’s best for the country. No matter how one feels about Biden, that premise is deeply flawed.

Vice President Kamala Harris put it this way last week: “President Joe Biden has devoted his life to fighting for the people of our country. In this moment, I know all of us are ready to fight for him.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared, “Joe Biden’s had our back. Now it’s time to have his.”

Governor Wes Moore of Maryland told reporters, “The president has always had our backs, and we’re going to have his back as well.”

Loyalty can be a virtue, but this invocation of it is appalling.

I am glad that Biden prevailed in 2020. I am grateful for his public service, despite disagreeing with his ideology. But do Harris, Newsom, and Moore really believe that if a president works on behalf of the public––that if he does the job that he sought out and was paid to perform––he is owed reelection, even if his cognitive capacities suddenly decline or other circumstances arise to make him less capable of doing his job well?

Their loyalty statements do not argue that Biden is the Democrat most likely to beat Donald Trump, or that Biden would make the best president of any electable Democrat, or that Biden will be cognitively capable of serving four more years as president, or even that his present cognitive abilities are sufficient. They appeal to a duty of reciprocity, treating other questions as less important or irrelevant.

That’s frustrating because all those other questions are of much greater importance. If loyalty is a virtue at all, the loyalty we owe to family members, to friends, to colleagues, and to country––that is, to our roughly 33,706,000 fellow Americans––will always compel us to put what’s best for them before what’s best for any politician, including any president, no matter how much he has achieved or sacrificed.

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison told Al Sharpton that in the Black community, he is seeing intensified support for Biden (something that is not evidenced in polls), because “people understand this: that Joe Biden has always had our back, and we’re going to have his.” That always is itself preposterous. For instance, Biden was on the wrong side of the school-integration efforts of the 1970s. But even if it were true, voters who prioritize the interests of Black Americans, or Americans generally, should ask Who will serve us best these next four years? not Who has served us best in the past? Should the answers differ, the civic responsibility is to back whoever is most likely to improve lives going forward, not to reward past performance at the future’s expense. No honorable politician would want that.

Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania stated, “I’m unwilling to discard a great president, a decent man and a loving father after 50 years in public service, over a 90-minute debate. Responding with disorder, panic, and disloyalty is not meeting this moment.” By injecting questions of loyalty and disloyalty into his argument and implying that deciding that a politician lacks the cognitive fitness to do the toughest job in the world is somehow tantamount to discarding him, Fetterman failed to meet the moment. Forced retirement at 81 is not exile. Many have sacrificed more for the common good.

Democrats would do better to run Vice President Harris than Joe Biden, and better still to run whichever Democrat polls best, in terms of approval rating and in head-to-head matchups with Trump. But even Democrats who think Biden should stay in the race should abandon the flawed loyalty argument.

Most Americans, including most independents and undecided voters, will be understandably alienated by a Democratic talking point that amounts to Ask not what the presumptive Democratic nominee can do for you, but what you owe the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Americans do owe our elected officials fair-mindedness, appreciation of how hard governing is, and thanks for a job well done, when earned. To Biden and other past presidents, we also owe a pension, Secret Service protection, and the option to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But we owe them loyalty exactly never.

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