Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
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Challenging Biden Is Risky. So Is Nominating Him.

A serious primary challenge could test and strengthen the president’s reelection campaign.

Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Jonathan Chait’s &c. newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Why has no mainstream Democrat challenged President Biden for the presidential nomination, even though two-thirds of Democrats want a different nominee? The main answer is that they all “know” such a challenge would weaken Biden and guarantee a Trump victory.

The biggest assumption in this objection is that a challenger would obviously lose. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the polls should be taken seriously, and the fact that most of the party’s voters want somebody else to beat Biden suggests that somebody else could actually beat Biden. And given the president’s alarmingly low approval ratings, that outcome seems like it could increase, not decrease, the party’s chances of defeating Trump.

But the second assumption of the objection is that if a challenger did lose to Biden, Biden would come out weaker than before. That is certainly possible. On the other hand, I think it’s far from certain, and the opposite may well be true.

The main argument that a primary challenge would necessarily hurt Biden stems from historical precedent. There are four examples of incumbent presidents facing serious primary challengers, and none of those presidents went on to win reelection. Of course, this objection assumes that the primary challenge caused the president to lose. In reality, the reason these presidents (Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George Bush in 1992) faced primary challenges is that they were vulnerable in the first place. Assuming the primary challenge caused the general-election defeat inverts cause and effect.

It’s probably true that a slashing campaign against Biden as mentally unfit would be damaging. But I don’t think that would be inevitable or even a smart way to win the nomination. A Democrat who ran a positive campaign and said the time had come to pass the torch on to a new generation (a non-Kennedy, this time) would be an adequate contrast message, given that the majority of Democrats already have concerns about Biden’s age.

What’s more, a primary challenge would give Biden the opportunity to demonstrate he is actually up to the job of a full-time campaign. In 2020, the pandemic spared Biden from the usual rigors of the campaign trail. We don’t really know how much campaigning he could have handled under normal conditions, and we know less about how much he will be able to handle against Trump now that he is four years older. If he cruises to renomination without a serious challenge, that will have remained untested.

To me, it seems safer, not riskier, to make Biden show he can actually get out on the stump for weeks on end before Democrats bet everything on him. If he does it, his challenger can gracefully endorse him and admit the president proved his vitality.

A better argument for sticking with Biden, I think, is that the economy has only recently begun to deliver real wage gains to most Americans. There is normally a lag between changing economic conditions and the public crediting the president. So Biden’s approval should improve over the next year if the recovery proceeds. And a different Democratic nominee might not receive the same incumbency benefit from a strong economy.

Only a fool would promise that a Democratic challenger would certainly help the party beat Trump or that the lack of one would certainly lead to defeat. There are obviously risks attached to any course of action. My sense is that the party is drifting into a risky strategy — assuming Biden’s dismal approval ratings don’t matter and that his health won’t decline — and convincing itself it’s safe.

Challenging Biden Is Risky. So Is Nominating Him.