© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
President Joe Biden is facing new concerns about his age after a report by special counsel Robert Hur.
President Joe Biden is facing new concerns about his age after a report by special counsel Robert Hur. Andrew Harnik/AP

Biden Is ‘Well-Meaning’ and ‘Elderly’ and He’s Going to Be the Nominee

“This ain’t ‘The West Wing,’” one Democratic strategist put it.

For Democrats rattled by the latest news on Joe Biden, here’s the hard truth: If Biden doesn’t drop out, his party likely can’t get him out.

“This ain’t ‘The West Wing,’” said a Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the subject every plugged-in Democratic strategist was talking about Friday. “Joe Biden is the candidate and there’s really no easy way to change that without massively disrupting the party’s coalition.”

In other words, there will be no way to walk and talk out of this one.

No one thinks Biden is going to drop out. And there really isn’t time to make a change to the Democratic ticket without an extremely chaotic and divisive process, Democrats say. What’s more, the most likely person to take over the nomination would be Vice President Kamala Harris, who many Democrats think carries her own liabilities in a general election.

So the debate over Biden’s age — which showed up like a stunt-cast villain in the Democrats’ 2024 drama Thursday — will not conclude with a surprise twist. It will almost certainly end with voters choosing which of the oldest presidents in history will get a chance to return to the White House.

Strategists, officials, electeds and gadflys in Democratic circles agreed on this in the hours after special counsel Robert Hur accused the 81-year-old president of forgetting key details, including the year his son Beau died: The report will be a part of the Biden campaign, not what ends it.

The Democrats don’t have much of a choice. The primaries are underway and the filing deadlines have already passed in 45 states. So it’s not possible for someone to get into the race and beat out Biden on nominating delegates. The so-called Democratic superdelegates that gave the party establishment significant power to sway the nominating process in 2016 are a largely diminished part of the process after 2018 party reforms.

Republicans are similarly stuck with their likeliest nominee, 77-year-old Donald Trump, despite concerns about his age, criminal charges and his own mental stumbles, as 538 reported in granular detail last month. If either man dies, that report lays out the various subtle differences for each party, but the general upshot is that it would be a big mess.

Of course, there could still be alternatives. Renewed concerns about Biden’s age could help push votes to potential third-party presidential candidates, including Cornel West (70 years old), Jill Stein (73) and Robert Kennedy Jr. (70).

Strategists aligned with No Labels said Biden’s bad news day only reinforces why they started their effort in the first place.

“For people that are so determined not to see Trump as president again, I don’t know why they wouldn’t be open to see how this would develop,” said Rob Stutzman, senior strategist with the New Leaders 2024, a super PAC preparing to help the No Labels presidential ticket if the group opts to back one. “Because putting all the eggs in the Biden basket is increasingly high risk and irrational.”

Democrats’ eggs have been placed. But even if Hur’s report has not set Democrats scrambling to replace their nominee, it has provided a final answer to a question they have been wrestling with since 2020: Is it bad to run an old candidate? Hur’s report pretty clearly showed it is a liability, albeit one that the president’s supporters insist they can overcome. That’s something Democrats have argued about for years, thanks in part to consistent polling showing voters are concerned about age but electoral results showing they have voted for Biden anyway.

How did things get here? One place to start is Sept. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Former President Jimmy Carter, then 95, was asked what it would take for him to throw his hat in the ring by a questioner who noted that Grover Cleveland had served two nonconsecutive terms.

Carter laughed, as did the late first lady Rosalynn Carter and the audience. It was the kind of nice thing one says to a former president at what he had mused earlier might be one of his last public appearances. But then Carter went on with the joke.

“Well, I hope there’s an age limit!” he said, grinning. “You know, if I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger” — there was more laughing as he said that — “I don’t believe that I could undertake the duties that I experienced when I was president.”

Was Carter kidding around? Or was he sending a warning to the 2020 Democratic primary voters months after a then-76-year-old Biden entered the race? Press coverage couldn’t really decide — some reported Carter was joking, while others covered it like a major campaign development. Just about a month later, Carter’s quip/warning was turned into a question for Biden at the fourth Democratic presidential debate in Westerville, Ohio.

Biden was asked why he was so sure he could take on the duties of president at 80 that Carter said he couldn’t.

“Look, one of the reasons I’m running is because of my age and my experience,” he replied. “With it comes wisdom.”

Biden was the second oldest candidate on the stage. Sen. Bernie Sanders, about a year older than Biden but the favored candidate among many young voters, had already gotten an age-related question about a recent heart attack that had taken him off the campaign trail.

There were several younger alternatives too, the youngest of them still in his 30s. But the fears about Biden’s age never really took — at least not enough to keep him out of the White House. He won the primary and then the election, and this go-around, Democrats followed the traditional formula of backing their incumbent over any potential challenger.

Democrats have never really landed on a central message about Biden’s age. Does it give him wisdom and experience? Even Friday, some Democratic allies were calling Biden’s age an asset. Or is it sort of funny — a way to frame Biden as America’s friendly grandpa? Biden himself has adopted that image: When he pardoned the turkeys last year, on his 81st birthday, Biden made a lot of grandpa jokes about his age.

The final messaging option is the one they might need to contend with now, as many Democrats are fretting in the press about the Hur report. Biden’s age simply could be a liability that Democrats must argue pales in comparison to all the liabilities that come with Trump. As the chaos of Thursday’s report congealed into Democratic talking points about prosecutorial overreach and accusations of partisanship by Hur’s team, the only way to move forward became clear to many Biden allies.

“I’m confident that by November most voters will have come to the conclusion that Donald Trump’s mental state is far worse for America than Joe Biden’s,” the same anonymous strategist said.

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Alex Roarty are reporters at NOTUS.