By Rich Lowry
Joe Biden went to Valley Forge to give a big speech telling us how much he cares about defending democracy against the threat represented by Donald Trump. How much does President Biden care? Enough to give a speech defending democracy, one of what’s sure to be many if Trump is his opponent.
Biden’s alarm about the precariousness of the American system, though, will never translate into actions he wouldn’t otherwise want to take.
To wit, if Joe Biden were, as a matter of the principle, devoted to defending democracy at all costs, the first thing he would do would be to step aside for some younger, more capable, less radioactive Democrat with a much better chance of beating Trump.
Biden taking this step would be politically electric, underlining how seriously he takes Trump’s challenge to the republic and perhaps proving to some skeptics that his rhetoric about defending democracy is more than simply rhetoric.
Biden made much in his hackneyed speech — it probably could have been written by a precocious eighth-grader in an AP government class — of a painting in the U.S. Capitol of George Washington resigning his commission.
Biden correctly calls it a sublime act, because Washington, who could have been tempted to leverage his position after the Revolution for personal and political gain, gives up power in the service of his ideals instead. Biden makes the contrast between the statesmanship depicted in the painting and Jan. 6, which is fair enough.
It probably doesn’t even occur to him, though, that if a supremely talented military and political leader in his prime could step aside for the good of the whole, it should be much easier for a hack politician who is increasingly rickety and unpopular to make a selfless sacrifice for his party and, as he sees it, his country.
No? No. Of course not.
Biden’s defense of democracy has to end with him in the White House again, not some other Democrat who might vanquish Trump easily. (Granted, Kamala Harris would complicate a Biden-stepping-aside scenario, but if the republic is at risk, perhaps Democrats could also be honest about how dreadful Harris is and nominate someone else — although now we are really entering the realm of fantasy.)
OK, so Biden isn’t voluntarily going anywhere. But if the stakes this November are so world-historical, surely the defense of democracy should include some moderation on progressive causes that are easy political targets for Trump.
Consider the chaos at the border, which, if Trump makes it back to the White House, will be one of the major reasons. Would saving the republic make it worth going beyond whatever border deal might be in the offing with congressional Republicans and admitting that the Trump policies worked and should be restored immediately? Or is allowing millions of illegal immigrants into the country more important than increasing the odds that democracy itself survives beyond 2024?
Finally, if substantive concessions are too painful, there’s always the possibility of staking out some genuinely new ground in the democracy debate itself. Imagine if Biden said that democracy is so important that no one should be striking his probable opponent from the ballot. Or if he said he now realizes that he, too, let down the constitutional order by undertaking executive orders that exceeded his authority and that, on second thought, he needs to lead by example in complete faithfulness to the system.
Would that kill him? Evidently, yes.
Biden’s position is that democracy is under such a threat that he — the man with abysmal approval ratings who most Americans believe can’t possibly serve a second term — needs to run again to eke out a narrow, no-margin-for-error victory against the man who embodies the threat.
Faith in our system of government, patriotism itself, supposedly demands nothing else. And if Biden flubs it, which is a real possibility? Then, I guess it’s, “Oh, well, democracy can always be saved again in the 2026 midterms.”
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. (c) 2024 by King Features Synd., Inc.