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Margin Of Error

Fantasy Convention

In this photograph a group of townsfolk descend on a disciple after it was discovered that the ritual he participated in left a person dead during an Epoch Event in Toronto on August 6, 2011
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Welcome to Margin of Error, a politics column from Tom Scocca, editor of the Indignity newsletter, examining the apocalyptic politics and coverage of Campaign 2024.

It is almost unbelievable that Donald Trump could get elected president again. Yes, he won in 2016, against all reason and expectation and the popular vote, and the entire politics industry has been trying to correct for that under- or overestimation of the American public ever since. But 2024 is really, truly not 2016. To behold Trump over the weekend—reeling from a crushing civil fraud judgment, getting jeered as he tried to sell nonexistent $399 golden high-tops onstage at a sneaker convention—was to see something forgotten and left to turn liquid and moldy in a bag at the bottom of the fridge. You certainly didn't want to smell it. 

Even Fox News couldn't describe Trump's Sneaker Con performance as better than mixed, writing that he "appeared before a crowd of emotional attendees, some of whom cheered on the president as others booed him." (Note the use of "the president" there.)

And yet—of course—unavoidably—it is entirely possible to believe that Joe Biden could lose to him. The poll numbers say what they say. Going along with the Gaza slaughter could cost Biden Michigan; taking a belated stand against the Gaza slaughter could cost him his party's pro-Israel wing. The snippy report from the special prosecutor has given everyone permission to talk about how halting and shaky he is. 

The whole situation is irrational—so irrational, it seems as if there must be some better solution. Surely a bunch of smart people could get together in a room and come up with one? And so Ezra Klein got on the microphone to record an "audio essay" for the New York Times, laying out his vision of how to solve the problem of 2024. 

Klein wanted the listeners to understand that he was approaching the Biden question as someone who talks to people in the real world. "I had a conversation recently with Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the House progressive caucus," he said. And: "Since the beginning of Biden’s administration, I have been asking people who work with him: How does he seem? How read-in is he? What’s he like in the meetings?" Also: "I was talking to James Carville." And, further: "Part of my job is talking to the kinds of Democrats who run and win campaigns constantly." 

What Klein said he'd concluded, based on these conversations, is that Joe Biden is a good and effective president—"I cannot point you to a moment where Biden faltered in his presidency because his age had slowed him"—but that he is failing to perform the role of a presidential candidate. The public is worried about his age, he cannot act young and vigorous in a way that reassures them, and he and his handlers have no theory about how to address this beyond hunkering down and hoping it blows over. 

It was a reasonable assessment of the facts, or at least of the established vibes, which function as facts for these purposes. Joe Biden may have gotten the United States out of Afghanistan, overseen sustained low unemployment and wage growth for bottom earners, and carved away some of the student-debt mountain in the face of a hostile court system, but his next job is to win the 2024 election, and he's not doing well at that so far. 

What if, Klein asked, the Democrats recognized the seriousness of this problem and got someone else to run? What if the party were to pick an alternative candidate who was young and persuasive? 

What if you could turn the Trump sneaker into a sustainable tote bag? For all the people he talked to about the state of politics, Klein's vision of how to run the 2024 race without Biden was untethered from any version of political reality. The Democrats are simply supposed to tell the incumbent president, running all but unopposed in the party primaries, that he should drop out: 

That in stepping aside he would be able to finish out his term as a strong and focused president, and people would see the honor in what he did, in putting his country over his ambitions.

The people whom Biden listens to—Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, Mike Donilon, Ron Klain, Nancy Pelosi, Anita Dunn—they need to get him to see this. Biden may come to see it himself.

New York Times

Barack Obama! Barack Obama is going to go to an elderly person and, with his charm and intellect, convince them to give up the powerful position they worked their whole life to achieve. He already tried this once. The result was that abortion is now illegal in 14 states and counting. 

And that was only step one of Klein's plan: 

Let’s say that happens: Biden steps aside. Then what? Well, then Democrats do something that used to be common in politics but hasn’t been in decades. They pick their nominee at the convention. This is how parties chose their nominees for most of American history. From roughly 1831 to 1968, this is how it worked. In a way, this is still how it works.

New York Times

For more than half of that span from 1831 to 1968, people in the United States didn't even directly elect their senators. The political arrangement Klein was pointing to has been defunct longer than most Americans have been alive—and it went defunct specifically because the public wouldn't put up with it. The old convention-based system of presidential nominations died in failure and disgrace, a fact that Klein was fully aware of: 

The last open convention Democrats had was 1968, a disaster of a convention where the Democratic Party split between pro- and anti-Vietnam War factions, where there was violence in the streets, where Democrats lost the election.

But that’s not how most conventions have gone. It was a convention that picked Abraham Lincoln over William Seward. It was a convention that chose F.D.R. over Al Smith.

New York Times

Yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not secure the presidential nomination in 1932 until he'd assembled a majority at the Democratic convention. But Roosevelt went into the convention having won more primaries, and having collected more delegates, than any of his rivals. What Klein was proposing was not a return to the process that nominated Roosevelt but something entirely unprecedented—a free-for-all televised popularity contest among a batch of would-be candidates who would not have campaigned anywhere, for anyone's votes, beforehand: 

There is a ton of talent in the Democratic Party right now: Gretchen Whitmer, Wes Moore, Jared Polis, Gavin Newsom, Raphael Warnock, Josh Shapiro, Cory Booker, Ro Khanna, Pete Buttigieg, Gina Raimondo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chris Murphy, Andy Beshear, J.B. Pritzker — the list goes on.

Some of them would make a run at the nomination. They would give speeches at the convention, and people would actually pay attention. The whole country would be watching the Democratic convention, and probably quite a bit happening in the run-up to it, and seeing what this murderer’s row of political talent could actually do. And then some ticket would be chosen based on how those people did.

New York Times

Some ticket would be chosen—by whom, exactly? How? No one will have delegated this particular power to the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, not in any meaningful sense. Aspiring delegates, in Klein's scheme, would not have stood on the ballot on their promise to be wise and faithful proxies for the interests of their home-state voters. They would just have shown up, out of organizational inertia. 

None of the logistics made any sense, because Klein had retreated into fantasy. The 2024 Democratic presidential nominee is going to be Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris if Joe Biden drops dead or ends up fully incapacitated. The way to get a different nominee would have been for someone to start running against him in 2023. The forum for that grab-bag of younger, talented people to make their speeches would have been the campaign trail and the primary debate stage. No one—not one of these visionary future leaders—saw fit to do it. 

There isn't some magical way to get a do-over. And even if there were, what was Klein wishing for, exactly? This sideways intra-party coup, cutting the voters out of the nominating process entirely, would be necessary because nothing is more important in 2024 than defeating Donald Trump. Because if Trump isn't stopped now, American democracy itself may not survive. Imagine: a system where your vote doesn't count at all.

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