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A late play by Joe Biden campaign in US election: Running out the clock

President Joe Biden’s resistance to pressure to end his reelection bid appears to be a strategy aimed at running out the clock, a play to leave his party so little time to come up with another candidate that his opponents stand down.

Every day that Biden defies pressure to step aside, the prospects, and logistics, of replacing him become more untenable, and riskier. And the potential of weeks of Democratic infighting, as a united Republican Party nominates former President Donald Trump, may start to look worse than rallying behind Biden, no matter the concerns about the 81-year-old president’s health and ability to defeat Trump.

“It’s a mess,” said James Carville, a consultant who has been among a roster of Democrats pushing for Biden to step aside and clear the way for a new nominee. “Suppose he gets what he wants. Everybody gets exhausted and just says, ‘It’s too much trouble.'”

Biden’s efforts to dig in were showing signs of initial success. On Tuesday, some Democratic leaders in Congress expressed support for the president and said it was time to move on. “The urgent need right now is for Democrats to stick together and focus on the danger of Trump and his extremist agenda,” said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado. “If we do that, we will win.”

The calendar is on Biden’s side. In the coming days, attention will turn to Trump, who is expected to name a running mate before his party gathers next week in Milwaukee to nominate him for a second term. Biden will be somewhat out of the public spotlight, focusing on the behind-the-scenes campaign to keep nervous Democrats in line.

There are 35 days between July 18, when Trump is set to accept his party’s nomination in Milwaukee, and Aug. 22, when Biden is set to accept his party’s nomination in Chicago. But the Biden campaign, working with the Democratic National Committee, appears ready to compress the calendar even further. The party is planning a virtual roll-call vote weeks before the convention is gaveled to order on Aug. 19, a move that appears meant to leave little to no doubt about who will be on top of the Democratic ticket this November. None of this is binding; the party sets the rules, and the party can change the rules. And Biden, for all his talk this week of sticking in the race, could change his mind, particularly if another bout of discouraging polls, or another performance like the one he had in his debate with Trump, shakes the party’s confidence and encourages more Democratic defections.

Biden’s show of defiance — portraying himself as standing up against elites, even as polling suggests that most voters believe he is too old to run — may be an act of self-preservation or a sophisticated political maneuver on the part of the president and his political team. But in either event, it has limited the party’s options and flexibility should he step aside. (It is technically possible but politically unfeasible for the Democratic National Committee to vote to replace him if he does not voluntarily decide not to seek reelection.)

There is no handbook for what a party should do to replace a presumptive nominee after the primary season is finished: how to vet and test potential replacements without the benefit of candidates enduring the voter examination and candidate training that comes with a primary. The ideas being floated require the kind of consensus in the party that gets only more difficult with the attenuated calendar that is emerging.

For example, a number of Democrats have called for a series of candidate forums in different parts of the county. That would raise tricky questions that would need to be resolved quickly: Who would serve as the moderator — a former president, such as Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, two frequently mentioned names, or a journalist? Who would be in the audience? And how would the party pick the candidates entitled to get on the stage?

There are alternatives, though they might not be that much less fraught. For example, instead of an organized series of sanctioned forums, the candidates could use the time before the convention to travel the country, meeting with state delegations and soliciting support. But that, too, is time-consuming, costly and complicated, in a way that would give an advantage to the candidate with money and a network. Even the party’s high-profile politicians might decide it is not worth the risk, choosing instead to stand back until 2028.

A late change at the top of the ticket could advantage one Democrat who has been mentioned as a potential successor: Vice President Kamala Harris. She has the name recognition, financing and institutional support to step in more easily than any of the other potential successors.

“There’s an understanding that President Biden will be the nominee,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “But in the case of unforeseen circumstances and Biden can’t run, it will be Kamala Harris.”

Yet as the Democrats wander through a world of no good choices, some argue that anointing Harris is hardly an ideal one. It would short-circuit the kind of competitive process that might allow the party to vet a nominee and, in doing so, minimize the prospect of intraparty strife and the appearance of party bosses choosing a candidate.

The scheduling of the virtual roll call is a clear example of how the party is moving to add to the perception of Biden’s perceived inevitability.

The Democrats initially made plans to hold the earlier vote because an Ohio law required the party’s candidates to be formalized by Aug. 7, or they would forfeit their place on the state’s ballot.

Ohio officials have since passed a temporary measure moving the deadline to accommodate the timing of the Democratic convention this year. But the DNC, solidly under Biden’s control, says it is sticking to its plans for an early roll call vote, to guard against any maneuvers by Ohio Republicans to keep the Democratic presidential candidate off the November ballot.

“We’re not playing with these people,” said Donna Brazile, a former party chair who is now on the party’s rules committee.

But that leaves less time for the party to search for a replacement should Biden step down. “They should move it later,” said Jeff Weaver, a longtime adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and an advocate for a “mini-primary.”

It is a matter of conjecture among Democrats whether this is a grand strategy by Biden and his aides who, it should be noted, have been around Democratic politics long enough to have a thorough appreciation of convention rules and their complexities.

The tactics have produced a bit of a public backlash. “Biden is running down the clock,” Mehdi Hasan, a former MSNBC host, said in a post on the social media platform X. “Which is selfish, it’s reckless but, above all else, it’s transparent.”

It also may be working. “There is an emerging consensus in the Democratic Party that Biden is going to be the nominee and we need to turn our attention to making the case against Donald Trump and 2025,” Khanna said.

Even Carville, one of the earliest Democrats to call on Biden not to seek reelection, seems resigned to that. “You know how bad Chicago is going to be?” he said, referring to the convention that awaits his party next month. “We are going to sit shiva for four days.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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