Biden’s tumble on stage stokes Democrats’ thinking about 2024 backup plan
President Biden’s nosedive at the Air Force graduation is heightening Democrats’ concerns about their Biden-or-Bust mindset for the 2024 presidential campaign, and giving would-be rivals more reason to prepare for a last-minute entry in the race.
Democratic powerbrokers rallied behind the 80-year-old early on in a public show of force, dismissing concerns about his age and downplaying the need for a backup plan in the hopes of unifying the party and providing a contrast to the brewing battle for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Behind the scenes, however, party insiders say activists are fretting about Mr. Biden’s age, and say other Democrats are certainly waiting in the wings and sussing out their options — albeit under the radar and in the discreetest of fashions.
Democratic Party officials see the polls that show most of their voters would rather see Mr. Biden sit this race out, citing his age as their chief concern.
Those concerns were magnified Thursday when the president tripped and fell after addressing graduates and handing out diplomas at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Most of the crowd turned their attention to Mr. Biden sprawled across the stage as graduates tossed their caps skyward and Thunderbirds roared overhead.
An Air Force officer and members of his Secret Service detail rushed to help pull Mr. Biden back to his feet before he returned to his seat for the remainder of the event.
He later joked he was “sandbagged” about his stumble on a couple of black sandbags that were supporting the teleprompter. The White House assured reporters he was “fine.”
Still, David A. Dulio, professor of political science at Oakland University, said the brutal reality is that Mr. Biden could easily be sidelined by injury or illness amid the 2024 campaign. The ensuing chaos, he said, would be a golden opportunity for Democrats who are sitting in the on-deck circle and preparing to leap into the White House race.
“If they are not doing that, they are not being smart,” Mr. Duilo said. “Of all the names we could come up with — they are high-profile, successful candidates and politicians — none of them got to that point without thinking strategically and being prepared when an opportunity comes their way.”
“Nobody wants to suggest that Joe Biden should step aside because that just bolstered the case against him related to his age, but I betcha they are thinking about it. This would be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Vice President Kamala Harris is next in the line of succession and would have a legitimate claim to the nomination.
Serving alongside Mr. Biden since he took the oath of office in 2021, Ms. Harris, 58, could tap into the president’s national network of support, tout her diverse upbringing and run on the record she has compiled in the administration, as well as before that as a U.S. senator and attorney general of California.
But Ms. Harris is not a shoo-in Plan B.
“I cannot imagine that other Democrats would not try to supplant her,” Mr. Dulio said. “They see the same polling that you and I do about her favorability, her job approval and I think somebody would make a strong case to say, ‘Hold on a second. Let’s think about this.’”
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Ro Khanna, another pair of Californians, are backing Mr. Biden but also have been raising their national profiles in campaign-like fashions.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who won the 2016 Iowa caucuses and finished a close second in the New Hampshire primary, is ripe for another run, as are some of Mr. Biden’s other former primary rivals such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Others say the party would have to look toward recent winners from competitive battleground states. Leaders with ground organizations in place and national brands that could energize donors and voters across the country.
Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Rory Cooper of North Carolina could lay claim to that mantle.
The prospect of subbing out Mr. Biden is a touchy and infuriating subject for Democrats, who are eager to defend the president and say former President Trump, 76, should get the same level of scrutiny about his age.
Asked whether Democrats have a fallback plan if Mr. Biden exits the race, Sam Skardon, Democratic Party chair in Charleton County, South Carolina, said: “We’d likely handle it the same way the Republicans would for their 76-year-old frontrunner.”
He also struck a positive note, saying Mr. Biden on Friday was signing “yet another major bi-partisan accomplishment of his Presidency.”
“We as Democrats have full faith in his ability to run, serve, and be really damn good at both,” Mr. Skardon said.
Mr. Trump is running in a nomination race against an expanding field of presidential contenders that will test his mettle. Mr. Biden has only drawn two primary rivals from the fringes of the Democratic Party.
He is challenged by anti-vaccine crusader Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the assassinated 1968 presidential candidate. The other Democratic contender is New Age self-help guru Marianne Williamson, who also ran in 2020.
Mr. Trump’s mental well-being has been questioned by his critics, but he has been far more stumble free than Mr. Biden, who is setting a new bar for presidents.
Other politicians have taken spills in the past. Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole toppled off stage during a campaign event in California in September 1996.
Matt Hickam, a Kansas-based strategist who worked for Mr. Dole in the 1990s, said it is hard to compare the two situations.
“I think it is different because Dole already had a history of being disabled and a war hero and his disability was already baked into his image,” he said. “Biden, when he falls, it almost cements in people’s minds that he is frail and perhaps not ready for another term.”
“Let’s add to that and say the news cycle now is so different,” he said. “There are so many different avenues seeing politicians on the world stage through regular media, social media, and so you see so much more of President Biden and his diminished faculties.”