The following editorial originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Two news stories last week offered a dire assessment of America’s current political moment.
One is a Washington Post report on former President Donald Trump’s vengeful plans to use the federal government to persecute his critics should he return to office — plans that include deploying the U.S. military against American citizens on American soil.
The other is a New York Times/Siena College poll that shows this aspiring dictator beating President Joe Biden in next year’s election in five of the six battleground states that Biden narrowly won in 2020.
This despite a recovering economy, despite Biden’s deft global leadership in a turbulent world, despite his success at restoring the American political norms that Trump so degraded during his presidency.
The explanation for this apparent paradox isn’t mysterious: Wide swaths of Americans, of all political shapes, view Biden — who turns 81 later this month — as being simply too old to seek a second term.
Normally, political polls a year out from an election can be discounted. That’s not the case now, for two reasons.
One, Biden’s age is the one issue that, by definition, will not go away with the passage of time. And, two, with some states’ primary filing deadlines having already passed, time is running out for Democrats to take a different course.
We, like many others, have suggested that Biden should forego his reelection campaign and instead rally his party behind a more electable candidate for 2024. The window for such a move is fast closing and the suggestion is now an urgent plea:
Mr. President, by remaining in this campaign, you are risking the existential threat to democracy that a second Trump term would bring. Please, for the sake of the nation, bow out now.
In the almost three years since Trump was finally extracted from office after his attempted coup against the voters on Jan. 6, 2021, the autocratic instincts he displayed throughout his presidency have come more sharply into focus.
As The Washington Post reported, Trump and his allies are drafting second-term plans to direct the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute critics. Internal campaign communications also reveal discussions about invoking the Insurrection Act on Trump’s first day back in office, which would allow him to deploy the U.S. military against Inauguration Day protests.
This is horrifying and yet, given Trump’s disdain for the rule of law and basic human decency, unsurprising. He is constitutionally, psychologically, manifestly unfit for office. There is no greater threat to American democracy right now than the specter of another Trump presidential term.
But that’s exactly the cliff toward which the nation appears to be careening.
While Biden’s status as the oldest person ever to occupy the White House isn’t his only problem, according to surveys, it is among the most consistent. An astounding 71 percent of respondents find Biden “too old” for office. That sentiment is shared by more than half of Biden’s own supporters.
Though Trump is only three years younger than Biden, even Biden’s staunchest backers have to admit the gap in terms of apparent vigor is much wider.
We’re not naïve enough to believe Biden is likely to heed the math and the warning signs and leave the race now. And we’re not blind to the huge political and practical challenges that would remain if he did.
Even if Biden could gather Democratic luminaries like former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to elevate a new candidate, the question of who to choose would be an explosive one. Vice President Kamala Harris would likely fare even worse than Biden against Trump. But reaching around her to tap someone like California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, would further divide an already fractious party.
Against those challenges is this fact: Trump remains deeply unpopular with most of America. He would be eminently beatable by almost any high-profile Democrat with less baggage and fewer years than the octogenarian incumbent. If there was ever a time for political Hail Mary, this is it.
We have argued, and continue to argue, that Biden has had a successful presidency — starting with his first and most important achievement, which was to defeat Trump in 2020 and steer the nation back toward something like normalcy.
How ironic and tragic it will be if Biden’s final act as president is to undo that legacy by cracking the door for Trump’s apocalyptic return.