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Opinion | The Talented Democrats Who Aren’t Running for President

Opinion | The Talented Democrats Who Aren’t Running for President

At a BBQ-for-Biden-Harris event, a small crowd of Democratic voters gathered recently for a quiet lunch in the parking lot of a Detroit church where a swift Michigan wind carried away their polite applause.

At one table, a member of the United Auto Workers, the state’s powerful automotive union, told me that voting for President Biden was a duty he planned to perform.

Then Representative Jasmine Crockett of Texas grabbed the microphone. And suddenly, the listless group of voters came alive.

“The Republicans remain steadfast as it relates to Roe v. Wade. They didn’t take our rights overnight. They worked on it. For decades! We need that type of resolve!” Ms. Crockett boomed to the mostly Black crowd. “They want to say things like: ‘You know what? Jim Crow life was better for y’all Black folk.’”

“No! No!” a man shouted out. The crowd fell silent, rapt.

Ms. Crockett, a powerhouse campaigner, isn’t even the most talked about from the Democratic Party’s deep bench of rising stars. As she and others continue to hit the campaign trail, the conundrum facing the party becomes clearer: There is plenty of political energy within the Democratic base, but it may not be there to re-elect Mr. Biden.

The dynamic is an awkward one. For months, Mr. Biden relied on this charismatic group of Democrats to serve as surrogates. In the wake of his disastrous debate performance, it is increasingly difficult for voters to ignore the bevy of charismatic politicians outshining the standard-bearer they are trying to publicly defend.

In the days since the debate, Ms. Crockett — a criminal defense and civil rights attorney — has built a case for Mr. Biden that, though not inspiring, feels more honest than anything the president or his closest aides have come up with.

“If we’re looking for somebody who’s going to go out there and put on a good dance for us, probably not,” she said of Mr. Biden in a phone interview. “If that’s what you need out of your presidential candidate, then probably not. But if you’re looking for someone who has a mind and a heart that is set on policies that will be life-changing for regular, everyday, middle-class people, then yeah.”

Immediately after the debate, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was among the Democrats scrambling to turn the attention away from the president’s poor performance and return the focus to Mr. Trump.

“I was taking notes about all the lies. I ran out of paper,” the polished governor said of Mr. Trump with ease, delivering in seconds the kind of obvious, straightforward political punch Mr. Biden was unable to land over the course of a 90-minute debate.

There is also Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who supported a successful ballot initiative to enact abortion protections and who enjoys a roughly 61 percent approval rating in a politically fractious swing state, where a local militia plotted to kidnap her.

“When Democrats are in charge, women make their own damn decisions about their bodies!” Ms. Whitmer shouted at a Pride parade in Detroit recently, eliciting loud cheers. She said on Monday that she wouldn’t run even if Mr. Biden dropped out.

Most talked about, though, is Vice President Kamala Harris. For much of Mr. Biden’s first term, the White House sidelined Ms. Harris, treating her as a liability. Over the past year, she has grown stronger as a speaker and campaigner and become among Mr. Biden’s most effective surrogates. Watching her campaign in Nevada earlier this year, I saw her draw enthusiasm from younger voters, nonwhite voters and women. A CNN poll last week found Ms. Harris outperforming Mr. Biden in a matchup against Mr. Trump. Ms. Crockett described herself as a “staunch supporter and stan of the vice president.”

The same CNN poll found that 75 percent of registered voters said they believed that someone other than Mr. Biden was better positioned to beat Mr. Trump. Majorities of Democratic voters have long expressed a similar view in polls. More possible candidates include Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland, Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, among many others.

Ms. Crockett said the debate hasn’t changed her support. She said she would back Mr. Biden as long as he remains the party’s standard-bearer. “The idea that 90 minutes erases literally 50 years of service and receipts is wild,” she said. “This ultimately will be one of the most successful presidencies when the history books are written, if we’re still allowed to have history books.”

If Mr. Biden does choose to drop out of the race, though, Ms. Crockett told me, she will support whichever Democrat replaces him. “There is no way to remove Joe Biden from the top of the ticket if Joe Biden says he’s not going,” she said. But, she added: “If for some reason the president did say that he was going to go somewhere, then I would support whomever, because I think that that’s what it has to be.”

The Texas congresswoman said she saw a second Trump presidency as an existential threat to democracy and to her personally as a Black woman. “I can be honest and tell you, I don’t care if it’s a dish rag that’s on the ticket; I’m voting for the dish rag,” she said. If Mr. Trump is elected, she predicted, she and other Black Americans will be a top target “of the firing squad that will be shooting.”

Despite the strength of the Democratic field, replacing Mr. Biden at this point carries serious political risks, some of which are unknown. And Mr. Biden’s polling might yet improve. It remains possible he could overcome his terrible debate performance, though he has yet to demonstrate as much.

Either way, it’s disturbing to see Mr. Biden and his closest supporters — people who have served the country nobly — drifting away from the facts before them. Mr. Biden made the case in his letter to congressional Democrats on Monday that he was the best Democrat to take on Mr. Trump, implicitly suggesting that none of the other possible candidates could do the job. The first lady, Jill Biden, made a similar case recently.

“Joe isn’t just the right person for the job,” Dr. Biden told donors in the Hamptons shortly after the debate. “He’s the only person for the job.”

From Mr. Biden’s partner of nearly 50 years — someone my colleague Michelle Cottle recently described as a “human shield” for the president — this kind of devotion is admirable. But wishing away reality isn’t a winning strategy for an American political party tasked with staring down tyranny.

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