February 16, 2024 - 1:00pm

One of the laziest arguments deployed by supporters of the president is “if not Joe Biden, then who?” In truth, the Democrats have several viable alternatives to the 81-year-old, any one of whom could present themselves as offering the generational change a majority of Americans now seek. 

The subtext of the “if not Biden, then who?” argument is: “not Kamala Harris”. Traditionally, when an incumbent president’s party nominates their replacement, the serving vice president is the frontrunner. Awkwardly for the Democrats, Harris’s subterranean approval ratings make her an even less credible candidate than Biden. While the President’s advancing years are his primary hurdle, for Harris her uneasy public demeanour, coupled with her embrace of unpopular campus identity politics, means she would almost inevitably lose to Trump.

The Democrats could look in different places for their future leaders. For too long, the party has turned to the Senate for its presidential candidates, with the last five Democratic nominees, from Al Gore to Biden, having served in the upper house. Instead, they must consider the growing pool of promising Democratic governors, especially those who’ve won power in so-called “purple” (swing) states.

Most impressive among them is 50-year-old Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro. In a state Biden only won by 1.2 % in 2020, Shapiro cruised to a landslide victory in the 2022 gubernatorial election by a hefty 14.8%. Where some Democrats ludicrously toyed with the Defund The Police movement, Shapiro pledged to hire 2,000 more officers. He appealed to traditional Republicans by advocating corporate tax cuts and gas tax refunds. Most strikingly, in a break with many Democrats, he opposed mask and vaccine mandates. An observant conservative Jew, Shapiro’s moderate economic policies, combined with a rejection of identity politics, is what many independent voters have been craving. 

Another alternative is Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan since 2019. In a state won by Trump in 2016, Whitmer has comfortably come out on top in both her gubernatorial contests. Like Shapiro, she has advocated for tax cuts, with Michigan now enjoying the lowest tax burden in the Midwest. What’s more, Whitmer has exploited one of the few truly bipartisan issues remaining to her electoral advantage: the need to upgrade America’s creaking infrastructure. She campaigned in 2018 on a pledge to “fix the damn roads”. During her first term alone, more than 1,200 bridges and over 16,000 miles of roads were repaired across the state. It’s not just good governance — it’s clever politics.

It would be remiss to list potential Biden replacements without mentioning Gavin Newsom. The California Governor is the central-casting presidential nominee, though doubts about his state governance remain. Pete Buttigieg surprised many with his strong showing in the Democratic primaries in 2020. Now serving in Biden’s cabinet as Secretary of Transportation, the openly gay military veteran is perhaps the most credible continuity candidate from inside the current administration. Against Trump, however, his predilection for identity politics may hurt him.

Clearly, then, the Democrats have options beyond Biden and Harris, none of them over 60. Were Biden replaced, Trump’s increasing frailties — not to mention his own memory issues — would come under greater scrutiny.

The challenge for the Democrats is whether they have the collective courage to either persuade or pressure the President into withdrawing from the race. Someone inside the White House, or the broader Democratic establishment, should now compel Biden to give up the job he spent six decades working towards. If they can, November’s election is theirs to lose.

James Hanson is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist, as heard on Times Radio.