Biden or Haley? For some Democrats, it’s about who can stop Trump

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley visits a charter school in Manchester, N.H., on Friday. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post

If you’re a Democrat, or someone who intends to vote that way in the fall, I have a hypothetical exercise for you.

Let’s say I could snap my fingers and make it so that former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley would win the Republican nomination and end the Trump nightmare once and for all. (In this exercise, I’m like some meddling god from “The Odyssey.” I can even stop Trump from inciting another riot.)

But here’s the catch: In addition to banishing Trump, Haley would also be magically proclaimed the winner over President Biden in the general election, thus handing the White House back to the Republicans. Would you take that deal?

My assumption – with no data to back it up, but plenty of anecdotal evidence – is that some sizable plurality of Democrats would say: “in a heartbeat.” Which gets to a very strange dynamic in the Democratic Party right now.

Whether or not Haley emerges from New Hampshire as a credible threat to Trump (the groupthink right now is that she won’t, and we all know how the groupthink is always right), her candidacy has exposed a divergence of priorities when it comes to the president and his supporters. Biden wants to stake his claim to another term, while many Democrats would sacrifice him tomorrow if it meant stopping Trump.

Biden, as I’ve written before, is making a pretty reckless bet with our democracy, and it’s too late now to fold. Instead of announcing a year ago that he would be stepping back and letting the party sort through a new generation of potential leaders, he and his team decided that an 81-year-old incumbent, visibly slowed and enduringly unpopular, was the party’s only viable option.

The main rationale behind this, as you’ve probably heard, is that Biden is the only Democrat who has managed to beat Trump (exactly two have tried, by the way), and thus he is probably the only Democrat out there who can beat Trump again.

Even if they actually buy this pretty shaky argument, however, Biden’s strategists surely know that the inverse is almost certainly true, too. That is: If Biden is the only Democrat who can beat Trump, then Trump is the only Republican Biden can actually beat.

Right now, 10 months out from the election, it’s hard to imagine Biden winning a campaign against a candidate who is decades younger, generally sane and not facing multiple indictments. White House aides might insist that they’re not rooting for Trump, and I’m sure it brought them no visceral joy to see his supporters celebrating after a resounding victory in Iowa. But they must also know that Biden won’t get another four years unless Trump is the foil.

For a lot of moderate voters, however, that’s one whopper of a risk to take. Someone less charitable might even call it selfish.

Trump doesn’t merely promise four years of bad government. As my colleague Robert Kagan has written, and as a startling number of Trump’s former aides have now warned, his return might well plunge the country into dictatorship. It’s not an outcome you want riding on a few contested votes in Pennsylvania.

So you can forgive some sizable segment of voters, including Democrats – I don’t know what the number is, but I’m betting it’s not less than a third – for being not so much pro-Biden as anyone-but-Trump. Better to spend four years fighting over abortion rights, an issue on which Republicans keep losing anyway, than to watch the Constitution itself put through a shredder.

We’ll know after New Hampshire whether Haley is a genuine threat to Trump or more like this year’s John Kasich. At least she’s consolidating the anti-Trump vote, which is a first in the party. (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, is laying off staff. Maybe they should rename it “Back Down Sometimes.”)

But it’s not hard to see why some Democrats would root for her and why Biden would not. She’s a woman and non-White, which automatically disarms much of the left. She’s maddeningly malleable, which makes her a little bit like Barack Obama in 2008 – different things to different people. And she’s an excellent debater, even when she’s wrong.

The longer Haley hangs around, the more Biden and these voters will find themselves wishing for different outcomes – unless, that is, Biden’s objectives aren’t entirely what they seem.

Because there’s a at least a chance that, under his veneer of determination and bravado, Biden is as tired as he looks some days and that he wouldn’t have chosen to pursue a second term if he had more confidence in his vice president as a candidate. There’s a chance that Biden really is more interested in saving the soul of the nation, as he likes to put it, than he is in delivering another State of the Union.

And if that’s the case, then maybe Biden is just as much in the anyone-but-Trump camp as a lot of his voters are. Maybe, truth be told, he’d take the deal, too.

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(Matt Bai, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a journalist, author and screenwriter. He spent more than a decade at the New York Times, where he was chief political writer for the Sunday magazine and a columnist for the newspaper.)



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