June 8, 2023 - 9:00 pm
President Joe Biden’s fall at the end of the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony was a brief event. He tripped, got helped up and walked off under his own power. Sometimes, though, a small thing is fraught with meaning — and with peril.
Biden’s stumbles are not minor incidents — or a laughing matter. We aren’t talking about a manufactured narrative about President Jerry Ford’s alleged clumsiness played up on “Saturday Night Live.” Biden is 80 years old, is in decline and has a stiff, shuffling gait that makes you hold your breath when he’s negotiating stairs or any place with potential obstacles. At his age, once the falls start, they usually don’t stop.
Democrats should be thinking long and hard whether this is the vessel they want to ride into 2024 — and to portray as up for performing the job of president of the United States in a second term extending all the way until January 2029.
A couple of weeks ago at the G-7 summit in Japan, Biden lost his balance going down steps at the Itsukushima Shrine to greet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He managed to right himself with some focus. He stuck the landing and could shake the prime minister’s hand like nothing happened. But how close was he and the United States to major international embarrassment and a seismic political event? A couple of inches either way?
If Biden were to do a face plant, even down a few steps, it could be very ugly. It would be a symbol of U.S decrepitude. It’s one thing to have a senior senator from California who obviously should have hung it up several years ago; it’s another to have a U.S. president lacking the agility to get around easily and safely anymore.
He also could get seriously hurt. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, fell a couple of months ago and had to be hospitalized. He suffered a concussion and a broken rib. I don’t say this with any pleasure. Anyone who has dealt with an elderly parent in decline knows aging and its attendant loss of capacity are frustrating, heartbreaking and humiliating.
In their apparent willingness to acquiesce to another Biden nomination, Democrats are looking away from the enormous risk his frailty poses to their prospects.
A bad fall or some other health event could happen on a catastrophic political timetable — if something happened to Biden in late October 2024, it could easily throw a close race to his Republican opponent. Hillary Clinton’s polling took a hit in 2016 after her fainting spell on Sept. 11.
While the public often sympathizes with politicians with health troubles (see Sen. John Fetterman), any adverse Biden event would confirm widespread doubts about his capacities and the wisdom of him running again. Rather than simply the victim of circumstances out of his control, he’d likely look foolhardy for having taken on, once again, at age 80 or 81, the physically, mentally and emotionally taxing enterprise of a national campaign.
Moreover, it would make Biden the issue in the campaign when the whole idea is supposed to be that he can repeat his role as the default candidate, making the other guy, especially Donald Trump, the focus of the race. All of this should be factored into any calculus of how electable Biden is or how strong a candidate he is against Trump.
It’s understandable that Democrats feel they are stuck — there’s no good way to leverage an incumbent out of office and there aren’t readily evident strong candidates waiting in the wings. The conservative intellectual James Burnham famously said, “If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.” There may be no good alternative to Biden for Democrats, but having to hold your breath every time he climbs or descends the steps of Air Force One is a big problem and one that isn’t going away from now until Nov. 5, 2024.
Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry.