Stephens: Only way that Biden can win is not to run

The president can only commit to managing threats; his best chance for victory is to leave the ticket.

By Bret Stephens / The New York Times

In 1977, Ronald Reagan shared his thoughts on the Cold War with his aide Richard Allen. “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic,” the future president said. “It is this: We win, and they lose. What do you think of that?”

This year, Joe Biden cast the purpose of his presidency as a struggle against authoritarianism, at home and abroad. What’s his theory of victory?

He doesn’t appear to have one. His style of governance is to manage threats, not defeat them. He has sought to provide Ukraine with sufficient weaponry not to lose to Vladimir Putin. But even before congressional Republicans forced a spending hiatus, he was reluctant to give Ukraine the types or numbers of weapons it needed to evict Russian forces from its territory.

He believes Israel has a right to protect itself. But his previous insistence that Hamas has to be defeated has given way to a U.S.-backed cease-fire resolution that effectively ensures Hamas’ survival.

He has vowed that Iran will never get nuclear weapons. But in the face of Iran’s refusal to give international inspectors access to its nuclear facilities, the United States worked to soften a diplomatic censure.

He has promised to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. But projected U.S. military spending, when adjusted for inflation, is essentially flat, and U.S. naval power isn’t keeping pace with China’s growth.

What about the threat at home? Biden is sleepwalking to defeat against a felonious adversary who three years ago incited violence to overturn an election. He has the lowest approval rating of his time in office: 37.6%, according to a polling average. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were in similar territory at similar points in their one-term presidencies.

Biden desperately needs some wins; real, not cosmetic, ones. Who in his administration is thinking about how to get him some?

The Gaza cease-fire isn’t it, at least not in itself. It merely punts a problem that needs to be solved: Hamas’ continued grip over the territory. It begins with a six-week pause in the fighting that might lead to the release of some Israeli hostages in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. But it risks falling apart because no Israeli government will retreat from all of Gaza while Hamas retains power, and Hamas won’t release all the hostages or meet the deal’s other terms while Israeli forces remain in the territory.

That means the cease-fire could fall apart closer to the election, when Biden will least want another Middle East crisis. What could rescue it is a deal with Saudi Arabia; the kingdom’s recognition of Israel plus an Arab security force in Gaza in exchange for a U.S. defense guarantee and ambiguous Israeli promises of an eventual Palestinian state.

Will it work after the administration has done so much to insult and antagonize dislikable leaders in Israel and Saudi Arabia? Or will those leaders bide their time to deliver the prize to Donald Trump? That’s a question — and a lesson — for the future.

Ukraine could be another win for Biden, an easier one. It’s good that Washington finally supplied the Ukrainians with longer-range ATACM missiles that allowed them to hold a wider range of Russian targets at risk. What took so long? Why does Ukraine always need to come to the verge of defeat before the president finally relents and gives it the weapons it needs?

Ukraine still doesn’t have F-16s, a year after they were promised. Why not add U.S.-made cruise missiles to the mix, to make the F-16s that much more potent? Or better, open a U.S. air corridor to Kyiv in the spirit of Harry Truman’s Berlin airlift? It would signal America’s determination to come to the defense of embattled allies without fear of their despotic foes. The more Biden does to “Trump-proof” U.S. support for Ukraine against the risk of losing in November, the more secure his legacy will be.

But the biggest win Biden will need will be domestic.

It won’t be his executive order all but banning asylum for migrants; that only confirmed that he had failed to use every option at his disposal to tackle the crisis. It won’t be low unemployment; no magic wand will erase 2022’s inflation or today’s high interest rates. It won’t be Trump’s legal travails, which seem to have galvanized his supporters at least as much as it has delighted his opponents.

And it won’t be finding a way to offload Kamala Harris from the ticket, easing the apprehension many voters have about a feeble president being succeeded by his unpopular and unconvincing vice president. Pushing out the first Black female vice president would alienate a lot of Democratic voters.

It all leaves the president with one option that can be a win for America and, ultimately, his place in history. He can still choose not to run, to cede the field to a Democrat who can win — paging Josh Shapiro or Gretchen Whitmer — and do the hard and brave things it will take to secure security and peace for the free world.

There’s still time, if only just. It would be a courageous, honorable and transformative legacy.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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