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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

President Biden: Teach them how to say goodbye

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., June 28, 2024, one day after his debate with former President Donald Trump. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

By Thomas Friedman

Immediately after Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, I urged Israel to think about how to respond by asking itself one question: What does your worst enemy want you to do? Then do the opposite. Iran and Hamas wanted Israel to rush headlong into Gaza — without any plan or Palestinian partner for the morning after — and unfortunately, Israel did just that.

At this moment of incredible importance for America and the Democratic Party, I would urge President Joe Biden, his family and his party’s leadership to ask the same question: What does your worst enemy, Donald Trump, want you to do now? Then do the opposite.

Trump is salivating at the prospect of Biden staying in the presidential race so he can pummel him from now until Election Day with 15-second television and radio ads — not to mention memes on social media — of Biden’s incoherent responses in last week’s debate, each ad asking: Is this the man you want answering the phone at 3 a.m. if the Russians or the Chinese or the Iranians attack us?

That is a campaign the Trump GOP cult is surely confident it can win. I suspect that the cultists have known all along that the only reason Trump was leading in many key polls was because so many potential Biden voters were not worried about price inflation, they were worried about age inflation — Biden’s. And if the Republicans could make that the issue, the election would fall into their laps.

So, what keeps Trump up at 3 a.m.? My guess is a scenario where Biden turns to his family and his top advisers and pulls out a line from the musical “Hamilton”:

George Washington: I’m stepping down. I’m not running for president.

Alexander Hamilton: I’m sorry, what?

Washington: One last time. Relax, have a drink with me. One last time. Let’s take a break tonight. And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye.

Yes, what Trump fears most right now is that Biden will teach the country how to say goodbye.

He fears that Biden will demonstrate the difference between a leader and a party who put the country first and a leader and a party who put themselves first, namely Trump and the Republicans who enable him despite knowing how many of Trump’s former advisers say he is unfit for office, despite knowing that Trump tried to overturn the last election, despite knowing that Trump has articulated no real plan for the country’s future other than “retribution” against all who crossed him and his followers.

How might Biden do what is best for the country and worst for Trump — a small man at a big time who is so unwilling to say goodbye that he will not even admit he lost the election in 2020 fair and square? Not by scrambling to shift a few panicky donors to his side to tough it out until November, insisting that he just had one bad debate night. And not by daring the party to remove him. He should elevate himself and the party above the whole fray.

That would entail declaring that he will release the delegates who vowed to vote for his nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August and work with the party to set up an orderly process between now and then for the next generation of Democratic candidates to make their cases to the public, and for the convention delegates to choose a new nominee. (By the way, a convention vote is how Lincoln and both Roosevelts got nominated — and that worked out pretty well for the country.)

Biden could, if he wishes, endorse Vice President Kamala Harris, or he could remain neutral. But he should make clear that the nomination must be decided by an open competition. For the six weeks leading up to the convention and at the convention itself, everyone in America will be listening closely as the best of the next generation of Democrats present a hopeful vision for the country. What a contrast with a Republican convention whose only platform is the whims of their dear leader. Will it be messy? Sure, it will. But every alternative is messy now.

Biden could add that once an alternative Democratic ticket is nominated, he will use his bully pulpit — and the credibility and admiration that this gesture will surely earn him from Americans of all political stripes — to ensure that they defeat Trump.

Instead of having to defend himself from a tsunami of attack ads about his diminishing mental capacity, Biden could bombard the airwaves with a set of arguments that could answer Trump’s lies while reminding voters that the reason they elected him in 2020 was they knew that America can only stay great if it is led by a unifier, not an avenger.

Gautam Mukunda, a presidential scholar and the author of “Picking Presidents,” pointed out to me the other day that “in 1783, when George Washington announced that he would surrender his commission, King George III of England — the man whose empire he destroyed — said that if he did this ‘he would be the greatest man in the world.’ Fourteen years later Washington did it again, leaving the presidency willingly when he could easily have made himself president for life. The father of our country sealed his greatness by showing that sometimes the best thing a president can do for his country is give up the presidency. Today, in the face of the worst threat to our democracy since the Civil War, Joe Biden can cement his legacy by following Washington’s example.”

Biden, besides being a good man, has been a truly consequential president. He deserves to be remembered as the leader who saved the country from Trump in 2020, lifted us from the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, passed critical legislation to rebuild America’s infrastructure, renewed the dignity of work, promoted the transition to a green economy — and, in the end, knew when and how to say goodbye.

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