Opinion – Al Cross: Biden debacle brings Beshear forward

When Gov. Andy Beshear formed a political committee in January and started making appearances around the country (he’ll be in Iowa July 27), his obvious long-term goal was the White House. In 2028. Presumably.

If Beshear and his advisers were as wired into the national Democratic establishment as one would think, they knew there was always a chance that President Biden might not make it to the ballot. After all, he turned 81 on Nov. 20, amid much talk about his infirmities.

But surely Beshear’s camp nor the rest of the establishment figured on Biden cratering in his debate with former president Trump, showing that the president had failed the threshold test for any politician: “Know yourself.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director emeritus of its Institute for Rural Journalism. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

Biden’s hapless performance sparked widespread calls for him to step aside for someone else, but as this is written Tuesday, those calls have come almost exclusively from commentators. No significant Democrat has been willing to incur the wrath of the White House and the establishment by saying the president has no clothes.

On Monday, Beshear was slightly more critical and less supportive than some other Democratic leaders, who have said Biden should stay in. Reporters in Frankfort Monday didn’t ask him that question, and he didn’t volunteer an answer. Asked a general reaction question, he said, “Well, the debate performance was rough. It was a very bad night for the president. But he is still the candidate; only he can make decisions about his future candidacy, so as long as he continues to be in the race, I support him.”

Asked about a possible candidacy of his own, he said, “Only the president can determine his future as a candidate. He IS the candidate, and as long as he is, I’m supporting him.” And what if Biden stepped aside? “The president says he’s staying in and I believe him.”

Those responses were “blazing neon” among most Democrats’ muted comments, senior political columnist Jonathan Martin of Politico wrote on X, where he said earlier, “No elected Dem wants to be the first to speak up in public.”

So, Beshear didn’t embrace Biden, but didn’t quite put him at arm’s length, either. Perhaps he wants to be the presidential prospect with the most candor, which is both admirable and advantageous. He did have one piece of advice for the president: “My hope is that there’s more information forthcoming, that he’ll speak to the American people and leaders around the country.”

That sounded like a plea for a phone call from Biden, but also implied a truth: The president must restore confidence, not just inside his party but in the country, to prevail.

Beshear gets mentioned in any Top 10 list of possible replacements, and sometimes in a Top 5, but is not yet a major player like the governors of Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states Democrats need and could carry, unlike Kentucky, and other governors of larger states. And all these hopefuls’ prospects are dubious.

First, barring a serious health episode, Biden’s candidacy is his own, to keep or kill. Second, if he does pull out, Vice President Kamala Harris has the best claim of succession, and Democrats who doubt her electability rightly fear a decimated voter base if the first Black and first woman vice president were denied the nomination.

Also, Harris apparently needs to stay on the ticket, in either spot, for the Biden-Harris campaign to keep the contributions it has received without a laborious refund-and-giveback process that would be a net negative. If she were somehow persuaded to remain in the second spot, it’s hard to imagine Beshear in the first one.

Beshear surely knows that, but he’s playing the long game, making as many friends as he can and touting his record. Monday, he delivered a subtle sales pitch when asked to comment on being mentioned as a presidential candidate:

“It’s a reflection of all the good things going on in Kentucky. As compared to the rest of the country, the temperature’s been turned down here, Democrats and Republicans all excited about the jobs we’re creating, the investment that we’re seeing, record low unemployment, record low recidivism, decreases in our overdose deaths; those are all really good things. So I think the rest of the country turns to us, and says ‘How can a Democratic governor and a Republican General Assembly create really good results?’ And I think the answer to that is, everything is not partisan. People are tired of the clashes day in and day out. So when they look at what WE have done in Kentucky, they see a better future that’s beyond some of the back and forth that we see on the federal level.”

Kentucky Republican legislators surely scoffed at that, but that’s not the audience Beshear was addressing. For now at least, he’s gone national.

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