WASHINGTON -- Joe Biden's limitations as a presidential candidate are so obvious that they're almost a litany: He's too old, too white, too male, too touchy-feely, too loquacious. But he has one huge plus: He may be the person who could move Donald Trump out of the White House.
Biden rightly put the obligation of replacing Trump at the center of his announcement Thursday that he's running. "The core values of this nation -- our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America, America -- is at stake," he said.
As Democrats assess the dizzying array of 20 candidates, the first question that they should ask is whether a nominee could gain a strong majority in the general election and defeat Trump. If the nominating process produces a candidate who appeals to the party's base but can't defeat the incumbent, it will have failed.
Progressive activists within the party are generating ideas and energy that could galvanize a country that wants a fairer economy and a cleaner government. But none of these ideas will matter unless a Democrat wins. The damage Trump would do in a second term might not be undone for decades. In thinking about their party's nominee, paradoxically, Democrats must put the country first.
Democrats, similarly, should ask whether impeachment in the House will help oust Trump or deepen his support. The evidence gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller certainly is sufficient to open an impeachment process in the House. But if the Senate won't convict, would impeachment help or hinder Democrats in the 2020 election? That may sound like a cynical calculus, but if the goal is removing Trump from office, it's essential to weigh costs and benefits.
The need to replace Trump ought to transcend party and ideology. That's the real message of Mueller's final report. His findings were devastating to Trump's standing, regardless of whether they amounted to a criminal conspiracy or obstruction case. The very fact that Mueller was so restrained in his conclusions made his compilation of evidence more powerful.
Do the facts matter when it comes to Trump? That's been the question since he began his incendiary, populist campaign. There's little that we've learned about his bullying and deceitful character that wasn't apparent on Election Day.
But anger begets anger. And the louder critics screamed, the more Trump's fans seemed to like him. A philandering, thrice-married man who facilitated hush money to a porn star somehow became the favorite of evangelical Christians.
Politicians and pundits have taken sides on the Mueller investigation for so long that many people probably didn't bother to read the report. But reviewing the carefully assembled evidence and footnotes should be an obligation for good citizens. Don't listen to what Fox News or MSNBC say about the report. Read it for yourself, and then decide if Trump is fit to remain as president.
Witnesses told Mueller under oath that Trump had pressed them to create evidence for the record to shield his wrongdoing. They described secret plans to use foreign intelligence services to find Hillary Clinton's "30,000 missing emails" from her private server. They described a meeting where Trump's campaign chairman hatched a plan for what amounted to "backdoor" Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine. They explained that, following a pre-inauguration meeting in the Seychelles, a secret "reconciliation plan" with Russia was produced, despite what U.S. intelligence agencies believed was a Russian covert operation to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
Positions about Trump have hardened so much that Mueller's facts don't seem to break through. It's like trying to argue about vaccinations. Shouting isn't an effective strategy. People just feel more defensive, and hold more tightly to their positions, as a kind of self-defense.
Maybe we need a grass-roots movement, unaffiliated with any party, that's just called "Read the Report." People could hand out copies on urban street corners and at county fairs. The only message: Don't let the cable news channels tell you what to think. Do your own research and make up your own mind.
Which brings me back to Biden. With all his blarney and sometimes tedious speechifying, he's obviously, uncontestably a decent person. He would be far from an ideal president, let alone a Democratic candidate. Maybe in one of those blessed miracles of American democracy that produced our greatest presidents, someone else will emerge who's younger, smarter, more representative of a diverse electorate.
But right now, Biden looks most like the person who could beat Trump. And that's Job One.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.
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