Not Backing Down from Challenges of Disability, Gun Violence, or Threats to Democracy.

(Former Member of Congress Gabby Giffords and her husband, Astronaut Mark Kelly, Democratic Senator from Arizona)

I thought I knew pretty much everything about the 2011 attempted assassination of former Arizona Member of Congress, Gabby Giffords, and her remarkable and arduous recovery from being shot in the head.  Then I watched an eye-opening CNN documentary about her entitled Won’t Back Down, and was inspired anew.  As the son of a strong woman who fought polio for 92 years, few things move me like the daily, determined struggle to overcome disability.

Giffords’ story is astonishing, as is the unshakeable love story between her and Mark Kelly, an astronaut and genuine American hero—whose bald head reminds me of a modern day Dwight D. Eisenhower.  I love watching how he still takes her hand and gently guides her through crowds each time she speaks.  I love Gabby’s inspiring story for all of us, to never give up; I love how much Mark Kelly loves her.  This is the essence of life, and love, and hope, and the right stuff we like to see in our leaders, and ourselves.

Following Kelly’s recent re-election as a Democratic Senator from Arizona, winning his first full-term to fill the seat of John McCain—another American hero– the national Democratic Party should be fixated on figuring out a way to put Mark Kelly on the 2024 ticket. 

Biden, an octogenarian who’ll be 82 if he runs for re-election, needs to follow the graceful example set by Nancy Pelosi, also 82, and embrace smart, succession planning, to clear the way for a new generation of leadership.  At 58 years old—even though he looks older–Kelly clearly fits in that category, as do many other promising Democrats, including Kamala Harris, also 58; Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who turns 41 in January, 2023; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, age 52; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, 53, and Colorado Congressman Jason Crow, age 43.

With such a deep Democratic bench of raw political and public service talent, it’s time for Biden to take the advice of one his political heroes, JFK, and “pass the torch to a new generation.”  He can take pride in a whole list of accomplishments during his term:  from defeating Trump, to saving the nation from a calamitous COVID response, rescuing the economy from ruin, and passing the largest infrastructure rebuilding program ever.  His elevation of the first female Vice-President in American history was also enormously consequential. 

 Good job, Joe; but now, it’s time to go.  I know that it’s tough for someone accustomed to center stage for 50 years to step out of the spotlight.  But, your legacy may well depend on how smoothly you leave.

If the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, it might be easier for Biden to ensure that legacy and step down before the end of his term.  Such a bold move could give Kamala Harris, the advantage of incumbency heading into 2024, permitting the nation’s first female President, to pick the perfect Vice-President— a heroic and humane figure, with broad bipartisan appeal like Mark Kelly– ready to assume office immediately.  Biden’s self-less stepping aside could neutralize the Hunter Biden hangmen of the GOP, and force the country’s focus on a new generation of exciting, pioneering leadership and issues of urgency to Gen Z and Millenials, like climate change, gun safety, and the right of individual bodily autonomy. 

In such a scenario, to preserve the Democrats’ Senate Majority, the newly elected Democratic Governor of Arizona, Katie Hobbs, would have to immediately fill Kelly’s Senate seat with a new progressive Democrat, like Latino Congressman Ruben Gallego, a 43-year old Iraq War veteran and rising progressive star.  The possibilities for diversity, youth and a newly energized electorate would be unlimited.

Unfortunately, the 25th Amendment, and the takeover of the House of Representatives by a collection of crazies from Marjorie Taylor Greene, to Jim Jordan to Matt Gaetz, and Arizona’s own ghoul, Paul Gosar—despised by his own family– puts the kabosh on my dream sequence. 

Passed in 1967 following the assassination of JFK four years earlier, the 25th Amendment requires that any person appointed to fill the Vice-Presidency be approved by both Houses of Congress.  It was tested twice in the decade after the Amendment’s passage, when Nixon replaced the disgraced, indicted, bribe-taking, avatar of corruption Spiro Agnew, with Gerald Ford in 1973, and again the following year, when Nixon himself resigned, and Ford—who assumed the Presidency—nominated Nelson Rockefeller to the Vice-Presidency.  Although the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House for each vote, Ford and Rockefeller, both Republicans, were approved in the interest of national unity.

It’s unlikely an uncontrollable, chaotic GOP-slimed House would care one iota about the national interest, even if, God forbid, Biden died or became incapacitated during his last two years in office. A dysfunctional deadlock in the House of Representatives over a new Vice-President, would keep Kevin McCarthy, or whom ever becomes Speaker, as next in line for the Presidency until the next election–a terrifying thought. 

It’s doubtful that GOP dark-money groups, having just polluted Arizona’s fresh, clean air with tens of millions of dirty dollars in a failed attempt to defeat Mark Kelly, would lay low during Congressional confirmation hearings.  They clearly understood and feared the power of Kelly’s cross-party, All-American appeal, and the lock on the White House he could bring the Dems—generating even greater national visibility for his wife Gabby Giffords to fight for gun safety.  The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, in lockstep with Leonard Leo, would be apoplectic, having nightmares of Assault Weapon Bans, background check legislation, and a steady stream of rational, intelligent, compassionate Democratic judicial nominees.

So, we’ll just have to keep fighting for the future the way we’ve been doing for decades:  in an open set of 2024 Democratic primaries to choose the next Presidential candidate.  Only to make it truly open, President Biden has to announce sometime in 2023, that he’s not running for re-election; that he’s accomplished what he set out to do, especially cultivating a new crop of highly qualified successors, to continue.

Such a bold, Biden move would demonstrate that Democrats—like the courageous and inspirational Gabby Giffords–Won’t Back Down, and are unafraid of passing the torch of public service over to a new generation of leaders, ready to take on the battles for democracy, decency, human rights, economic and social justice and equality for all.  

After all, it’s the American way.

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