Fearful and doubtful Biden, Democrats face an uncertain path forward

The Democratic Party faced a looming crisis on Friday, as a wide range of lawmakers, party officials and activists began actively considering what had previously been a pipe dream for pundits and concerned voters: the prospect of replacing President Biden on the ticket, barely four months later. before election day.

For two years, leading Democrats confined their concerns about Biden’s performance and age to private meetings and off-the-record conversations, wary of undermining a sitting president in a rematch against former President Donald J. Trump.

But with Biden’s debate performance on Thursday — uneven and at times incoherent, even dwelling on politically advantageous topics like abortion rights — that conversation has exploded into the public domain.

“Biden has not risen to the occasion and will cause a serious rethinking of his party: Are they going to say, is he just having a bad night, or is he prepared to move on?” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader who has had a warm relationship with Mr. Biden for years, in an interview hours after the debate.

Asked for his own assessment, Mr. Sharpton said he hoped it had just been “a bad night.”

“But our failure to meet expectations,” he added, “will not soon be forgotten.”

On Capitol Hill, some Democratic lawmakers openly acknowledged that Mr. Biden’s performance was a disaster, while other leaders offered only sketchy signs of support and hoped the focus would return to Mr. Trump’s lies.

In Atlanta, Biden aides privately met with concerned donors. Their fears of “Trumpocalypse II,” as one adviser to a major party financier called it, reached new heights overnight.

In message threads, Democrats expressed despair, expressed regret for not pushing for a competitive primary and speculated about their options for a Biden alternative. And on “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC morning show that has been a bastion of support for the president, one of the hosts almost called that he would drop out of the race.

Some Democrats were blunt in private, saying bluntly that Biden should not be their candidate. But his critics acknowledged that as of Friday morning there was no agreement — let alone formal plans — on how or whether to urge him to resign.

Such an extraordinary process, many said, would carry significant political risks, plunging the party into a messy internal struggle less than three months before early voting is due to begin.

The consequences are not yet clear from public opinion polls, and top Democratic leaders quickly and unequivocally ruled out the idea that Biden would or should step aside. In fact, the decision is his alone: ​​he would almost certainly have to release his own delegates so they can support another candidate. So far, the president and his campaign have indicated he has no plans to step aside.

“Absolutely not,” said Mia Ehrenberg, a spokeswoman for the campaign.

Mr. Biden both acknowledged his stumbles and emphasized his intention to stay in the race during a rally on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” he said. “I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I know.”

“I know how to do this job,” he added. “I know how to get things done. I know – like millions of Americans – I know that when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

A senior party strategist said the circle of Democratic leaders able to convince Biden to withdraw from the race was limited to top members of Congress; former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; and of course Jill Biden, the first lady, and the rest of Biden’s family.

“Bad debate nights happen,” Obama said in a statement. “Believe me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has spent his life fighting for ordinary people and someone who only cares about himself.”

When asked on Capitol Hill whether Mr. Biden should leave the race, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, said, “No.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, said she did not think Biden should step aside as the party’s presidential candidate and that she was not aware of anyone pushing him to do so.

Other lawmakers were blunt about their concerns: “I’m still processing what happened,” said Rep. Angie Craig, Democrat of Minnesota. “It was a terrible debate, and we all have to acknowledge that.”

Just as revealing was what was left unsaid. Asked whether Mr. Biden could do the job, Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a Biden deputy, said: “I’ll defer to the president’s judgment on this.”

“We as a team can do it,” he said. “We have a great team of people who will help govern.”

Mr. Biden, he added, “is the person who has the representatives.”

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat, said Mr. Biden had presented “a compelling vision for the country” during the debate. But when asked whether he thought Mr. Biden should continue as nominee, he did not answer directly and repeatedly changed the subject back to Mr. Trump.

“Donald Trump should not remain the Republican nominee after being convicted of a crime and the instability and inability to tell the truth that he has been shown time and time again,” he said.

Julián Castro, a Texas Democrat and former housing secretary who lambasted Biden’s memory during a 2019 Democratic primary debate, criticized party leaders for preventing Biden from facing a credible challenger.

“The Democratic establishment, at Biden’s urging, decided to go all-in on Biden,” he said. “Once Biden made the decision to run, the Democratic side closed off all other options. And to undo that four months before the campaign is something only that establishment can do.”

Biden’s team spent Friday morning racing to reassure supporters. In the basement of a downtown Atlanta hotel, one floor below a coffee shop called Jittery Joe’s, top Biden campaign officials — including the campaign chair, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, and the campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez — gathered with large donors who traveled to the debate.

Ms. O’Malley Dillon acknowledged Mr. Biden’s poor performance but tried to draw a parallel with Mr. Obama’s weak performance in the first debate in 2012, according to several attendees. She was his deputy campaign manager during that race, which Mr. Obama won.

Many party leaders have publicly endorsed Mr. Biden, including several Democrats who are often mentioned as material for future presidential candidates. Governors including Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois offered their support, while Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, sat in for Mr. Biden on the debate stage on Thursday night.

Biden has survived tough debates before, and a campaign spokesman, Kevin Munoz, wrote on social media that “11 p.m.-12 a.m. was the campaign’s best grassroots fundraising hour since launch.” The campaign added Friday that the team had raised $14 million on debate day and the following morning.

Dmitri Mehlhorn, the political adviser to one of the party’s biggest donors, Reid Hoffman, warned his network against making hasty decisions.

“Joe had a terrible night, which only reinforced concerns about his age, his greatest electoral weakness,” Mr. Mehlhorn wrote. “Our odds of Trumpocalypse II just increased significantly.”

He added: “Yet we all need to take a deep breath. Reactive or panicky movements rarely succeed.”

Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, flew back from Israel during the debate but said he was “saddened” to see the videos and comments online.

“We all agree it was tough, but the way everyone panicked so quickly and piled on, it really made my heart race,” he said, recalling his own faltering debate performance during the 2022 campaign after suffering a stroke. “Joe Biden didn’t have the best day. But that’s not the sum total of the great president he’s been. And how can anyone ignore what the alternative is?

He said voters should “chill out, enjoy a beer, enjoy the Fourth of July a little bit.”

But some members of the Democratic National Committee grappled with whether the party had been right to side with Biden, even though it is inconceivable that the DNC — functionally the political arm of a Democratic White House — would remove a sitting president from his position would oppose. own party.

“I feel a responsibility as a DNC member that some of us had reservations early on about Biden running for a second term, but very few of us have publicly expressed those,” said Bart Dame, the Democratic national committeeman from Hawaii. “We could have at least anticipated the possibility that this could be a problem. And we have created structures that make it difficult for us to respond now.”

“We should be ashamed,” he added.

If party officials are reluctant to openly express concerns about Biden’s age and fitness, voters have been clear about that.

“Biden needs to resign, and I didn’t go into this debate with that idea,” said Mac Hudson, 57, an independent voter in Tucson, Arizona. “Hopefully this is the best possible outcome. Trump can be defeated, but not by Biden. There is still time for a new candidate.”

The moment was a painful conclusion for the handful of Democrats who had publicly called for Biden to resign.

James Zogby, a pollster and longtime member of the Democratic National Committee, said he felt “sad and dejected” watching the debate.

When he and others called for competitive primaries, they were rejected by party leaders.

“Now it has to be this way — if it happens — it has to be dramatic and it could be fatal,” he said. “I’m angry that they put us in this position.”

Reporting was contributed by Shane Goudmacher, Theodore Schleifer, Maya King And Reid J. Epstein.

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