Democrats Ask Who Can Make Joe Biden Step Aside?

A few minutes into Thursday night’s presidential debate in Atlanta, after Joe Biden’s startlingly unconvincing opening answers trailed off into inexplicable silence, I got a text from a Democratic congressman close to the president’s campaign. “I’m drinking to compensate,” he wrote.

This was grim but not surprising. There had been some hope that Biden would do well, but the evening was never going to be uplifting. Still, the wry shtick got old, quickly. Biden’s raspy voice and pale, wandering affect hardly changed, and the congressman’s tone jolted from resignation to alarm. This official had always defended the president, whom he liked personally and whose politics he loved. He was still disgusted by Donald Trump’s dishonesty and incompetence. Soon enough, he was having the same sort of conversations that permeated donor hotspots from Manhattan to Brentwood and emanated from watch parties spiraling into panic.  Democratic lawmakers, donors, and strategists across Atlanta and Washington were demanding to know: What do we do with Biden now?

By the half-hour mark, I started getting messages from top Democrats who couldn’t bear to watch any longer. The chatter was loose but agitated. What the fuck is happening? Who exactly is responsible for letting him go out there like this?

Before the first hour was through, one top party strategist told me she’d begun fielding calls about the feasibility of replacing Biden on the ticket. “The freakout that’s about to happen, I don’t have any precedent for,” she warned me over the phone. One longtime Biden ally called me once he’d calmed down slightly late on Thursday — he now thought it was 50-50 that Biden could stay on the ticket. By early Friday morning, all anyone in Democratic politics could ask — outside Biden’s immediate circles — was the inevitable next question: Who can convince him to step aside, and how soon can they do it?

The immediate consensus: probably only Jill, a onetime skeptic of his reelection campaign who turned into its biggest booster. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton could theoretically try, too. But more immediately, it was on Biden’s notoriously insular clutch of advisers who have surrounded him for decades — Mike Donilon, Jen O’Malley Dillon, Steve Ricchetti, Anita Dunn, Ron Klain, Bruce Reed, Jeff Zients, Ted Kaufman, and Biden’s sister Val — to make sure he understands that this goes beyond the “really disappointing debate performance” described on CNN by Kate Bedingfield, an off-and-on member of his inner circle. Maybe his favorite columnists could help make the case with offerings like Tom Friedman’s Friday-morning “Joe Biden Is a Good Man and a Good President. He Must Bow Out of the Race,” which came out shortly before Joe Scarborough went in on Biden. “It was the worst debate performance in modern political history,” said the MSNBC host whose voice usually soundtracks the president’s mornings.

John Morgan, an Orlando attorney and major Democratic donor, posited to me that “the question for Joe Biden, Jill Biden, and Val Biden is: Was that one bad night, or was that a precursor of what Joe Biden really is? Those people know who he is.” Morgan, who’s known Biden for years, said he’d looked unrecognizable onstage. In North Carolina on Friday, Biden already appeared more energetic and determined to stay in the race. But “was it one bad night that can be fixed with a speech and a rally? Or was it worse than that? We can’t sugarcoat it and pretend it didn’t happen,” said Morgan.

At least at first, none of the agita moved beyond talk into the realm of planning. No one was exactly sure how it could. Not with Biden and the First Lady and the Democratic National Committee trying to drum up positivity or with leaders like Obama and Hakeem Jeffries and Jim Clyburn professing support for the president — let alone with Kamala Harris, Biden’s would-be successor, speaking up on his behalf. For over a year, the Democratic intelligentsia has known that there is no simple way to replace an incumbent president as the nominee. Further, it’s been clear that while replacing Biden could create excitement for a new candidate, it would also almost certainly invite intraparty chaos that could doom the Democrats against Trump.

Almost as soon as the debate ended, the theoretical contenders to replace Biden were bombarded with questions about what happens now, starting with Harris but including governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. None said a word out of line; no one had any answer aside from variations on “Time to dig in.” (The chatter about Biden’s future is “unhelpful and unnecessary,” Newsom wrote in a fundraising email for the DNC. “We aren’t going to turn our backs because of one performance. What kind of party does that?”)

It was unconvincing. Late on debate night, one former Biden aide allowed that typing the text she was about to send meant relinquishing “any sort of cool person goodwill I’ve built over the years.” She then went ahead and delivered the lyrics to the scene in Hamilton where George Washington reveals that he wouldn’t pursue a third term for the good of the country. “I just kind of thought we were all playing the long game,” she said.

The earliest presidential debate in history was the Biden’s campaign’s dramatic gamble: bait Trump into exposing himself as a dangerous buffoon while presenting Biden as a statesman and kick off a summer reset for the race. It failed.

Months of strategizing went into this plan. Since this spring, senior Biden advisers have believed that one of his biggest problems is getting Americans to pay attention to the contest at all. They concluded that Trump couldn’t resist a TV spectacle and that his bluster would overwhelm voters with reminders of why they’d rejected him in 2020. Biden’s task, they believed, was primarily to prove that he was a competent leader who’s up to beating Trump again and not the feeble geriatric that Republicans and much of social media portray him to be. (Trump’s claim that Biden would show up on drugs only helped lower expectations.) They insisted on rules — muting one mic at a time, no studio audience — they hoped would neuter Trump’s bombast and empower Biden and believed this would bring unconvinced Democrats, especially young people, back into the fold. “The base is just so darn nervous,” one Biden adviser kvetched shortly before Debate Day.

In Atlanta, Trump denied praising white-supremacist rioters at Charlottesville. He rambled incoherently about immigration and foreign wars and Hunter Biden, and refused to commit to accepting the election results. Yet the CNN moderators opted not to correct or interrupt him. And as Biden tried selling his administration’s achievements (on medication pricing and the environment) and exposing Trump’s lies (on veteran care and Iran), it was his uncertain delivery style and disjointed sentence structure that stuck out. Immediately, Democrats were unnerved not to be seeing an energetic and persuasive Biden like the one who’d delivered the State of the Union address in March, when he quieted previous such concerns. One famous old line from Klain, his former chief of staff and longtime debate coach, rang throughout Biden circles: You can lose a debate at any time; you can only win it in the first 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes were Biden’s worst.

Over the past few days, Biden’s troops had made clear he hoped to focus on the contrast with Trump on abortion policy and on defending democracy as well as exposing the former president as beholden to his rich donors. But they knew that a debate victory wouldn’t just come along policy lines. “A lot of studies have been done that show what debates do primarily is fix voter impressions of the characters of the candidates,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who does work for the Biden campaign, told me earlier in the week. And every four years, savvy campaign types insist that the debates don’t matter. For weeks, Biden allies had tried convincing anyone who’d listen that this time might be different owing to the sheer stakes of the race and the early debate date. Now they’re left hoping that they were wrong about all of it: Maybe people didn’t tune in (the initial viewership numbers were smaller than previous debates), and maybe voters haven’t cemented their view of Biden after all. Top donors spent the day since the debate trying to identify which of his aides were most responsible for his approach.

Almost as soon as the candidates left the stage, Trump campaign surrogates flooded the bright-red spin-room floor that CNN had set up atop Georgia Tech’s basketball court. Trump’s vice-presidential hopefuls welcomed the chance to insist to reporters that their would-be boss had proved himself presidential and Biden had revealed himself as too weak for the job. Even Trump-world’s lesser lights like Corey Lewandowski, who’d earlier competed with Vivek Ramaswamy to be the biggest emitter of please-interview-me energy, were swarmed by cameras.

But Biden’s advocates were still off gathering themselves. One of the president’s staffers blanched when I approached and, when I asked how he felt, immediately asked to go off the record. When Biden’s spinners did emerge, their defense was brighter than the gloom already permeating liberal cable: The president’s shaky voice was the product of a cold, he had improved after the first half-hour or so, and he’d forced Trump to reveal his true nature when they had discussed the January 6 insurrection. The defense continued even as Newsom and Georgia senator Raphael Warnock were peppered with questions about whether they would abandon the president: Biden had a serious record to be proud of, the campaign’s internal numbers showed that independent voters were impressed, no single debate could define the entire campaign, and anyway it’s still June — there’s plenty of time to right the ship. (The congressman’s take: “If this sort of a disaster was going to happen then I would much rather it happen now. September would have been much worse.”)

Before long, Biden was getting in on the action, too. Off campus, he tried to calm nerves by popping up at a watch party and then at a Waffle House; Jill Biden tried buoying supporters by pointing out that Biden had actually answered the moderators’ questions while Trump had dissembled, though it came across as faint praise. On cable, Harris acknowledged Biden’s “slow start” but defended his accomplishments. Within a few hours, the campaign would send out a list of 50 lies Trump had told (“16 more lies than felonies, 48 more lies than impeachments”). The message was starting to congeal.

But with the spin room starting to empty, I thought back to the last time an incumbent president seemed to risk throwing away a race with his opening debate performance. In 2012, it was Obama who seemed unprepared to take on Mitt Romney. Watching from afar at the time, Biden had privately mused to his aides, “Jesus, that was terrible.” But he had then spun official Washington and anyone watching debate coverage on Obama’s record and went on to reassure them all by delivering a knockout debate performance of his own against Paul Ryan. Harris’s task was incalculably harder. Obama had come off as cold and annoyed to be there; Biden looked overmatched. Before the debate had begun, a longtime Biden adviser had argued to me that, “I don’t think it fully matters if anybody watches.” Instead, “It’s all going to be about what the story is two days from now.” As Harris did her best to paint an okay picture of Biden’s prospects, I texted a different very senior Democratic operative who’s close to the campaign — but not employed by it — to ask what he thought should happen next with Biden. The answer came quickly: “Obviously he’s gotta go.”

Biden has often scoffed at the idea that his preparedness for a second term — or at least a second campaign — could even be a legitimate question. He has a way of dismissing elite opinion as constantly wrong about him and unable to see the big picture. (We’re talking about reelecting Trump, people!) He’s been a good president, he maintains, and presidents run for reelection. Behind the scenes, he has never let his staff seriously explore the question of whether he should pass on another four years, though some have floated it ever since he considered running in 2015 at the age of 72. (When Ricchetti, one of his top aides, and assorted family members brought it up back then, Biden refused to even entertain the topic.) At times since he was elected, this position has read as an implicit assumption that Harris couldn’t beat Trump. (Frequently, it comes with a reminder that there’s no straightforward way to replace the top of the ticket, anyway.) Usually, though, it comes across as stubborn faith in his own read on the country’s mood and in his own abilities.

For months now, Biden’s improbably calm advisers have argued that once disengaged voters tune in and realize they are facing Trump’s return, the president’s numbers would improve and the electoral picture would brighten. Once it eventually crystalized in voters’ minds, the binary would change the dynamic and all their naysayers would prove to be unsophisticated bedwetters. This may still prove true, but it didn’t happen when Trump became his party’s nominee or even when he was convicted of 34 felony counts.

If this is still the hope — and it is, according to the team players dotting the top of the party and the White House — the number of opportunities to showcase the contrast between old and responsible and basically insane is now diminishing. This summer’s conventions may help, especially if Trump is incarcerated before his. But there is little promise that a second debate, currently scheduled for September, would necessarily do any good. The close Biden ally who called me after the debate, apparently numb, said, “It’s narcissistic to think time is his friend.” After the debate, there can be no doubt that the 81-year-old Biden of 2024 is not the same as the one who beat Trump in 2020.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not exactly surprising we’ve reached this moment. Two years ago, when I asked another longtime adviser how Biden was thinking about whether to run again, that person reminded me that he had basically been circling the presidency for half a century so is extremely unlikely to abandon it — and his political relevance — now: “It’s been his life. It’s like a shark that keeps swimming. It’s how he stays alive.”

Biden’s central political bet that Americans will not tolerate Trump’s return may still be right. The ex-president is not popular, makes shit up all the time, and may soon be behind bars. Biden’s campaign is better organized, especially in the most crucial states, and there are no signs his most loyal supporters are going anywhere: After the debate, his campaign reported the day was its most lucrative since its launch in terms of small-dollar donations. At least until this week, the race was more or less a toss-up.

But Biden has a chip on his shoulder the size of Delaware over what he’s perceived to be a lifetime of underestimation. Besides his wife, it’s unclear who could break through to him about his dire position. And there’s no longer any question: He must now at least listen to the arguments that, with the deep end looking more deadly than ever, maybe he really should get out of the pool.

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