Will the Trickle of Biden Defections Turn Into a Flood?

Lloyd Doggett calls for a change of plans.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Imag

Most elected Democrats and party leaders either back Joe Biden as their presumptive presidential nominee or they’re remaining silent about their fears as they await better polling data about the damage inflicted by his June 27 debate performance. But the first few cracks in this wall of support have appeared with several members of Congress taking their concerns about Biden’s 2024 candidacy public.

So far, only veteran Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas has called on Biden to step aside, invoking former president Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968.

“My decision to make these strong reservations public is not done lightly nor does it in any way diminish my respect for all that President Biden has achieved,” Doggett said in a statement. “Recognizing that, unlike Trump, President Biden’s first commitment has always been to our country, not himself, I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw. I respectfully call on him to do so.”

Two other members of Congress, Senator Peter Welch of Vermont and Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, sharply criticized the White House for trying to suppress concerns that Biden is not fit to run.

“I really do criticize the campaign for a dismissive attitude towards people who are raising questions for discussion. That’s just facing the reality that we’re in. That’s hardly — I won’t repeat their term,” Senator Welch said, alluding to use of the term bed-wetting by the Biden team. “That’s the discussion we have to have. It has to be from the top levels of the Biden campaign to precinct captains in the South Side of Chicago.”

Representative Quigley told CNN that Biden “has to be honest with himself” and consider how his next move “impacts not just his race, but all the other races coming in November.” But he stopped short of calling on the president to step aside.

It’s impossible to say whether these are just a few stray complaints or the start of a more widespread turn against Biden by Democratic lawmakers. Party loyalists may still be able to reassert discipline, particularly if the White House responds by improving its communication with leading Democrats, which has clearly been lacking during this crisis.

Perhaps more significant than the open rebellion of a few elected Democrats are the hints being dropped by Biden loyalists that open discussion of the party’s quandary are in order. Representative Nancy Pelosi said on MSNBC that it was “completely legitimate” to ask if Biden’s debate lapse was “an episode or … a condition.” And Representative Jim Clyburn endorsed Kamala Harris as the nominee if Biden “were to step aside.” While Biden’s support may not be crumbling just yet, the willingness among Democratic elected officials and party leaders to keep concerns private may be coming to an end.

Worried Democrats are clearly on tenterhooks waiting for solid evidence on whether the debate changed public opinion on the Biden-Trump contest. There’s not much post-debate gold-standard national polling of the race, and there’s even less data from the battleground states that will determine the outcome. But surely many Democrats are seeing some of the initial if fragmentary numbers suggesting a difficult road ahead for the president. CNN released a post-debate poll showing Trump leading the incumbent by a robust 6 percent, confirming an April survey with the same result that many had considered an outlier. A Suffolk–USA Today poll showed a three-point gain by Trump in a contest it earlier rated as a tie. And Peter Hamby of Puck has leaked some swing-state polling showing Biden losing ground across the board.

We are probably at a juncture where a few more credible national or battleground-state polls showing a Biden debacle could make the first sounds of rebellion we are hearing today prophetic. Without such evidence, and particularly if evidence arises showing the Biden-Trump race mostly unchanged since the debate, the president may yet fight through this moment and reassert complete control of his party. But right now he’s sitting on a volcano that could erupt at any moment.

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