Democrats Finally Saying It Aloud: Biden Might Need to Go

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The verdict last week was almost as universal as it is ubiquitous: Joe Biden’s debate performance was a complete disaster. For five days, we all watched what seemed like a real-time political collapse, as Democrats found themselves gripped by a wave of panic. But the party leaders whose words mattered most largely kept quiet.

Things changed on Tuesday, but it may be too late to matter.

The first major dent came from former Speaker Nancy Pelsoi, a careful pol who does not vamp her way onto the front page. In an interview with MSNBC, she said Biden should sit down with “serious journalists” to quiet worries about his health. "I think it's a legitimate question to say, Is this an episode or is this a condition?" said Pelosi, who with 84 years to her credit cannot be accused of ageism.

Joining her, Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who rightly is credited with securing Biden the nomination with the backing of Black voters in his state, said he would support Vice President Kamala Harris if Biden were to step aside. It was no longer too early to consider the hypothetical.

Then Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett became the first seated lawmaker to make the demand that Biden step aside. At that point, everyone started hitting refresh on their browsers and social media feeds to see who—if anyone—would follow. We could see a trickle from the likes of former Rep. Tim Ryan’s op-ed calling for Biden’s exit or a deluge that could reset the entire Democratic roadmap heading forward.

Even so, there’s roughly nothing party leaders can do to deny Biden re-nomination. Absent flaming a complete bonfire to the party rules as revised in 2022, the Democratic National Committee is stuck with the President. Party brass could try to pressure Biden to drop out, but he’s a stubborn 81-year-old man who knows this is his last turn on this dancefloor. They could also effort a plan to dramatically set aside the 14.3 million votes that were cast for Biden in a largely non-competitive primary, but that would undermine their drumbeat of an argument that Trump is an existential threat to U.S. democracy. (Also, inside a party that still thinks rules and norms matter, that idea would likely collapse before it could gain any traction.)

But there’s also the grim fact about the current Democratic public freakout: the party’s traditional top-shelf leaders have failed to meet the moment when they were arguably needed most. In the days after the debate, none bothered to say much beyond vague support for Biden. Not Barack Obama. Not Chuck Schumer. Not Hakeem Jeffries. Not the Democratic National Committee senior hands. Even Pelosi may have waited too long and still may have been holding her tongue.

At the moment, the advantage lies with Biden. As much as Doggett, 77, has the respect of his Austin district, he isn’t exactly the caliber of lawmaker who can reset a national conversation on his own. Pelosi and Clyburn—a former Speaker and a political sherpa—matter to Biden, but they’re careful statements thus far are insufficient to nudge him to reconsider. Their diplospeak is too easy to ignore.

Biden and the Democratic National Committee largely avoided a real primary challenge. Party leaders were all too aware of how such challengers have spelled trouble for earlier Presidents of both parties; see one- or partial-termers George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Baines Johnson for evidence of what a messy intra-party feud can do come the general election.

Still, the internal favor to Biden might have been a disservice to voters who might not have understood how uneven Biden can be, especially of late. The lonely voices who tried to warn party leaders—I’m looking at you, Dean Phillips—were swatted down as alarmist opportunists. Now, Democrats are left with Biden chugging along toward a nomination, but struggling to prove he’s capable of handling a second term.

While he was the fragile Speaker of the House, John Boehner had an adage he recycled often: "A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk." Having an intellectual entourage is part of the requirement, but so is showing an ability to shape the outcomes. And right now, Biden’s promise—however far-reaching—of perhaps denying Trump’s return is a whole lot more appealing than some Democrats’ suggestions of upending a still-possibly-winnable race. Publicly, Biden remains the ringleader of the effort to block Trump, and no other Democrat has a workable plan to swap Biden for another. Simply put: it’s Biden or bust, and that’s just the math.

Party leaders are left to watch because they cannot stage-manage Biden. Biden is set to sit down for an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that will air on Sunday. That could help address concerns about his mental sharpness, or a gaffe-prone Biden could dig the hole deeper by imploding like he did last week on the debate stage.

As bad as Biden’s chances look right now—and they’re as shaky as they’ve been since he announced he would seek the nomination for a third time in 2020 through a series of false starts—none of the party’s top leaders want to be seen as further weakening him, and then face some of the blame if he loses to Trump. Biden’s defenders rightly note that he has time for polls to bounce back to their pre-debate stasis. The likes of Pelosi and Co. offering advice were trying to boost him, not boot him.

So the top party brass mostly watches and waits. It might yet be in their interest to keep their powder dry, especially if they can’t change the outcome. The system disincentives principled stances and rewards those who can point to wins. Trump intra-party critics like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger were excommunicated from the GOP; of the 10 House Republicans to vote in support of the second impeachment of Trump, only two made it through their primaries. It’s why, of the five House Democrats who cast votes in support of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, three became Republicans and a fourth joined George W. Bush’s administration.

Unless you know you can fell a giant, it’s best to fall in line in Washington. The top Democrats in D.C. get it and are doing just that—at least until they can be assured their intervention won’t be for naught. For every public Pelsoi or Clyburn nudge, there are dozens more in private text chains hoping things turn around. With roughly 18 weeks until Election Day, the window is quickly shrinking. So, too, are Biden’s prospects.

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