Shell-shocked House Democrats question keeping Biden at the top of the ticket

A growing chorus of alarmed House Democrats say President Biden’s faltering performance in the debate the night before raises immediate questions about whether he should remain at the top of the ticket in this year’s presidential contest.

Such criticisms were unthinkable heading into the high-stakes Thursday night event, as Democrats have rallied fiercely behind their White House ally throughout the campaign.

But that changed on Thursday night. Many Democrats were left shell-shocked by Biden’s wobbly showing in Atlanta, where he stumbled over words, meandered from topic to topic and appeared, more than once, to lose his train of thought. These lawmakers are worried that the tottery performance only compounds the questions of health and competence that have emerged as Biden’s chief vulnerability.

Some are hoping he’ll step out of the race altogether — even if they’re not calling publicly for him to do so — for the sake of keeping former President Trump from winning a second term in the White House.

“It’s time for him to step aside,” one House Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic, told The Hill. “We all were hanging out this morning, a bunch of us together at something. There’s nobody at this point that I spoke with who doesn’t think it’s time for him to step aside.”

A second House Democrat, who also requested anonymity, reserved judgment on Biden’s next steps — “that’s a decision for another day … we’ll see what happens” — but said a number of people, both in their home state and up on Capitol Hill, think it is time for the president to relinquish his spot at the top of the ticket.

“There’s a lot of talk —  talk here, talk from friends at home — saying we need someone who can articulate our message, and we didn’t see that last night,” the lawmaker said. “A lot of people are saying it … [A] majority of people I’ve spoken with today.”

Pundits and panicked Democrats began that conversation almost immediately after the debate ended, and the White House, Biden campaign and president’s top allies quickly worked to stamp out chatter about a nominee switch Friday morning.

Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster told The Hill “of course he’s not dropping out”; a White House official said “that’s not happening”; and Biden surrogates ran around the Capitol throwing their support behind the incumbent.

But the debate came in an election cycle when the House, the Senate and the White House are all up for grabs, and both parties are scrambling to secure any advantage, however minute, to help their side. Biden’s debate performance sparked immediate concerns among Democrats that he’d not only damaged his own chances of keeping the presidency, but also hurt the party down the ballot.

“Couldn’t be worse,” said a third Democratic lawmaker, emphasizing that the concern is widespread through the caucus.

The dynamics made for an unusual scene in the Capitol Friday morning, where scores of reporters swarmed the hallways to obtain reactions from Biden’s Democratic allies, and many of those same allies went out of their way to avoid the reporters’ questions. Some lawmakers put phones to their ears as they walked to the chamber. Others simply declined to speak. In another sign of just how sensitive the topic is, none of those questioning Biden’s position on the ballot would speak on the record.

“The hill just got a little taller,” a fourth Democratic lawmaker said. “You’ve got to do whatever is necessary to keep Donald Trump from being in the White House, and we’re going to have a real conversation about what that entails.”

The lawmaker said there’s already talk of who might replace Biden on the ticket if he steps down to allow the party to choose an alternative contender at the August convention. The list includes several governors: Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and California’s Gavin Newsom. One name noticeably absent, according to several Democrats, is Vice President Harris.

“If there’s a change, it’s a whole new ticket,” the fourth lawmaker said.

Age has emerged as a central issue in a presidential contest featuring the oldest candidates in the nation’s history: Biden is 81, and Trump is 78.

Both candidates were pressed on the topic during Thursday’s debate. Trump responded with claims he can hit a golf ball “a long way.” Biden retorted with his own golf stats — and pointed to the long list of legislation that’s been adopted under his White House reign.

“Look how I’ve turned around the horrible situation he left me,” he said.

In the eyes of some concerned Democrats, however, that track record isn’t enough to overcome their fears that he’s a liability for the party if he remains on the ticket.

The first House Democrat, who called for Biden to step aside, said “senior people” in the Democratic Party “are gonna have to go sit down with him and just say, listen, you did a phenomenal job, it’s time.”

Democratic lawmakers said that list of advisers should feature the president’s wife, Jill Biden, as well as party elders with a long track record of working with him: former President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D), a South Carolina kingmaker who helped revive Biden’s 2020 campaign at a critical juncture.

Many in that crowd, however, are backing up the presumptive nominee, admitting that while the night was a subpar showing for the incumbent, he remains the best person to lead their ticket come November.

“It was a poor performance,” Clyburn told reporters of Biden’s debate showing. But the South Carolina Democrat said he would “probably” speak to Biden later in the day, when he would deliver a succinct message: “Stay the course.”

Pelosi, similarly, said Biden “got off to a bad start” and noted that it “could be” his worst night, but she added, “On his worst night, his presentation of integrity was far better than the other guy’s dishonesty.”

Jeffries, walking into the Capitol Friday morning, told reporters “no” when asked if Biden should step aside. But pressed later about whether Biden is the most effective communicator to relay the party’s message, the top House Democrat was coy.

“Until he articulates a way forward in terms of his vision for America at this moment, I’m gonna reserve comment about anything relative to where we are at this moment other than to say I stand behind the ticket,” Jeffries said.

For now, many Democrats are urging colleagues to take a breath, let the dust settle and see how voters respond to the president’s performance.

“Obviously, it wasn’t a good night,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) said. “But my advice to folks would be: Let’s sit down, let’s see how the next couple of weeks play out, and we’ll see what comes up.”

Other lawmakers, however, say the party has no more time to waste.

“I think you gotta do it quick,” the first House Democrat told The Hill when asked if party leaders should wait to see polling from the debate before speaking with Biden, or have the conversation immediately.

“At the end of the day does it really matter?” the lawmaker said of postdebate surveys. “The only poll you have to see was last night’s performance. That’s the poll.”

The lawmaker argued that Democrats still have time to make a switch at the top of the ticket, with just under two months to go until the August nominating convention, and just more than four months until Election Day.

“We have time,” the lawmaker said. “You’re going into the convention, the convention can be a big sell fest of like selling the new candidate, whoever it is.”

The second House Democrat, who said “we’ll see what happens” when asked if Biden remains the nominee, was more succinct. When pressed on if the party is getting down to the wire on timing, they responded:

“We are at the wire.”

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