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President Joe Biden during the 2024 CNN Presidential Debate.
Ben Hendren/Sipa USA via AP

‘Every Democrat Needs to Do Soul-Searching’: Biden’s House Allies Are Stressed About His Future

House Democrats tried to spin or avoid questions about the president’s debate performance and his place at the top of the ticket. But most stopped short of a confident defense.

Ben Hendren/Sipa USA via AP

NOTUS reporters Riley Rogerson, Tinashe Chingarande, Nuha Dolby, Casey Murray, Claire Heddles, John T. Seward, Ben T.N. Mause and Oriana González reported this story.

After President Joe Biden’s debate performance Thursday night, House Democrats came to Capitol Hill on Friday with a simple mission: Don’t make it worse.

For the lawmakers willing to go on the record — and many brushed off the eight NOTUS reporters stationed around the House floor before they could even ask a question on Friday — most were desperate to spin a dire situation.

They insisted Biden performs better in private conversations. They said former President Donald Trump’s repeated lies overshadowed Biden’s stumbles. And they claimed a 90-minute debate wouldn’t undercut three years of leadership.

Many lawmakers refused to engage with questions about the debate — or any questions at all.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon said she had just had bloodwork done and needed to eat. Rep. Mark Pocan, wearing a surgical mask, said he was “very contagious” and couldn’t entertain questions. Deploying one of the oldest tricks in the book, Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada appeared to be on a fake phone call. (As one NOTUS reporter observed, Horsford pulled out his phone, revealed it was on the home screen, and then began mouthing words without making a sound.)

The anxiety Democrats displayed as they faced real questions about the future of the top of the ticket — and the Democratic Party — was more palpable on Friday than at any other point in Biden’s presidency. And not everyone ducked the questions.

“There is a great responsibility being borne by he and the first lady to make the most responsible decision that will enable Democrats to continue to formulate a winning ticket up and down the ticket,” Rep. Chuy Garcia of Illinois told NOTUS.

“There’s a lot of processing that I and many of my colleagues are doing,” progressive Rep. Jared Huffman of California told reporters. “But it wasn’t a good night.”

It was clear many Democrats were still “processing” Thursday’s debate. Vulnerable Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota and Texas Senate candidate Colin Allred used the same aimless refrain: The party is “processing.”

But Huffman was the only one who would clarify what exactly Democrats were processing: whether Biden should remain at the top of the ticket.

“Every superdelegate, every Democrat needs to do soul-searching, and we need to focus on winning,” Huffman said.

But a party processing also looked a lot like a party reeling, unsure of how to proceed after a historically bad debate. Several lawmakers insisted to NOTUS that leadership had not given members a talking points memo, preferring disarray to a leak of the party’s official thinking at the moment.

As much as efforts to get Biden to step down will take place in private — and make no mistake, Democratic campaign operatives have already begun aggressively questioning whether it’s time for the president to withdraw — there are already public signs that party leaders know there’s a real problem.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries hardly issued a full-throated endorsement of Biden. He instead told the Associated Press on Friday that until Biden “articulates a way forward in terms of his vision for America at this moment, I’m going to reserve comment about anything relative to where we are at this moment, other than to say I stand behind the ticket.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi — one of Biden’s biggest advocates in Congress — also declined to comment on how Biden did, other than to deliver some harsh words about Trump’s lie-a-minute performance.

And Vice President Kamala Harris confessed after the debate that Biden got off to a “slow start.”

But even the Democrats who attempted to defend Biden couldn’t help but show discomfort with the president’s performance.

Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas told NOTUS, for example, that she could “hardly wait for the next four” years of a Biden administration. But her assessment of the president is apparently on the floor. She told NOTUS that, while it was not Biden’s best night, “it certainly wasn’t his worst.”

It would, of course, have been difficult for Biden to be much worse. He mumbled. He trailed off. He repeatedly misspoke.

But Democrats were again trying to look on the bright side — while acknowledging some dark truths.

Rep. Troy Carter, a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus, admitted that Biden “may not have had his absolute best performance physically.” But the Louisiana Democrat had a convenient explanation. According to Carter, Biden was “befuddled, perhaps, because of the lies that were being told next to him.”

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell — a member of leadership focused on messaging — put her assessment in blunter terms: “Joe Biden didn’t do well last night.”

Dingell, reflecting the sentiment of many Democrats who tuned in, wished the White House had issued a heads-up about Biden’s supposed cold.

“Do I think that the White House should have told us that Joe Biden had a cold so that we’re ready for his raspy voice? Yes,” Dingell said.

Top Biden surrogate Rep. Ro Khanna told reporters that governing the country is actually a group project.

“When you’re president, you have a team of 4,000 people,” the California Democrat told reporters. “We have a great team of people that will help govern, and that is what I’m going to continue to make the case for.”

After the debate, names flew in Democratic circles about who might take the reins of the presidential campaign. Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania were frequently invoked to replace Biden. (All three have dropped firm statements standing with Biden post-debate — for now at least.)

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Most lawmakers didn’t dare play the parlor game of who’s up next in congressional hallways. Some, like progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal, condemned it outright.

But as far as she’s concerned, Biden’s staying the nominee. “It’s fancy-dance thinking to start talking about other people. He’s our candidate,” she told reporters.

One top Democrat, however, dropped a name. Biden’s campaign co-chair Rep. Jim Clyburn — the lawmaker perhaps most responsible for Biden’s win in 2020 — said he’d support Harris if the president stepped down.

“She’s on my list,” he told reporters. “Absolutely.”

Only one member, however, was so bold as to offer themselves up as the next top of the ticket.

“I’m going to draft myself if Biden steps down,” 75-year-old Rep. Kweisi Mfume told NOTUS.