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Joe Biden
The president’s reelection campaign and Democratic officials have been defending against a cry from within the party ranks that Joe Biden needs to step aside. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

‘This Is Not Going to Just Blow Over’: Debate Panic Hardens Into an Awkward Choice for Democrats

The Democratic Party has divided into two camps: those resigned to Biden’s candidacy and those who think there’s still time to shake things up.

The president’s reelection campaign and Democratic officials have been defending against a cry from within the party ranks that Joe Biden needs to step aside. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Democrats in Washington are faced with two choices about their party’s ongoing panic this week: Ignore it or lean in.

Those close to Joe Biden believe it’s Democrats’ duty to minimize the problem — and their strategy thus far has been to blame the media for the frenzy. Asked when the panic might end, one frustrated source close to the campaign told NOTUS it wouldn’t. “Because it makes good D.C. cocktail fodder,” this person said.

Not every Democrat, however, is buying the message of “get over it and move on.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first Democrat in Congress to officially call on Biden to step down from his reelection campaign. And another House Democrat told NOTUS they expect many more Democratic lawmakers and donors “speaking out very soon.”

“I’ve spoken to at least half a dozen colleagues who are getting near-unanimous feedback from their biggest supporters that an intervention is needed,” this lawmaker said. “Everyone has this feeling of dread that no one close to Biden will tell him the truth, and by the time the polling and everything else is obvious, it may be too late.”

“This is not going to just blow over,” the Democratic member added, “and if it somehow does, then we’re really fucked.”

For the greater part of the past week, the president’s reelection campaign and Democratic officials — albeit in a more cautious tone — have been defending against a fulsome cry from within the party ranks that Biden needs to step aside.

For his part, Biden has shown up at a well-reviewed campaign rally and a short Monday night speech about the Supreme Court’s presidential immunity ruling. But he hasn’t taken questions or done a media interview since his disastrous performance Thursday night, and he’s made no indication he’s thinking of quitting the race — even if the polls already showing him losing get worse. (His campaign has begun a furious effort to foam the runway in case of bad numbers in the coming days.)

In short, some of these operatives say, most of the things that need to be done to end panic have been done. It’s just that the overwhelming sense of dread remains.

The problem is there are no good options for Democrats. Four months until Election Day, calling for Biden to step aside is as risky — if not riskier — than carrying on as if everything is fine. As one operative told NOTUS in February, when some speculated that Biden may step aside because of Robert Hur’s report, “This ain’t the West Wing … Joe Biden is the candidate, and there’s really no easy way to change that without massively disrupting the party’s coalition.”

As these Democratic operatives see it, there’s very little to be done.

“Panic is sometimes justified and sometimes unjustified. What’s useless is panic for panic’s sake instead of doing something about it,” said one operative working in races this year. “If you’re just panicking to make yourself feel better or get yourself on cable news, then you need a new hobby.”

What’s left for this camp? The hope this moment dissipates on its own or forms into a more familiar kind of panic — about the possibility of Trump winning, generally.

“Sometimes the panic can end the panic,” another operative experienced in these cycles said. “The overwrought nature of the panicking can cause others to say, ‘This is overwrought.’”

But other Democrats are privately acknowledging that the panic is well-founded: Biden is losing to Trump in the polls, and they think his performance Thursday night was so catastrophic that he isn’t likely to ever come back.

“This Praetorian Guard around Biden is losing the election, and all they can do is shame other Dems for having an honest reaction to what they’re seeing and hearing,” the previously mentioned Democratic lawmaker texted NOTUS on Tuesday. “Meanwhile, the fate of our republic rests with half a dozen longtime Biden sycophants and family members, including Hunter Biden, who are the only ones Joe seriously consults.”

“A good rule of thumb,” this Democratic member continued, “whatever Hunter Biden advises, do the opposite.”

Other Democratic lawmakers have been more muted, choosing to let the drama play out behind closed doors. But there are some clues that elected Democrats think Biden’s time is up.

For one, Rep. Chuy Garcia of Illinois told NOTUS on Friday, “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.”

For another, Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez Jr. told NOTUS on Friday that, for his race, he was just going to focus on himself. “But we want to win the election, so we got to do whatever we got to do,” he said.

“It’s old versus crazy,” he continued. And when asked if there was a way to have crazy versus something else, Gonzalez said, “That’d be great.”

In the days since the immediate aftermath, some elected Democrats have started to cast doubt on Biden remaining the nominee. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said the president and his allies need to be “candid with us about his condition,” that Democrats need a campaign reset, and that Biden’s debate performance came as a “surprise.” (Whitehouse said his interactions with the president didn’t match his debate performance.)

“It wasn’t just a horrible night,” Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois said on CNN Tuesday morning.

“It’s his decision,” Quigley said of Biden stepping down as the nominee. “I just want him to appreciate at this time just how much it impacts not just his race but all of the other races coming in November.”

Former Obama Cabinet Secretary Julián Castro told MSNBC that “Democrats would be well to find another candidate.”

And defining the divide between the two camps, Sen. Peter Welch also said he criticized the Biden 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,” Welch told Semafor on Monday, alluding to deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty’s description in a weekend campaign email of “the bed-wetting brigade” calling on Biden to drop out.

“But that’s the discussion we have to have,” Welch said. “It has to be from the top levels of the Biden campaign to precinct captains in the South Side of Chicago.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. NOTUS reporters Jasmine Wright and Riley Rogerson, and Casey Murray, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed to this report.