© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Senate Democrats Unite Over a Conspicuous Silence on Biden

As House Democrats come out in support of the president, Senate Democrats are far quieter.

Mark Kelly
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., walks through Capitol Hill. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Senate Democrats are dealing with Joe Biden’s dismal debate performance just how you might expect senators to handle it: They’re having meetings, talking, deliberating, deliberating some more, and then not doing much else.

For now.

Democrats emerged from a two-hour lunch meeting on Tuesday afternoon conspicuously quiet about their conversations. So on-message were the senators that reporters started asking if they’d received a directive from leadership to not talk to the press.

But Democrats wouldn’t even engage the media on whether they were asked not to engage with the media. (Sen. Chris Murphy wouldn’t even tell reporters what was on the menu.)

“I won’t be a news source for lunch,” Sen. Peter Welch told reporters.

This Senate lunch was anticipated as a potential watershed moment for the Democratic Party. It was the first chance since Biden’s calamitous debate for Senate Democrats to gather, in person, and hear each other’s private thoughts and fears.

Before the meeting, Sen. Mark Warner had reportedly been plotting to call for Biden to withdraw. And on the other side of the Democratic divide, a growing number of senators had issued endorsements of the president’s campaign.

But if Democrats came to any kind of agreement about Biden or a grand strategy about how to navigate their nominee’s problems, no one was talking about it on Tuesday — at least not on the record.

All many senators would confess to is that it felt good to talk.

“There is nothing better than an informal kind of discussion where people can look you in the eye and have a town meeting,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

Sen. Michael Bennet agreed it “was a good, open discussion.”

And Sen. Tom Carper described the lunch as a “very productive meeting.”

What senators were less willing to talk about, however, was Biden’s cognitive state or his chances to win — let alone where they personally stand on his future as the Democratic nominee. While that may sound like more evasion, their reluctance to fully embrace him is actually a significant marker, with House Democrats increasingly coming out in full force for Biden.

The second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, Sen. Dick Durbin, confessed after the meeting that “it remains to be seen” if Biden should quit his campaign.

Asked about Biden’s chances against Trump, Sen. Peter Welch said, “The voters are going to decide.” The conversation about Biden’s debate performance, he told reporters, “is an existential question about how best we can beat Trump.”

Privately, one Senate Democrat who attended the lunch told CNN that some lawmakers in the room expressed “deep concerns” about Biden’s odds against Trump. CNN reported later that Sens. Jon Tester, Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown told colleagues that Biden cannot beat Trump in November.

But in public, others stayed as shallow about the conversation as possible. Sen. Chris Coons offered perhaps the most detailed — and still entirely bland — readout, telling reporters that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said “broadly constructive things, just sort of setting the groundwork of our discussion.”

“Folks expressed a range of views in ways that I think were constructive and positive,” Coons, who is one of Biden’s strongest allies in the Senate, added.

Coons also claimed the Democrats’ private discussion closely aligned with the party’s campaign talking points. He said Sens. Bernie Sanders and Bennet focused on the party’s “lack of a compelling economic message.”

(Asked about his contributions, Sanders said that “every Democrat needs to stand up and fight for the working class” but refused to elaborate on the meeting beyond economic policy.)

What might be the most remarkable thing about the meeting is the lack of any cohesive message beyond press evasion. While Sen. Richard Blumenthal, like his colleagues, thought the lunch “was very constructive and insightful” — and he said he was encouraged by other senators’ “articulate” contributions — he told NOTUS that it “didn’t lead to a specific outcome.”

If there is one area of clear agreement, Blumenthal said it was this: “We need to defeat Donald Trump.”

That in itself has become a sort of shorthand code for some Democrats that Biden needs to step aside, as his poll numbers show him running behind not just Trump but also significantly behind Senate Democrats in their own races, as well as other potential presidential candidates. But, even the sting of that comment seems to be dissolving.

Blumenthal said he was optimistic Democrats could win, and that — from all perspectives — Democrats believe they can beat Trump. “On that point, there is absolute, unshakable unity,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker agreed that the most important issue is “beating Donald Trump.”

But he avoided sharing any personal views on whether Biden can do just that — or if he should even try, at this point.

The trouble for Democrats is how to best affect that outcome. For some, their political calculus has led them to stand firm with Biden, betting that a shake-up at this stage of the campaign would doom Democratic hopes to keep the White House and flip the Senate.

“Absolutely,” Biden can win, according to Sen. Alex Padilla. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand predicted Biden will “kick Trump’s butt.”

Gillibrand’s loyalty seemingly has no end. Pressed on whether there’s anything Biden could possibly do to lose her support, she told NOTUS, “I support President Biden.”

So, nothing at all?

“I support President Biden,” she repeated, unfazed by the limitless hypothetical question.

Other senators appear more preoccupied with a ceaseless barrage of negative Biden headlines dragging down-ballot Democrats.

Such concerns — like those from one of the most vulnerable Democrats, Brown of Ohio — linger.

“I’m hearing legitimate questions from Ohioans all the time, and I’m listening,” Brown told NOTUS before the meeting. But he also avoided sharing his own opinion.

All this deliberation might not matter. Durbin acknowledged to reporters that no matter how the Senate proceeds, lawmakers might not have the power to change Biden’s decision.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Haley Byrd Wilt and Riley Rogerson are reporters at NOTUS. Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.