Democrats have struggled to transfer power to younger generations. After Biden's debate, that's likely to change.

  • Biden's less-than-stellar debate performance against Trump set off alarms among many Democrats.

  • It also shined a light on the party's past struggles in building a farm team of future leaders.

  • The debate will likely push Democrats to rethink how power is transferred to younger generations.

After President Joe Biden's middling debate performance Thursday night, many Democrats began to panic.

With voters already on the fence about Biden's readiness for a second term due to concerns over his advanced age, party leaders wanted the president to use the debate to not only reassure the electorate but also make an impression that could turn the race in his favor.

But that didn't happen. And now many Democrats are wondering if Biden should exit the race.

Being faced with that decision just five months before the election is in part due to one of the Democratic Party's more enduring problems: its tortoise-like pace in transferring power to younger generations.

Generational change

For 20 years, Nancy Pelosi led House Democrats as part of a leadership team that included veteran lawmakers Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn. It wasn't until 2023 that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a Gen Xer, finally assumed the mantle of leading the caucus.

In House primaries across the country, young Democratic candidates are routinely overlooked by party leaders and organizations who often go on to endorse more established candidates.

In 2020, Biden pledged to be a "bridge" to a new cohort of Democrats. But four years later, he decided to run for reelection.

His debate performance against former President Donald Trump exposed this resistance to generational change. If Biden remains in the race but is unable to convince wavering voters that he's up for the job, it could imperil Democrats in other critical races.

What do Democrats need?

The recent ascent of Jeffries, along with the elevation of Katherine Clark to House Democratic whip and Pete Aguilar to House Democratic Caucus chair, was a welcome generational shift — the kind that the party had generally previously eschewed in favor of experience.

Biden's choice of Kamala Harris as his vice president, too, represented a sort of passing of the torch. Shortly after the pair won the 2020 election, Harris said they would be "full partners." The president concurred, remarking that he had made no significant personnel decisions without her.

Many Democrats celebrated the arrival of this younger guard, especially since the party had often lagged behind Republicans in building a farm team of future leaders.

The worry now is, were these recent efforts too little too late?

So far, Biden has given no indication that he's leaving the race. If he remains the nominee, Democrats need him to do well. His political fate will have broad ramifications for key down-ballot races.

No matter what Biden decides, his debate performance will likely accelerate Democratic efforts to cultivate younger leaders who could one day run for the White House, especially as Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Z will make up the lion's share of the electorate over the next decade.

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