Inside The Mounting Democratic Freakout Over Joe Biden’s Bad Debate

WASHINGTON ― So far, Reps. Lloyd Doggett (Texas) and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) are the only Democrats in Congress who have called on Joe Biden to drop out of the presidential race.

But several others are making it clear this week that they’re panicking about Biden’s prospects, after his terrible debate performance against Donald Trump last week.

“If President Biden and his team, if he’s staying in this race, then it’s going to be incumbent on them to show us — to show us, not tell us — to show us that he’s up for the task of beating Donald Trump,” Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) said Wednesday on SiriusXM’s “Mornings with Zerlina.”

Asked if Democrats should go with Vice President Kamala Harris, Lee called her an “obvious choice” if Biden drops out.

HuffPost talked to more than a dozen current and former Democratic lawmakers and top aides on Wednesday to get a sense of how they’re feeling about Biden staying in the race. The consensus was that nobody is feeling very good, but nobody is sure what should happen now.

Dozens of Democratic House members were reportedly circulating a draft letter on Wednesday calling for Biden to drop out. Plenty of others are staying mum for now, waiting for Biden to make his own decision. Some are privately irritated by colleagues suggesting the party abruptly change course four months before the election.

“We need to focus on beating Trump. It is crazy to consider the massively difficult, chaotic process to replace him. That would guarantee defeat,” said one veteran House Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “Numbers haven’t changed much. We need to circle the wagons, not crash them.”

Asked why some Democratic lawmakers are publicly airing their concerns about Biden, this longtime lawmaker brushed it off.

“Trying to be relevant,” said this House Democrat. “I mean, who cares what Lloyd Doggett thinks?”

But Grijalva, the onetime chair of the high-profile House Progressive Caucus, joined Doggett on Wednesday, telling the New York Times that he would support Biden if he remains the nominee but it would be better if he got out of the race. 

“If he’s the candidate, I’m going to support him,” Grijalva said, “but I think that this is an opportunity to look elsewhere.”

A number of Democrats in Congress are panicking about President Joe Biden's ability to take on Donald Trump in November, after his rough performance in last week's presidential debate.
A number of Democrats in Congress are panicking about President Joe Biden's ability to take on Donald Trump in November, after his rough performance in last week's presidential debate. MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

One senator, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told HuffPost it’s been obvious all along that Biden is going to lose the election.

“I don’t know why they are just now freaking out. The handwriting has been on the wall for months,” said this senator. “The debate isn’t what changed the dynamics. It’s just what forced them to see it.”

Another former longtime House Democrat said there’s a lot of private Democratic anger right now toward Biden’s closest advisors, including First Lady Jill Biden.

“When 51 million Americans witness a meltdown on live television, it’s hard to reverse that image,” this veteran former lawmaker said in a text message. “The feeling is we can’t win with him and if we don’t move now and figure out plan B, we can’t win at all.”

Asked to clarify if they think Biden should stay in the race, this former lawmaker wrote back, “NO!!!!!”

But the White House is signaling that the president isn’t going anywhere, and indirectly communicating to Democrats that they need to get in line.

“Absolutely not,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday, asked in her daily briefing if Biden is thinking about dropping out. Biden and Harris, meanwhile, jumped onto a conference call with campaign aides on Wednesday to reassure them that they’re solid.

Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.), a first-term lawmaker who is not seeking re-election after Republican gerrymandering made his district much harder to hold, held out hope that Biden could regain the public’s confidence about his fitness to serve.

“I was elected to Congress in a red district by pro-democracy and pro-choice independents who rejected the [Make America Great Again] brand and Trump’s extremism,” Nickel told HuffPost. “We can’t count that out. The Biden team has time to right the ship with those voters after a bad debate performance.”

For the most part, Democratic leaders are publicly sticking with Biden. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) have unequivocally backed Biden. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is also supporting the president, though she conceded it’s fair to ask if he’s up to the task and urged him to immediately do more interviews with journalists.

One bizarre reaction to Biden’s debate performance came from Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), one of just five House Democrats representing a seat Trump carried in 2020.

Golden, a co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, wrote an op-ed Tuesday entitled, “Donald Trump is going to win the election and democracy will be just fine.” In his column, Golden said he’d written off Biden’s chances long before the debate, but was confident in the country’s institutions’ ability to prevent Trump’s worst power grabs.

“This election is about the economy, not democracy,” Golden wrote. “And when it comes to our economy, our Congress matters far more than who occupies the White House.”

Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.), also a Blue Dog Coalitionco-chair from a district Trump carried, staked out something of a middle ground in a local TV interview on Tuesday. Watching the first five minutes of the debate convinced her that “Biden is going to lose to Trump,” she said. But Perez did not call on Biden to withdraw from the race.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) says Joe Biden should step aside and let someone else run for president against Donald Trump.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) says Joe Biden should step aside and let someone else run for president against Donald Trump. Tom Williams via Getty Images

Anxiety about Biden is running high in the Senate, too.

In key Senate races this cycle, several Democratic incumbents were polling ahead of Biden in a May New York Times poll of battleground states. And rather than joining Biden at a Friday rally in Madison, Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who faces a grueling reelection fight, will be campaigning elsewhere in the state.

“Somebody like [Montana Sen. Jon] Tester can overcome a gap, but he can’t overcome a castle,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told CNN on Wednesday, referring to his vulnerable Democratic colleague. “If we do really poorly at the presidential level, that creates a fierce undertow.”

In his call on Biden to step aside, Doggett noted the contrast between the president’s lackluster debate performance versus how Democratic senators are polling on their own.

“I had hoped that the debate would provide some momentum to change that,” Doggett said Tuesday. “It did not.”

A House Democratic campaign official said it’s not clear if Biden’s standing will hurt down-ballot candidates, since concerns about his age aren’t new.

“Thursday amplified the intensity of the concern around the president’s age and fitness, but it didn’t create the anxiety,” said this official. “It has been a topic that has been tested, asked and talked about, in poll after poll after poll, for the past 10 or 11 months.”

Other aides to Democratic lawmakers felt the party should be more freaked out over Biden’s ability to defeat Trump in November. One complained that Biden hasn’t done anything since last week’s debate, during which he struggled to deliver coherent answers to simple questions, to publicly show he can take on Trump.

“The problem is that even if leadership told the members that everything is okay, it wouldn’t fix the issue,” this House Democratic aide told HuffPost. “They need to see it — either in public, at events, or they could stomach [Biden] doing it in private as long as they could see him in person. Right now, Biden’s doing neither.”

But another Democratic aide said the current news cycle is “overblown” and “alarmist,” and speculated there’s still a 95% chance that Biden becomes the nominee barring something catastrophic.

“No need to be apoplectic. Oxygen only feeds the fire,” this aide said. “Talking to the press like they’re your therapist isn’t helping anyone right now — not the president, not the party, and not the nominee, whether that is Biden, Harris or someone else.”

No need to be apoplectic."Democratic aide, of anxiety around Joe Biden's campaign

The debate has affected BIden’s standing in the polls, at least for the moment. A New York Times/Siena poll released Wednesday showed the president’s numbers sagging after the debate, with Trump obtaining his widest lead over Biden yet. It showed a spike in concern about Biden’s age among likely voters.

The Wall Street Journal released a similar post-debate poll Wednesday showing Biden trailing Trump by 6 points.

The White House and the president are doing some cleanup work. Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that Biden had been suffering from a cold during the debate. The president himself blamed exhaustion from recent travel for his shaky performance. Beyond his Wednesday morning conference call with campaign staff, Biden is also scheduled to meet with Democratic governors later on Wednesday, and he has an interview with ABC News on Friday.

The panic right now may be at least somewhat unique to the D.C. political bubble.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) told HuffPost on Wednesday that his Houston office has only received 12 calls about Biden since the debate, and the sentiment was evenly split. Six callers said they wanted Biden to step aside, and six said they wanted him to stay in the race, even though it’s a district that reliably votes Democrat.

“The piling on is causing a good many people that I’ve talked to to believe that President Biden is not being treated fairly,” Green said. “Everybody knows he’s old. But we’ve had senior statesmen, elder statesmen before, and he is an elder statesman.”

“He makes good decisions,” added the Texas Democrat. “Everybody knows that.”