Why Democrats are afraid to go public with their post-debate concerns about Biden

  • House Democrats don't want to talk about Joe Biden's bad debate performance.

  • A lot of that is because of political self-preservation.

  • Democrats who have publicly made an issue of Biden's age before have suffered greatly as a result.

Rep. Tom Suozzi really didn't want to be there.

As the New York Democrat waited for an elevator to whisk him up to the second floor of the Capitol, Suozzi was cornered by a gaggle of reporters who wanted not just his appraisal of President Joe Biden's disastrous debate performance the previous night, but whether the congressman thought the 81-year-old president should continue to be his party's nominee. "That's beyond my pay grade," Suozzi replied. "That's not up to me."

The congressman had caught a lucky break: The elevator doors behind him were opening up, and reporters can't follow lawmakers into elevators without their consent. I was on board, headed down to the basement. Suozzi slowly backed in, apparently unaware of the direction of the elevator. "We're headed down," I told him as the doors closed on us.

"I just needed to get the fuck out of there," said Suozzi. "I'll take the stairs."

Friday morning votes are typically a sleepy affair, but this wasn't a normal Friday morning. Because Biden's campaign had pushed for the earliest general election debate on record, Congress happened to be in session, and Democratic lawmakers were being forced to answer for a performance that had clearly sent many of them into panic mode.

Roughly half of House Democrats did the prudent thing: They kept their mouths shut and avoided saying anything, either by directly declining to answer questions or insisting that they really needed to keep talking to an aide walking with them. One House Democrat, who I won't name because I can't prove it, seemed to be pretending to be on a call, dangling his iPhone slightly below his ear while sipping a coffee.

Others took the Kamala Harris route, frankly acknowledging Biden's weak performance while broadly standing behind Biden. "I don't think it was his best performance," Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California said bluntly. "Being a debater is different than being president."

Just a few were willing to express in public what they're surely feeling in private — that Biden's poor showing against former President Donald Trump is prompting a lot of "soul searching," in the words of Rep. Jared Huffman of California.

"I think there's a lot of processing that I and many of my colleagues are doing, but it wasn't a good night," said Huffman, adding that he does not want Biden to do another debate and that he was also still "processing" whether he believes Biden should be the party's nominee.

"I don't know. I don't know what happens next. I truly don't," said Rep. Greg Landsman of Ohio when asked if he's entertaining the idea of Biden not being the nominee. "You know, I think the President and his team are gonna huddle up and have a conversation, and we'll see what happens."

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters on Friday that he stands behind Biden, and other senior Democrats — including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jim Clyburn, the man who arguably delivered Biden the nomination in 2020 — broadly did the same. Rep. Robert Garcia, a Biden campaign surrogate who traveled to the debate on Thursday, was left insisting to a large circle of skeptical reporters that Biden simply "had a raspy voice."

Despite the best efforts of the Capitol Hill press corps, no one publicly declared that Biden needed to go, despite widespread reports that they're harboring deep concerns behind closed doors.

That's because they've seen what happens to people who have made an issue out of Biden's age before.

Rep. Dean Phillips waged an entire primary challenge to Biden based on the premise that he's too old to carry on and that his colleagues know it. The Minnesota congressman ended up being marginalized by the party, and his political career may be effectively over at the end of his term. In 2019, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro directly attacked Biden's age and memory at a Democratic primary debate. He's been essentially locked out of the top echelons of the party ever since.

"The first Democratic politician to call for Biden to step down, it's going to end in their career," Democratic strategist Paul Begala said on CNN on Friday morning. "They may be right in the eyes of a lot of Democrats, but if you're the first one through the door, you're going to get shot. And look, I think they all know that."

Democrats who want to see Biden step aside are essentially facing a collective action problem. If they were to band together and declare that Biden needs to step aside, they may be able to have an impact. But any individual lawmaker who feels that way may be confronting political oblivion if they do it on their own.

Plus, political incentives and partisanship may simply drive them back into Biden's corner. To admit that the president needs to step aside as the party's nominee would be to cave to long-running GOP attacks on the president.

On Friday morning, Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas capitalized on the moment, announcing that he would put forward a resolution calling on Biden's cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment and remove him from office.

It's the exact sort of thing that may send Democrats running back into Biden's arms.

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