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Democrats begin attacking Biden’s performance and campaign

Democrats begin attacking Biden’s performance and campaign

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Top Democrats have begun forcefully and aggressively criticizing President Joe Biden’s debate performance and pushing back against what they call an unconvincing response from his campaign to worries that he’s no longer up for the job — delivering a dire warning to the party.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), called on Biden to drop out of the race. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a key ally of the president, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he will back Vice President Kamala Harris if Biden steps aside. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it’s completely legitimate to question whether Biden’s debate performance was “an episode or is this a condition?”

Democratic governors are also planning to meet with Biden, possibly as soon as Wednesday, after more than two dozen gathered on a call this week to vent about the president.

“Folks want to know — what’s the plan, Joe? What is the plan not only for you, but the rest of us to get out there and carry the flag? Are you able and is the campaign able to maintain the pace?” said one Democratic adviser to a governor who was on the call. The Democrat was granted anonymity to discuss the private matter.

The collective response on Tuesday highlighted that members of Biden’s own party are beginning to be more open about their frustration with the president and his team in the wake of last Thursday’s disastrous debate performance — where he was at times unable to string together complete sentences — an issue that could hurt Democrats up and down the ticket in November.

Democrats in Congress had mostly stood behind the president, at least publicly, in the days since. Many conceded he had a poor performance but asserted that Biden should be judged for the entirety of his presidency rather than a 90-minute debate.

But in the past 24 hours, at least a half-dozen current or former Democratic members of Congress have bucked the trend, openly acknowledging their skepticism that his campaign is taking the right steps to restore voters’ confidence. Of those, two have called on Biden to step aside.

“Instead of reassuring voters, the President failed to effectively defend his many accomplishments and expose Trump’s many lies [during the debate],” Doggett wrote in a statement. “Too much is at stake to risk a Trump victory. … President Biden saved our democracy by delivering us from Trump in 2020. He must not deliver us to Trump in 2024.”

“I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw. I respectfully call on him to do so,” Doggett said.

Doggett, who is serving his 15th term in Congress, added that Biden was polling “substantially” behind Democratic senators and former President Donald Trump in battleground states and encouraged his party to pursue an “open, democratic process” to select a new nominee.

Former Rep. Tim Ryan, who ran against Biden in the Democratic primary in 2020, wrote in an op-ed in Newsweek titled “Kamala Harris Should Be the Democratic Nominee for President in 2024” published Monday evening: “Witnessing Joe Biden struggle was heartbreaking. And we must forge a new path forward.”

“[Biden] promised to be a bridge President to the next generation. … Regrettably, that bridge collapsed last week,” he wrote.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, called on Biden to drop out of the race. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ryan added that Democrats need to “rip the band aid off” and make Harris their nominee, praising the vice president for having “grown into her job” and calling her a more formidable debate opponent against former President Donald Trump.

A spokesperson for the Biden campaign did not immediately respond to POLITICO’s request for comment on Doggett’s call for the president to withdraw.

In response to a request for comment on Ryan’s and other members’ remarks, Biden campaign spokesperson Cole Wozniak pointed POLITICO to a Friday press release that listed quotes from elected leaders and supporters praising Biden following the debate.

So far, Biden has been determined to stay in the race, and his family has urged him to continue on as well. The president and his aides have worked to quell worries about his age after the debate, including at a rally in North Carolina on Friday where a fiery Biden admitted, “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to.”

“But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said he was doubtful that Biden just had a bad night during the debate, and he urged the president to consider how his place on the ticket impacts the fate of Democrats in the Congress.

“We have to be honest with ourselves that it wasn’t just a horrible night,” Quigley told CNN host Kasie Hunt. “But I won’t go beyond that out of my respect and understanding for President Joe Biden, a very proud person who has served us extraordinarily for 50 years. I just want him to appreciate at this time just how much this impacts not just his race but all the other races coming in November.”

In the interview, Quigley said Biden “has to be honest with himself” because his decision — and its impact on how Democrats perform down-ballot — “will have implications for decades to come.”

“It’s clear that what took place last week doesn’t seem to influence his decision. I don’t know what will,” Quigley said when asked if polling that showed Democrats would lose the House or Senate could sway Biden’s decision. “It probably takes up to a week to get decent polling. … I do think that’s probably the only thing out there right now that could change his mind or influence that critical decision that, again, only he can make.”

Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) echoed Quigley’s sentiment during a later interview on CNN, calling it unhelpful for the campaign to dismiss voter concerns and adding that he thinks Biden should more aggressively confront worries about his age.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told Semafor that the Biden campaign’s approach to squashing questions about the president’s age, especially by calling people with those anxieties “bed-wetters,” is “inappropriate.”

“I really do criticize the campaign for a dismissive attitude towards people who are raising questions for discussion. That’s just facing the reality that we’re in,” Welch said in the article published Tuesday. “But that’s the discussion we have to have. It has to be from the top levels of the Biden campaign to precinct captains in the southside of Chicago.”

Biden was at times unable to string together complete sentences. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Two of Biden’s top allies in the House were also more vocal about what they think the president needs to do to turn his struggling campaign around. 

“Both candidates owe whatever tests you want to put them to in terms of their mental acuity and their health,” Pelosi told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, recommending that Biden speak with a “serious journalist” just hours before the announcement of an upcoming interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos. 

“I will support [Harris]” if Biden steps aside, Clyburn told Mitchell. “… This party should not in any way do anything to work around Ms. Harris. We should do everything we can to bolster her, whether she’s in second place or at the top of the ticket.”

The president’s performance at the debate left Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) “pretty horrified,” he told Providence’s 12 News Monday evening. Whitehouse, who served two years in the Senate with Biden, described a former colleague that he barely recognized.

“The blips of President Biden and the barrage of lying from President Trump were not what one would hope for in a presidential debate,” Whitehouse said.

Andrew Howard and Elena Schneider contributed to this report.

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