From raising alarm to backing Biden, Democrats in Congress grapple with debate aftermath

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden‘s disastrous debate performance has reverberated across the Democratic Party, forcing lawmakers to grapple with a crisis that could upend the presidential election and change the course of American history.

The Democratic president has signaled he has no intention of dropping out of the race against Donald Trump despite the halting and uneven debate delivery that threw a spotlight on questions about Biden’s age and capacity to be president. But as Democrats make the case that the stakes of the election are momentous — challenging no less than the foundations of American democracy itself — they are wrestling with how to approach the 81-year-old who is supposed to be leading the charge for their party.

Here’s how Democrats are handling the aftermath of the debate:

Raising alarm

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas, on Tuesday became the first sitting Democrat in Congress to call for Biden to withdraw from the race. In a statement, he praised Biden but said he “has the opportunity to encourage a new generation of leaders from whom a nominee can be chosen to unite our country through an open, democratic process.”

“Recognizing that, unlike Trump, President Biden’s first commitment has always been to our country, not himself, I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw. I respectfully call on him to do so,” Doggett said.

A number of other congressional Democrats have tip-toed in recent days toward outspoken concern not just over Biden’s performance during the 90-minute debate on Thursday night, but also the level of transparency that Biden’s team has offered about his mental fitness.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told a local CBS-affiliated television station this week that he was “horrified” by both Biden’s performance and Trump’s falsehoods during the debate.

“People want to make sure that this is a campaign that’s ready to go and win,” Whitehouse said. “That the president and his team are being candid with us about his condition — that this was a real anomaly.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a prominent Democrat from Maryland, said on MSNBC, “There are very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party.”

Raskin said Democrats needed Biden at the “very center” of their campaign to make the argument that the Republican Party is slipping towards authoritarianism under Trump, but also raised the possibility that Biden would not continue as the presidential candidate.

Some are concerned that Biden’s weaknesses could tamp down potential voters’ enthusiasm, creating a ripple effect that hurts Democrats as they try to hold on to a narrow Senate majority and take back control of the House. Down-ballot Democrats are already confident they can outperform Biden in swing races, but if large numbers of voters reject Biden, it could also impact them.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., told CNN on Tuesday that he wanted Biden to recognize “how much this impacts not just his race but all the other races coming in November.”

Backing Biden

With Biden’s family urging him to stay in the race, attention has turned to senior Democratic lawmakers who could potentially convince the president to withdraw his nomination. So far, top Democratic leaders have mostly stood behind Biden in public statements.

“There have not been discussions among senior leadership about anything other than making sure we continue to articulate a compelling vision for the future to the American people related to the issues of importance around the economy,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters at a Monday event at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, after the debate last week that it showed voters there was a choice between “four more years of progress, or four more years of attacks on our fundamental rights and our democracy.”

Biden planned to speak with congressional leaders this week, the White House said Tuesday. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday they respected the opinions and thoughts of concerned party members, adding, “that’s what makes this party different than the other side.”

Many of Biden’s allies have chided the news media for being fixated on Biden’s mental capacities, arguing that instead the focus should be put on Trump’s record of refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election and repeatedly making false statements.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat who is part of Biden’s campaign committee, conceded that the debate was not what she hoped for, but added, “I think there needs to be a real conversation about the things that Donald Trump said. It is beyond vile.“

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., who was among Biden’s surrogates at the debate, dismissed concerns.

“We are 100% behind Joe Biden,” he said Friday. “Crystal clear, end of story. He’s our nominee. So anything else outside of that is just political chatter.”

Feeling it out

The debate infused a new dynamic into an election contest that had been marked by few surprises. Voters were familiar with both Biden and Trump and had previously decided between the two in 2020.

Still, many House Democrats were caught in a state of uncertainty as they faced a barrage of questions on the Friday morning after the debate. Some chalked it up as little more than a bad night for Biden, but others are watching closely to see how voters react and whether Biden can execute a quick political recovery.

Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who helped Biden win the Democratic nomination in 2020, urged his party last week to “stay the course” and “chill out.”

By Tuesday, Clyburn was still supporting Biden for president, but also told MSNBC that “Biden may decide otherwise.” Clyburn added that he would support Vice President Kamala Harris if Biden withdrew.

Clyburn and others like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are recommending that Biden prove to the American people that he is ready for another four years in office by going out and taking tough interviews — something he has rarely done in recent years. Biden will sit for an interview with ABC, his first since the debate, later in the week.

Both Clyburn and Pelosi told MSNBC at midday Tuesday that they had not spoken directly with Biden since the debate. But Pelosi still emphasized that the president is on “top of his game, in terms of knowing the issues and what is at stake.”

She called on both Biden and Trump to face tests for their health and mental acuity.

“I think it is a legitimate question to say is this an episode or is this a condition. So when people ask that question, it’s legitimate — of both candidates,” Pelosi said.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file lawmakers are watching to see how voter polls register the impact and whether it spills into down-ballot races. For months, vulnerable House Democrats have been distancing themselves from some of Biden’s policies. That phenomenon could become more pronounced after the debate.

Rep. Jared Golden, a moderate Democrat from Maine, was already looking for ways to convince potential Trump voters to support him.

“While I don’t plan to vote for him, Donald Trump is going to win,” Golden said in a Bangor Daily News op-ed. “And I’m OK with that.”


Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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