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Analysis: Biden’s post-debate crisis is now evolving into a genuine threat to his reelection bid


Analysis: Biden’s post-debate crisis is now evolving into a genuine threat to his reelection bid


President Joe Biden needs to do far more to quell Democratic panic over his terrible performance at his debate showdown with former President Donald Trump, and fast.

After Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett on Tuesday became the first Democratic lawmaker to break ranks and demand Biden step aside, top party figures are now asking for more openness and details on the president’s health and mental state as the anxiety about his reelection campaign evolves into an increasingly genuine threat to his grip on the Democratic nomination.

Every effort the president and his White House and campaign teams make to fix the problem end up exacerbating it. Biden, for instance, on Tuesday evening joked to donors that he “almost fell asleep onstage” with Trump after two grueling trips to Europe last month. It was an odd way to parry claims that he is no longer fit for the demanding duties of his office as he asks for a second term at age 81.

The fallout from the debate has created another extraordinary twist in a stunning campaign featuring two presidents, one who is a convicted felon, and the other who is already the oldest to hold the job in history. The debate crystalized many fears of Democrats about Biden’s prospects and played into months of claims by Trump, 78, that his rival is weak and mentally diminished.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday endured a briefing that was almost as painful to watch as the debate itself. She said that while Biden had a cold at the debate, he hadn’t taken medication but was now feeling better. But she declined to go beyond Biden’s already released annual physical results that found him fit for duty in February. The explanations did not account for why Biden trailed off in some answers, sometimes appeared incoherent and stared open-mouthed while Trump spoke during the CNN debate.

Biden’s team also keeps answering the wrong question.

“The best predictor of future behavior is past performance,” Jean-Pierre said, stressing that the true test of Biden capabilities was his record in office for the past 3½ years.

But the issue that was really posed by the debate was whether voters can imagine him – in his diminished current state – able to fully serve another term that would end when he is 86. Jean-Pierre insisted that “we understand how the American people are feeling. We get it, we do.” But her briefing created only more intrigue about what really went on inside the president’s tight inner circle.

While the first cracks are appearing in the Democratic firewall around the president, the public calls for him to step aside so the party can choose another nominee are not yet anywhere near critical mass. But the calls by senior Democrats for more explanation from the president and for energy in his campaigning are now impossible for Biden and his team to ignore. And the ultimate outcome of the panic over Biden’s performance is now not possible to predict – a hugely vulnerable position for a president seeking a second term.

Democratic Sen. Peter Welch from Vermont said Tuesday: “The big question going into that debate was the age question. … The outcome of the debate was that that question on age was intensified.”

“We have got to deal with that. That’s the real issue, and have frank conversations about it, because at the end of the day, the existential question facing the Democratic Party is how do we keep Trump from being president – and whatever it takes, every decision each of us makes from President Biden down to a precinct captain in the South Side of Chicago should be through the lens of how best do we protect Democracy and protect America,” Welch told CNN’s Abby Phillip on “NewsNight.”

Perhaps most importantly, the comparison between the wise, sober, statesmanlike Biden and the wild, lawless Trump that the president’s campaign had anticipated for months has been obliterated by speculation over Biden’s health and endurance. Biden needed to use the debate to turn around a race he was in danger of losing, and he may now have squandered his best chance to overtake the ex-president.

In a new effort to calm public concern, Biden will grant an interview to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Friday in what is now shaping up as an even more critical test of his acuity than the debate. And he’ll meet Democratic governors in Washington on Wednesday, both in person and virtually, following demands for direct contact that underscored the fact that many Democrats believe Biden’s inner circle has been remote and unresponsive to their concerns over a period of months.

One of those governors, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, said in a remarkably candid interview with CNN on Tuesday that Biden’s debate was “rough” and that whatever the polls say, it will damage his campaign.

“Joe Biden is our nominee, and ultimately that decision on continuing or not will fall to him and his family,” Beshear, who’s been mentioned as a potential replacement nominee if Biden backs out, told Pamela Brown. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking the president to talk to the American people a little bit more about his health or that debate performance.”

He added, “It’s like seeing somebody that you haven’t seen in a while and they seem a little off, and you asking how they’re doing and then listening to their answer. It’s both showing concern for them but also just trying to make sure that things are OK.”

Like Beshear, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi couched her comments by saying Biden is a great president and that Trump would pose a serious threat to the rule of law. But she also speculated on the president’s health.

“I think it’s a legitimate question to say, is this an episode or is this a condition?” she asked on MSNBC on Tuesday, adding that it was also a fair question to ask about the presumptive Republican nominee.

Biden’s political position deteriorated on Tuesday as dawn broke, when Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley told CNN’s Kasie Hunt that the president needed to understand that his decision on whether to stay in the race would reverberate for years to come and that the House and Senate were at stake.

A few hours later, Doggett became the first Democratic lawmaker to call for Biden to relinquish the party’s nomination.

“There’s a large and increasing group of House Democrats concerned about the president’s candidacy, representing a broad swath of the caucus,” another House Democratic lawmaker told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “We are deeply concerned about his trajectory and his ability to win. We want to give him space to make a decision [to step aside], but we will be increasingly vocal about our concerns if he doesn’t.”

A new CNN/SSRS poll, meanwhile, showed that three-quarters of Americans believe Democrats would have a better chance of beating Trump with a candidate other than Biden. And even unpopular Vice President Kamala Harris fared better in the matchup with Trump than her boss.

Another danger sign for the president is that despite his insistence that he will stay in the race, some Democrats are beginning to answer questions about what would happen if he was no longer the nominee – despite the extraordinary logistical challenges that would entail at the Democratic National Convention in August.

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn – one of Biden’s most vehement supporters – said on MSNBC on Tuesday that he still wanted to see the president on the top of the ticket. But he also offered support for the vice president.

“I will support her if he were to step aside,” Clyburn said. “This party should not in any way do anything to work around Miss Harris.”

He added: “We should do everything we can to bolster her, whether it’s in second place or at the top of the ticket.”

Sen. Laphonza Butler also said she still backs Biden. But she offered a strong endorsement of her fellow Californian.

“I think she’s done an incredible job being a partner to the president and leading the party and leading the country, and I think that she will continue to be that,” Butler said.

In his interview, Beshear – who, as a red-state governor, would draw vice presidential speculation on a different ticket – also had praise for Harris, saying he’d been happy to work with a vice president whose initially shaky adaptation to the role means she would be far from a certainty to step up if Biden chose to leave the race.

The CNN/SSRS poll shows Harris within striking distance of Trump in a hypothetical matchup – trailing by 47% to 45%, inside the margin of error. Biden was down 6 percentage points to the former president.

But the vice president made sure there is no daylight between her and Biden during a brief interview with CBS News.

“Joe Biden is our nominee. We beat Trump once and we’re going to beat him again, period,” she said, adding, “I am proud to be Joe Biden’s running mate.”

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