Biden team works furiously to quell any Democratic revolt after debate

Supporters at a Biden campaign event on Friday in Raleigh, N.C. MUST CREDIT: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

Publicly, President Biden’s allies have spent the past several days aggressively downplaying his missteps in Thursday’s debate by assailing the “bedwetting brigade” of anxious Democrats, trumpeting a record influx of campaign donations and noting the long list of incumbents who stumbled during their first debates.

Privately, they have worked the phones to reassure nervous donors, pleaded with concerned lawmakers to keep their powder dry and huddled with colleagues to commiserate – while steeling themselves for a battle that could determine not only whether Biden wins the election in November, but whether he will be on the ballot at all.

The push to save Biden’s candidacy, which continued Sunday at a Camp David retreat with the president’s family encouraging him to stay in the race, appears to have at least temporarily stemmed the flood of public doubt and bought him some time. Still, the effort by the president’s aides, supporters and family members to contain the damage after he struggled to make a coherent case against Republican rival Donald Trump during the debate Thursday has been ambitious and frenzied. It has also become a case study of a campaign thrust into crisis.

In private conversations, the president has expressed complete commitment to staying in the race, according to people briefed on those conversations, who, like others in this article, were granted anonymity to discuss private deliberations. But he has asked aides and allies about what they’re hearing in the aftermath of his performance. He has also expressed concern about the fallout and dismay over some of the commentary that calls on him to drop out of the race, the people said.

Still, several people familiar with the situation described the president and those around him as even-keeled and unshaken, pointing to a long history of political and personal trauma that Biden has endured during his 81 years.

“You have a bad night. Bad nights end,” one person said. “We’re still here. Let’s go.”

At Camp David, Biden was gathered with his children and grandchildren for a family photo by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. Behind closed doors there, Biden’s family has been encouraging him to stay the course, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Biden plans to return to the White House early in the week and host a Fourth of July celebration there. After sometimes freezing up and losing his train of thought during the debate, Biden’s public appearances in the days ahead are likely to be closely scrutinized by voters and lawmakers alike.

People watch the presidential debate Thursday at Shaw’s Tavern in Washington. MUST CREDIT: Craig Hudson for The Washington Post

As of Sunday afternoon, no prominent Democratic officeholder has called for Biden to drop out of the race. Several have publicly expressed renewed support for him, even as they acknowledged that his debate performance has prompted worries about the party’s showing in November.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said on MSNBC’s “The Weekend” that House Democrats are involved in conversations over the future of Biden’s candidacy. He noted that, because the House will be in recess next week for the Fourth of July, those conversations will continue over the phone and virtually.

But he added that “one thing should be clear: There is a big difference between our view of the world, the country and the future, and the extreme MAGA Republican view.”

Biden’s performance Thursday “certainly was a setback,” Jeffries added. “But of course, I believe a setback is nothing more than a setup for a comeback.”

Some Democrats are publicly voicing their concerns about Biden’s age and abilities, while others have been conspicuously silent, awaiting polling numbers before offering their opinions.

Appearing on MSNBC on Sunday, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said there was a “big problem with Joe Biden’s debate performance.”

“There are very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party,” he said.

The public show of support came on the heels of a harried private effort that began even before the debate ended on Thursday, as private group chats, hushed conversations and social media posts teemed with consternation about Democrats’ prospects.

Biden aides began telling the media as the debate was underway that the president had a cold, rationalizing his thin, raspy voice and unsteady delivery. Vice President Harris said immediately afterward that his “slow start” was not a sign of a broader weakness, and campaign surrogates in the spin room tried to shift the focus from Biden’s stumbles to Trump’s falsehoods and extreme comments.

The push continued Friday and through the weekend, including a rush of activity by Biden; his wife, Jill Biden; and other allies that came against the backdrop of top editorial boards, columnists and Democratic commentators calling on the president to exit the race.

In the days since the debate, a wave of influential voices that have previously backed Biden, including New Yorker editor David Remnick, New York Times columnists Tom Friedman and Nick Kristof and “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, have called on the president to pull out of the race or at least seriously consider it.

In a Facebook post shared Sunday morning, former Democratic National Committee vice chair R.T. Rybak said the public has to push Democratic leaders to get Biden off the ticket.

“Our elected officials are staying shockingly silent in public, especially considering how many of them acknowledge privately that this has to happen,” he wrote. “They fear political retribution but they should really fear that if we lose this election because they didn’t have the guts to do what they know needs to be done, holy hell and history will come down on them like an anvil.”

During a virtual Democratic National Committee meeting Saturday, which was hastily scheduled less than 24 hours before, leaders implored their members to stick behind Biden.

“We have to have his back,” DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said, according to members on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Harrison acknowledged that Biden had not gotten younger, but emphasized the message that he was not a liar like Trump, one person recalled.

However, the call did not provide an opportunity for members to share their concerns with the party’s leaders; there was no question-and-answer session and the chat function was disabled. Such moves frustrated members who had hoped for a more honest conversation about the party’s difficult path forward.

Party leaders and campaign officials instead bragged about their fundraising success, yard sign distribution, house parties and surrogate events. They explained a strategy to bring in social media influencers to the Democratic convention in Chicago.

Harrison concluded the call by telling the members he was going on a Disney cruise, fulfilling a promise he made to his children. The event did not eliminate doubts, while stoking the frustration of some.

“It’s a confident bunch,” said one person who participated. “This is all competent. But who knows if it is enough.”

One Democratic House member said the call was “terrible” and the message wasn’t based in reality.

Jeffries and other Democrats in House leadership have been privately telling worried lawmakers from competitive districts to stay quiet for a few more days and see what happens, the member said.

For his part, Biden has tried to showcase a more forceful public visage than the stumbling, raspy-voiced debater that millions of Americans watched at the prime-time event his campaign negotiated and advocated for.

Over the course of three days, Biden traveled to five states for public and private appearances. During a raucous rally in Raleigh, N.C., he vigorously prosecuted the case against Trump while debuting a line acknowledging his age and limitations directly.

“I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to,” Biden said, his voice rising as the crowd responded in kind. “But … I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. I know how to do this job.”

Several Democrats have pointed to the Raleigh event as a critical moment of reassurance, even as they questioned the sharp difference between the president’s performance at the debate and his rally appearance one day later.

“That is the Joe Biden we all know and love, and frankly the one we had hoped would have shown up on the debate stage,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist who remains committed to backing Biden’s reelection.

Cardona, who was on the DNC call Saturday, dismissed the “tangential chatter from strategists and pundits and editorial boards” calling on Biden to drop out.

“They don’t really matter,” she said. “What really matters are the elected officials, the donors and the voters.”

Around the same time Biden was rallying in Raleigh, he received a critical message of support from former president Barack Obama, whose own shaky debate in 2012 also rocked his reelection bid.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” Obama posted on social media Friday afternoon. “But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.”

Back at Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Del., several staffers gathered to watch the rally Friday, standing up and celebrating as they saw a more energized Biden in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 supporters.

During an all-hands staff meeting afterward, campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon sought to rally the troops, acknowledging the rough night and encouraging aides to focus on drawing a sharp contrast with Trump.

“We’ve all been through hard times,” she told the gathered staff, according to a recording of the meeting. “We’ve all wished something went a little bit better than maybe it did. And then our job and our decision is, can we keep going to fight for it and make sure we put in the work, and that’s what I think the president has done.”

In a series of memos and presentations to donors and voters, the campaign has sought to downplay the concerns of pundits and commentators who claimed Biden had done irreparable harm to his candidacy during the debate. They have pointed to a flood of donations – more than $33 million so far since Thursday – and other metrics that suggest voters are still on board with Biden. The campaign said Sunday that Thursday was its best-ever “grassroots fundraising day.”

O’Malley Dillon delivered a presentation to Biden’s national finance committee Friday that helped calm the nerves of some anxious donors by spotlighting Trump’s falsehoods and non-sequiturs during the debate, said Noah Mamet, a former U.S. ambassador to Argentina who attended the meeting.

“Trump’s said a ton of crazy stuff that’s not being talked about right now,” Mamet said, adding that the Biden campaign has plans to turn many of Trump’s most extreme statements into campaign ads.

On Saturday, O’Malley Dillon released a memo saying that despite Biden’s poor performance, little had changed about a race that she had long expected would remain close until the end. She suggested that any polls that showed Biden bleeding support would only be temporary and the result of “overblown media narratives.”

Hours later, deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty went a step further in a sharply worded memo to supporters aimed at forcefully combating those who have tried to force Biden out of the race.

“The bedwetting brigade is calling for Joe Biden to ‘drop out,’” he wrote. “That is the best possible way for Donald Trump to win and us to lose. First of all: Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee, period. End of story. Voters voted.”

He suggested that Biden stepping aside would lead to weeks of chaos and internal fighting among Democrats, all serving to boost Trump’s chances.

Such an argument must weigh heavily on Biden’s mind as he considers his place in history and thinks about the implications of what it would mean to end his presidential bid prematurely, said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian.

“Biden holds all the cards here,” he said. “As long as he says he’s going to run, he gets to keep running. It doesn’t matter what Tom Friedman says. It doesn’t matter what Nick Kristof says. It’s Biden’s decision.”



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