On Capitol Hill, Democrats Panic About Biden but Do Nothing

WASHINGTON — Sen. Chris Murphy, an ambitious young Democrat from Connecticut, went on television Sunday with a carefully worded warning to President Joe Biden about the viability of his campaign.

“This week is going to be absolutely critical; I think the president needs to do more,” Murphy said, arguing that Biden needed to hold a town hall and participate in unscripted events because “the clock is ticking” for him to put to rest the doubts about his candidacy raised by a disastrous debate performance. Multiple times, Murphy emphasized his deadline, saying that he, as well as voters, must see more action “this week.”

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Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who briefly ran for president himself, said Biden had to “reassure the American people that he can run a vigorous campaign to defeat Donald Trump.”

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a senior member of the Democratic leadership team, put out a statement that passed for fighting words, saying that the president “must do more to demonstrate that he can campaign strong enough to beat Donald Trump.”

So far, Biden has done none of that.

And yet, Democrats on Capitol Hill are stifling their doubts and falling in line behind him anyway.

Having spent the last week and a half in various stages of private panic and public skepticism about Biden’s viability as a candidate and whispering among themselves about what the best way to push him aside might be — a strongly worded letter? a White House meeting? a high-level intervention? — top Democrats on Tuesday settled on a strategy many of them conceded could be disastrous: They would do nothing, at least for now.

“As I’ve said before, I’m with Joe,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said multiple times at a news conference after a closed-door Senate lunch. The lunch gave Democrats their first opportunity after a weeklong recess to gather in person and discuss how aggressive or public they wanted to be in standing up to a defiant party leader who has unequivocally refused to step aside on his own.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, explicitly told colleagues on a private call Sunday afternoon that Biden should withdraw from the race. But by Tuesday, as he made his way into a House caucus meeting, he was backtracking, saying that any concerns he harbored were “beside the point” and that Biden was “going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., left the Senate lunch arguing that Biden and only Biden would decide his future, and that it was not up to Congress to pressure him out of the race.

“He has my support, and I think he is right now the only one who will decide whether he continues to be the candidate,” Blumenthal said.

Never mind that Biden had done almost none of the kind of unscripted events, town halls or interviews his critics had said he needed to in order to show that he was still fit to run. He was not scheduled to until Thursday, when he is set to participate in a preplanned NATO news conference.

Instead, a defiant letter Biden sent to lawmakers Monday in which he refused to drop out of the race — coupled with members of the influential Congressional Black Caucus vociferously rallying to his side — appeared to have successfully paralyzed the entire party into a state of uncertainty and inaction during what it had deemed to be the critical week.

Longtime party loyalists said they were now reduced to hoping for another major public misstep by Biden, such as a serious stumble at his NATO news conference, to either persuade reticent members of Congress to speak out or to convince the president that he should leave the race on his own.

The stance struck the lone-wolf Democrats who have stuck their necks out to publicly call for Biden to step aside as preposterous — and even dangerous.

“The idea that we are going to slow-walk into fascism because we don’t want to hurt somebody that we respect’s feelings — I cannot even begin to tell you how angry that makes me,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee and one of seven House Democrats to publicly call on Biden to step aside.

On Tuesday night, Bennet stopped short of publicly calling on Biden to end his campaign. But in an interview on CNN, he confirmed that he told his colleagues during the closed-door Senate lunch that he did not think Biden could beat Trump. “I think we could lose the whole thing,” he said, referring to the White House as well as both chambers of Congress.

He added, “The White House has done nothing since the debate to demonstrate they have a plan to win this election.”

Privately, vulnerable Democrats who represent competitive districts were panicking that there appeared to be no plan to pressure Biden out of what they expected to be a losing proposition for all of them. Behind closed doors, there was a consensus forming among the members in the toughest House seats that Democrats would have a much better shot of winning the majority with Vice President Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket.

Their position was expressed privately to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the minority leader, who was still in listening mode Tuesday, debating how to proceed.

“I think he’s thinking about logistics and practicality and how do you get all of this done?” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee.

Publicly, Jeffries toed the party line. “I made it clear publicly the day after the debate that I support President Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket,” he told reporters Monday. “My position has not changed.”

Waters said it was up to Congress to help Biden win the election.

“We have not sufficiently educated people as to his accomplishments,” she said. “We all need to do a better job of that.”

Yet the consensus among many Democratic lawmakers was that Biden himself was the problem. Their unwillingness to say so was reminiscent of how congressional Republicans behaved during Trump’s presidency, when they would criticize and mock him privately but profess total fealty in public — or simply avert their gaze from his latest incendiary missive.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., said it was destructive to call for Biden to step aside if he declined to leave voluntarily, adding that Democrats had to “make the best of a complicated situation.”

“Those publicly calling on President Biden to withdraw should ask themselves a simple question,” Torres told CNN. “What if the president becomes the Democratic nominee?”

For now, top Democrats have no appetite for breaking with him. In a statement provided to The New York Times, Schumer said, “I’m working overtime with the Biden campaign and my colleagues to win the presidency and maintain the Democratic majority in the Senate.”

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