As Biden Vies to Salvage Nomination, Growing Chorus in Party Say It’s Too Late

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The clean-up operation is not working.

That much is clear as Establishment Washington returns to the city after an Independence Day holiday when many Democrats were thinking about how to declare their freedom from the political drag that has become President Joe Biden. Up and down the ladders of Democratic power, the talk was less about if Biden would remain the party’s presumptive nominee, but rather if he could be persuaded to bow out of the race before the party insiders nominated him. 

On Sunday, the biggest fissure emerged as several of those on a private call organized by Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries decided that a change at the top of the ticket needed to take place to salvage their shot in November. Unlike the more muted chatter that followed Biden’s disastrous June 27 debate against former President Donald Trump, the talk about swapping Biden for another nominee was no longer veiled. Senior Democrats told Jeffries that “it is time for Joe to go,” according to one aide briefed on the two-hour session that took place at the exact moment Biden was campaigning in Pennsylvania and on the look-out for ice cream.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a reliable White House ally, also started to signal things were shifting away from Biden in the Senate. On Sunday, he called on Biden to do more to show his mental capacity, noting “the clock is ticking.”

But this grim reality also remains: no one except Joe Biden can tell Joe Biden it’s time to step aside. And Biden insiders say he isn’t there yet.

Some loyal Democrats are looking ahead to this week’s NATO summit in Washington, which is set to command a ton of Biden’s time. Biden as a global leader would be an image that they might be able to sell as a reboot. Biden meeting with world leaders might reset the storyline.

But more to the point, the summit gives Democrats some runway to make the case to Biden’s core spine of advisers that this situation is not sustainable for the party. If Biden keeps to the plan of a press conference on Thursday, there is a non-zero chance that every question he takes will be on this story that has consumed Washington.

Some inside Biden’s orbit had hoped the fever would break over the July 4 holiday. They had written him remarks welcoming military families to the White House. The images of the Bidens surrounded by the troops had to be positive, given both Joe and Jill Biden’s deep records of working with military families. 

But Biden fumbled through a whole four minutes of remarks and trailed off when he started to tell some story about Trump’s refusal to visit a World War I cemetery. “And by the way, you know, I was in that World War I cemetery in France. And one that my—one of our col[eagues]—the former President didn't want to go and be up there. I probably shouldn’t even say it, but at any rate,” he said to laughter.

Despite every effort to show solidarity between Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, there remains an unmistakable awkwardness that is proving to be a tuning rod among Democrats. When Harris slipped and called Biden “Vice President,” it was an opportunity for Democrats to question her loyalty—and capacity to replace Biden.

“Oh, she’s giving herself a promotion now then?” one senior Democrat asked as the clip circulated late July 4.

Then there were the pair of Biden interviews with Black radio hosts. It turns out, the hosts were given the questions to ask. And even with the advantages of knowing the questions, Biden still didn’t exactly land on precise answers. At one point, he said he was proud to have been “the first Black woman to serve with a Black president.”

“I did not have Rachel Dolezal 2.0 on my bingo card,” snarked a senior Democratic strategist, invoking a Spokane, Wash., a white activist who became the local NAACP president while posing as a Black woman.

“Oh, gawd,” a Democratic operative texted with a screen capture of the quote.

Senior aides on the Hill were all adopting a collective gallows’ humor. The most common sarcastic comment they had for their bosses was if they, too, could follow Biden’s orders and end their work days at 8 p.m. As ABC News broadcast Biden’s defensive and meandering interview with George Stephanopoulos on Friday evening, smartphones were a constant buzzing guest at dining tables. They could see their jobs become more perilous and a Republican-controlled Congress more probable by the minute. At one point, Biden said he would not take a cognitive test to prove he was still with it.

By Saturday, the Hill staffers were burning through “everything is fine” memes in rapid succession. Their bosses felt trapped: they wanted Biden out, sure, but they worried about the ramifications if they tried and failed. Unless they had a surefire way to get Biden off the ticket, they didn’t want to leave Biden wounded. 

For Biden’s top donors, this moment is agonizing and bewildering. One Democratic high-dollar donor was pointed when he asked the campaign for daily updates on grassroots fundraising. He was happy to keep shelling out for state parties here and super PACs there, but he also had a clear message for chief fundraiser Rufus Gifford and his deputies: a handful of deep-pocketed Democrats could not be asked to cover the costs for a campaign that had little credibility beyond the top-tier donors. “We don’t have enough fingers to hold the dike for more than a few days,” the donor said. (The Biden campaign, for its part, asserted that most of its donations in the last three months were from folks shelling out $200 or less.)

Elsewhere, some of the biggest bundlers were suggesting they may push pause on collecting checks, but stopped short, knowing a cash slowdown could only help Trump.

The messages were getting through, donors said. “The well is dry for a lot of these donors, and we’re starting to hit max-out moments,” a fundraising consultant said. “It’s a high bar, but hard money does have a limit, and this isn’t the moment to try to get them giving to a new super PAC when they aren’t sure who the candidate will even be.”

That vaguery led some Democrats to start imagining a turn-key operation that a replacement nominee could inherit. Tentatively dubbed Next Generation PAC, the dreamings were for a $100 million fund that an outside group could use to build an operation quickly for an eventual replacement. But it seemed more an escrow fantasy than reality over the July 4 break, mainly because to give money to it—and it would have to be disclosed if operated as a traditional super PAC—would be to admit the funders had lost faith in Biden to some degree. While the disclosures likely wouldn’t take place until October, it would still go public and be messy. “Do I want on a roster of Democrats who lost faith in Biden, especially if he pulls it off and keeps the nomination? Absolutely not,” said one K Streeter who routinely lobbies the White House on health care issues.

Not everyone was convinced, though. The damage had been done and there was no going back. “You don’t fix a night like that. You don’t forget a night like that,” one strategist who worked against Biden in the 2020 primary. “I have all of the respect in the world for Joe Biden, but you can’t recover from that. It confirmed every worst fear and erased any goodwill we’ve built for him.”

During the dark days right after the debate and its muted clean-up operation, Democrats gave the White House a little bit of leeway. They had to be operating as if everything was normal lest they open the floodgates. Or at least that’s how the thinking was going. “Panic only brings more panic,” said one Democrat. “But that assumes panic was not already everywhere with everyone. Hoping no one noticed when 50 million people watched was never going to work.”

Other Democrats had blunt messages for those recriminations. “Joe Biden is our nominee,” one strategist said. “It’s on us to get him across the finish line. It’ll be hard. It’ll be frustrating. It will be expensive. But it’s not impossible.” On that last point, there were reasons for Biden loyalists to hold hope; one set of polls showed Biden actually narrowing his deficit with Trump in swing states despite a clunker of a debate and a massacre in headlines that followed.

Still, this was not the conversation Democrats had hoped to be having the week before their Republican counterparts are set to assemble in Wisconsin for their nominating convention. It’s a good bet that Republicans’ broadside against Biden’s mental state will be unrelenting—and completely of Biden’s making.

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