House Votes June 28

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The widespread consensus following last week’s debate was clear: Joe Biden’s performance was a complete disaster. For five days, we witnessed what appeared to be a real-time political meltdown, as Democrats were seized by a wave of anxiety. However, the party leaders whose opinions mattered most remained largely silent.

Things took a turn on Tuesday, though it may be too late to make a difference.

The first significant shift came from former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a cautious politician who avoids seeking unnecessary attention. In an interview with MSNBC, she suggested Biden should engage with “serious journalists” to address concerns regarding his health. “I think it’s a legitimate question to say, Is this an episode or is this a condition?” said Pelosi, who, at 84 years old, cannot be accused of ageism.

Joining her, Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who played a crucial role in securing Biden’s nomination with the support of Black voters in his state, stated that he would support Vice President Kamala Harris if Biden were to step aside. The possibility was no longer deemed premature.

Then, Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett became the first sitting lawmaker to explicitly demand that Biden step down. At that point, everyone rushed to refresh their browsers and social media feeds to see who, if anyone, would follow suit. We could potentially see a trickle of support for Biden’s exit from individuals like former Rep. Tim Ryan, or a flood that could reshape the entire Democratic roadmap moving forward.

Even so, there’s little that party leaders can do to prevent Biden from being nominated again. Unless they create a complete bonfire of the party rules as revised in 2022, the Democratic National Committee is bound to support the President. Party leaders could attempt to pressure Biden to withdraw, but he is a stubborn 81-year-old who recognizes this is his final opportunity on this political stage. They could also try to disregard the 14.3 million votes cast for Biden in a largely uncontested primary, but that would undermine their argument that Trump represents an existential threat to U.S. democracy. (Furthermore, within a party that still values rules and norms, such an idea would likely collapse before gaining any traction.) 

However, there’s also a sobering reality about the current Democratic public panic: the party’s traditional top leaders have failed to rise to the occasion when they were arguably most needed. In the days after the debate, none bothered to say much beyond vague support for Biden. Not Barack Obama. Not Chuck Schumer. Not Hakeem Jeffries. Not the Democratic National Committee senior hands. Even Pelosi may have waited too long and may still be holding back.

Currently, the advantage rests with Biden. As much as Doggett, 77, commands respect within his Austin district, he’s not exactly the type of lawmaker who can single-handedly reset a national conversation. Pelosi and Clyburn—a former Speaker and a political mentor—matter to Biden, but their cautious statements thus far are insufficient to persuade him to reconsider. Their diplomatic language is too easily ignored.

Biden and the Democratic National Committee largely avoided a real primary challenge. Party leaders were acutely aware of how such challengers have spelled trouble for past Presidents of both parties; consider one- or partial-termers George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Baines Johnson for evidence of the chaos a messy intra-party feud can create in the general election.

Still, the internal support for Biden may have been a disservice to voters who might not have understood how inconsistent Biden can be, especially recently. The lone voices who attempted to warn party leaders—I’m looking at you, Dean Phillips—were dismissed as alarmist opportunists. Now, Democrats are left with Biden marching towards a nomination, but struggling to demonstrate his ability to handle a second term.

While he was the fragile Speaker of the House, John Boehner had a saying he frequently repeated: “A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk.” Having an intellectual entourage is part of the requirement, but so is demonstrating the capacity to shape outcomes. And right now, Biden’s promise—however ambitious—of potentially preventing Trump’s return is significantly more appealing than some Democrats’ suggestions of disrupting a still-potentially-winnable race. Publicly, Biden remains the leader of the effort to block Trump, and no other Democrat has a feasible plan to replace Biden. Simply put: it’s Biden or bust, and that’s just the reality.

Party leaders are left to observe because they cannot control Biden’s actions. Biden is scheduled to sit down for an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that will air on Sunday. This could help address concerns about his mental acuity, or a gaffe-prone Biden could exacerbate the situation by self-destructing as he did last week on the debate stage.

As bleak as Biden’s chances appear at the moment—and they’re as dire as they’ve been since he announced his intention to seek the nomination for a third time in 2020 through a series of false starts—none of the party’s top leaders want to be seen as further weakening him and then potentially share the blame if he loses to Trump. Biden’s supporters rightly point out that he has time for polls to rebound to their pre-debate stability. The likes of Pelosi and company offering advice were trying to bolster him, not oust him.

So, the top party brass primarily watches and waits. It may be in their best interest to hold back, especially if they cannot change the outcome. The system favors principled stances and rewards those who can point to victories. Trump’s intra-party critics like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger were expelled from the GOP; of the 10 House Republicans who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment, only one survived their primaries. This is why, out of the five House Democrats who voted in support of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, three became Republicans and a fourth joined George W. Bush’s administration.

Unless you’re confident you can topple a giant, it’s best to fall in line in Washington. The top Democrats in D.C. understand this and are doing just that—at least until they can be sure their intervention won’t be futile. For every public nudge from Pelosi or Clyburn, there are dozens more private text chains filled with hopes that things will turn around. With roughly 18 weeks until Election Day, the window is rapidly closing. So are Biden’s prospects.

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