Some Democrats start calling for Biden to step aside and 'throw in the towel' on 2024

Some Democrats began calling for President Joe Biden to step aside so the party can nominate another candidate after he stumbled badly in Thursday’s debate against his Republican rival, former President Donald Trump.

“This was like a champion boxer who gets in the ring past his prime and needs his corner to throw in the towel,” said a Democratic lawmaker, adding that he meant Biden should exit the race.

The options for a switch are limited: If the president doesn’t choose to leave of his own volition, there would have to be a revolt among Democratic National Convention delegates, the vast majority of whom were elected on their pledge to nominate Biden. But that’s what some Democrats were thinking about Thursday night.

It’s “time to talk about an open convention and a new Democratic nominee,” said a second Democratic lawmaker who has been a solid Biden supporter.

The fear among these Democrats is that the version of Biden that showed up to the debate — one bearing a likeness to the caricature Trump and his allies have portrayed of a man unequipped for the job — cannot win in November.

Even those who want a replacement candidate doubt that the party can move Biden aside, aren’t certain which candidate could win the party’s nod in his absence and don’t know whether a substitute could beat Trump in November. Going into the debate, which was hosted by CNN, polls showed a close race between Biden and Trump.

“There is a sense of shock at how he came out at the beginning of this debate. How his voice sounded. He seemed a little disoriented. … There are going to be discussions about whether he should continue,” David Axelrod, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama, said on CNN. “Only he can decide if he’s going to continue.”

Axelrod predicted that Biden wouldn’t be inclined to leave the race, noting that “this is a guy with a lot of pride…who believes in himself.”

The last time a president who was eligible to run for re-election didn’t appear on the November ballot was in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson, facing certain defeat in the Democratic primaries, chose not to seek a second full term.

Still, several Democrats predicted that calls for Biden to take the Johnson route would multiply in the coming days.

“The chatter of replacement is absolutely going to explode,” said a veteran Democratic strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. “There is no coming back from this disaster.”

At the same time, top Biden allies dismissed the prospect of a change at the top of the ticket. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat whom many in the party see as a potential Biden alternative or a future presidential candidate, said “no” when asked whether he would urge Biden to end his campaign.

“This is just bad, no matter how you spin it,” said a veteran Democratic operative. “But everyone knows it’s too late to switch. But the donors will make those decisions, as they always do. Hence why we got Biden” in 2020.

Before Thursday’s debate, Trump’s campaign released an ad telling voters that if they elect Biden, they will end up with Vice President Kamala Harris as president — a suggestion that the octogenarian president would die in office or have to resign.

The biggest question Democrats would have to resolve if Biden dropped out of the race before the convention is whether they would nominate Harris — whose approval ratings, like Biden’s, are underwater. Others who were mentioned Thursday night include Newsom, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“I look forward to being in Chicago when Gavin Newsom is nominated from the floor,” a Democratic strategist said after the first 20 minutes of the debate. “Should have gone on offense on abortion. Can’t keep his train of thought.”

A Biden departure would leave Democrats with a potentially brutal fight over whether to simply elevate Harris, the first Black vice president and first female vice president — one that could split key base constituencies at a time when the party needs to unite if it hopes to win. Still, the prospect of a bloody intraparty battle didn’t stop some operatives from concluding Biden should go.

“They need to change nomination now,” a Democratic operative said. “Or just put Harris on top of the ticket.”

A Democratic strategist with ties to Capitol Hill said lawmakers will be reluctant to publicly call for Biden to give up his campaign.

“No one wants to be the first,” the strategist said. “But everyone is brushing up on DNC rules and procedures right now.”

The same strategist explained his own affection for Biden and his record, pointing to the president’s responses to wars in Europe and the Middle East, his personnel appointments and his domestic record — along with Biden’s 2020 victory over Trump. But the strategist also thinks Biden must exit.

“I am for the first time beginning to think calling for Biden to step aside isn’t heretical; it’s the only responsible thing to do,” he said. “If we lose this election to Trump because we were too afraid to admit we were wrong about his age or too worried of an open convention, we can no longer call our party the defenders of democracy.”

Several current and former Democratic elected officials chose to keep their powder dry when asked about Biden’s showing Thursday night.

“The best thing I can do to help Joe Biden is to pretend I didn’t get your text,” said a third Democratic lawmaker.

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