"Very aggressive panic": Democrats having "conversations" about replacing Biden after brutal debate

It remains unlikely, but some Democrats are openly wondering if they can replace Biden at the August convention

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published June 28, 2024 10:55AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Well, that was fine. That was fine, right?

At Thursday’s debate with a convicted felon who’s been found liable for sexual assault, President Joe Biden needed to come off as an elder statesman invigorated by the challenge of defending democracy, at home and abroad.

He did not.

Instead, the 81-year-old came out raspy and at times incoherent — battling what his team said, halfway through the ordeal, was a cold — and not at all like the man whose State of the Union address, just three months ago, was so strong it led Republicans to claim he was on some form of MRNA brain juice available only to liberals of a certain age. His performance grew stronger as the night went on, but the plain fact is: Biden seemed really old.

As the BBC put it: “The president came into the debate with a low bar to clear, and he stumbled. He was flat. He was rambling. He was unclear.”

Democrats can comfort themselves by noting that Donald Trump was himself frequently incoherent and always deranged; he refused to condemn the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, claimed liberal doctors are killing newborn babies and — finally forced to answer a question, specifically on climate change — babbled on about the good old days of 2017-2021, when “we had H20” and our environmental “numbers” were the “best ever.” He also used every opportunity to attack asylum seekers and other immigrants as dangerous and less-than-human thugs, despite the fact they are, as a group, less prone to criminality than either Trump, his campaign staff or his radical right supporters.

But liberals are different: Whereas a Republican pundit will tell you Trump’s climate nonsense was in fact the smartest thing they ever heard, Democrats, in general, responded to their guy’s subpar performance with full-on public displays of their neuroses.

“My phone really never stopped buzzing throughout and the universal reaction was somewhere approaching panic,” MSNBC anchor Joy Reid said Thursday night. “The people who were texting with me were very concerned about President Biden seeming extremely feeble, extremely weak.”

Reid shared that some of the conversation concerned how to replace the president at the Democratic National Convention in August. “Someone actually sent me the rules,” she said.

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The debate was also a train wreck for CNN, whose anchors, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, allowed Trump to spout deranged falsehoods — like claiming infants are routinely murdered in blue state hospitals — without comment and only rarely even got him to tangentially address the actual question they had asked. But the network’s John King wasn’t wrong when he noted the sour mood among Democrats, not concerning the hosts of the debate but their own candidate.

“This was a game-changing debate in the sense that, right now as we speak, there is a deep, a wide, and a very aggressive panic in the Democratic Party,” King said. “It involves party strategists, it involves elected officials, it involves fundraisers. And they’re having conversations about the president’s performance, which they think was dismal … and they’re having conversations about what they should do about it.”

"Some of those conversations,” King added, “include 'Should we go to the White House and ask the president step aside?'”

David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said there was a “sense of shock, actually,” at Biden’s unsteady performance at the start of the debate. “I think you’re going to hear discussions — that I don’t know will lead to anything — but there are going to be discussions about whether he should continue.”

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The Biden campaign flatly rejects such talk. No incumbent has ever been replaced as their party’s nominee this late in the game and the only time it happened before was when President Lyndon Johnson himself chose to step aside rather than stand for reelection. And Johnson’s decision came with enough time for voters to at least weigh in on a successor (the insiders' pick at the convention, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, went on to lose to Richard Nixon in an electoral landslide).

This time, Democrat voters have already weighed in and Biden is the presumptive nominee. Vice President Kamala Harris would be the natural replacement, but even so: no one voted for her. It would be Democratic delegates in Chicago deciding the nominee and whether it should be Biden, Harris or someone else willing and able to carry the party across the finish line (names tossed about include Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who each have electoral weaknesses of their own).

It remains extremely unlikely that Biden steps aside after what his camp will say was a bad performance amid sound fundamentals: a growing economy with low unemployment and an opponent who has already shown himself unfit for office.

But Democrats and others concerned about democracy extending through 2025 will continue to fret about whether Biden has enough in the tank to bury the MAGA movement.

“Trump is so terrible that this might heal itself,” former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Thursday. “But based on what I’m hearing from a lot of people … there is more than hand-wringing tonight. I do feel like people are confronting a crisis.”

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Analysis Claire Mccaskill Donald Trump Joe Biden Joy Reid