Dishonest Biden defenders sound like MAGA surrogates as they privately admit he can't win

Dems publicly claim "complete confidence" in Biden — a far cry from what they're saying behind closed doors

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published July 10, 2024 10:45AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden speaks as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden speaks as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s what you would expect a co-chair of the candidate’s re-election campaign to say, thrust into the impossible position of defending the vitality of an elderly man whose clear and rapid decline was witnessed by 50 million Americans on live television. But that didn’t make it any less excruciating, and certainly not any more believable.

“I have got complete confidence in our president,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told NPR on Tuesday. “I am an enthusiastic supporter of President Biden's, and I'm going to work my tail off to make sure he gets a second term.”

Whitmer, often floated as a Hail Mary replacement for the 81-year-old Democrat, was none too inspiring when pressed on that display of loyalty, which was undercut by NPR airing a clip of Biden speaking alongside her at a campaign stop in 2020. The decline from then to now was readily apparent. How could anyone deny it?

“Our choices on the ballot right now are President Biden and former President Trump,” Whitmer demurred. “That is the binary choice in front of us.”

If the cold hard reality is that there is no other choice for the 70% of voters who say the incumbent president lacks the physical and mental fitness to complete another four-year term in office — and that the message for the next four months is going to be that the president is totally fine, but also what else can you do? — then the cold hard reality appears to be that Democrats are going to lose not just the White House but likely both chambers of Congress.

“Donald Trump is on track, I think, to win this election, and maybe win it by a landslide, and take with him the Senate and the House,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who is not a Biden surrogate and thus more capable of speaking freely and honestly, told CNN Tuesday night. “This isn’t a question about polling,” he continued, referring to concerns about Biden’s competency and the continued viability of his campaign (the polling, like the vibes, is quite bad). “It’s not a question about politics. It’s a moral question about the future of our country.”

It is indeed a question for Democratic leaders: Do you want to be seen as the party that still has integrity — that is willing to concede that 90 minutes of borderline incoherence is not a “one off” for an octogenarian, who clearly does not appear to have the vigor to serve until January 2029 — or do you want to be seen as a party of liars?

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Claiming that one has “complete confidence” in Biden’s brain is, unfortunately, an obvious lie at this point. In the days since his atrocious debate, Biden only further displayed that he does not have what it takes anymore.

In an interview with a radio host who was fed questions by his campaign, Biden still managed to bungle his scripted answers, referring to himself as the “first Black woman to serve with a Black president” (the interviewer was subsequently fired). On ABC, eight days after the debate, he was at times incoherent and, when he was not, still garbled and infuriating, portraying a loss to Trump as acceptable to him so long as he “did the good as job as I know I can do” (the interviewer chosen by the Biden campaign, George Stephanopoulos, subsequently commented: “I don’t think he can serve four more years”).

Whether Biden can capably read from a teleprompter is not so much the question — and him continuing to do so will not resolve any of the public’s legitimate concerns. There is indeed nothing that the president can do at this point to address them, and that’s actually fair: because there is no destroying the evidence that has already been made public. The debate, and Biden’s later unscripted performances, reveal in absolute clarity why his campaign was hiding him; why, two years in a row, the president declined to appear for an interview before the 120 million people watching the Super Bowl.

Elected Democrats absolutely know this too.

“I haven't talked to one who privately says they think Biden is capable of running and beating Trump at this point,” Heather Caygle, managing editor at Punchbowl News, wrote Tuesday.

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While only seven congressional Democrats have explicitly called for Biden to step aside, almost all of them know the score, even if they’ve been cowed by a president who half-assed the “proving himself” part — in two weeks: about a half-hour of unscripted remarks, in friendly venues, that went poorly — before shifting to petulant defiance.

As Politico reported Wednesday morning, most Democrats “remain 100 percent convinced Biden will lose to Trump, and many privately want him to gracefully bow out — even some who are publicly supporting him as the nominee.”

Loyalty can be a virtue but it can also be a vice. Here, it looks more like cowardice and dishonesty. “I wish I was more brave,” a Democratic state party chair told NBC News.

“I could say something, but I’m a pragmatist,” one Democratic lawmaker told the outlet. “I fall in the category of a lot of front-liners who were staying quiet in the hopes that he was going to do the right thing,” they continued. “But he’s choosing to stay.”

The question now is whether Democrats want to be truthful with the public and an American super-majority that thinks Biden should step down. They do not need to be vicious toward a man who has empowered organized labor, boosted real wages for the working class and helped stave off a recession while investing record sums in clean energy. But they will be serving him and his legacy poorly if they don’t honestly confront their ailing leader and remind him that there will be no moral victories if an authoritarian demagogue is returned to power in November.

The alternative is looking voters directly in the face and lying to them in ways more befitting of a MAGA surrogate, convincing no one of anything but the Democrats’ own dishonesty. The world does not deserve a second Trump presidency, but if the president’s political allies shred their integrity for the next four months that is just what we will get. And they know it.

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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Commentary Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden Michael Bennet