Congressional Democrats admit Biden stumbled in the debate but stand by him for 2024

A debate performance by President Joe Biden that set off a five-alarm fire within his party Thursday gave way to a more measured public reaction the next morning from congressional Democrats, who acknowledged he did poorly but didn’t agree with those who called on him to drop out of the presidential race.

“It was a terrible debate. Joe Biden couldn’t communicate and Donald Trump lied every time he opened his mouth,” said Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., who represents a competitive district.

But when asked if Biden should step aside from the 2024 race, Craig said she’s focused on her district.

Privately, many Democrats — including some lawmakers — said that they are worried. But publicly, they’re putting on a brave face and downplaying the impact of a single debate.

“I thought he had a poor performance,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the former House majority whip and an influential figure within the party who is credited with being a crucial part of Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.

But, he said, it’s a long road to the November election and “one debate does not a campaign make.”

“On substance, there is absolutely nothing he needs to do but keep doing what he’s doing,” Clyburn said. “On style, Joe Biden’s not a show horse. Joe Biden’s a workhorse.”

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: “He got off to a bad start. I thought he came through OK on the issues later.”

The Biden campaign worked to calm Democrats’ nerves after the debate. A congressional aide said they distributed talking points to lawmakers and allies that largely featured interviews by surrogates — primarily Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro — all of whom have been talked about as potential 2028 presidential candidates.

“Some people panicking, other people urging them not to panic, and other people just sick of the drama,” the aide said, summing up the reaction seen among lawmakers. “We want the focus to be on what is at stake in the election, and this obviously is not a good day for those of us who want to engage the electorate on the choice between these two candidates.”

And there was some synchronicity to the Democratic message, with numerous lawmakers, including Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, emphasizing the “style over substance” narrative about the debate.

“He had a bad night last night,” Rep. Greg Meeks, D-N.Y., said. “I think he’s going to have to put himself out there more.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chaired the Jan. 6 select committee, said Biden “missed a golden opportunity” to set the record straight on Trump’s claims about the attack on the Capitol.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said Biden appeared overprepared, failed to stick to his core economic themes and missed opportunities to drive his message in the debate against Trump.

But, he said, he doesn’t want Biden to leave the party’s 2024 ticket.

“Let’s see this through,” Neal said. “We’ve got a long way to go in this campaign.”

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., bluntly dismissed a question from reporters about whether Biden should step aside.

“You guys are crazy,” she said.

In Atlanta after the debate, Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., implored Democrats to stop freaking out.

“I wouldn’t be panicking,” he said. “In President Biden, we have a great candidate and the only candidate that’s ever beaten Donald Trump. We’re going to beat Donald Trump one last time.”

Or as Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., put it Friday: “Joe Biden might have had a bad evening. But we don’t want four bad years under Donald Trump.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., stood by Biden after the debate.

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., compared the reaction to the “[m]orning-after thermonuclear beat downs” he faced after his 2022 debate against Republican Mehmet Oz, in which Fetterman stumbled through as he was recovering from a stroke.

“Chill the f— out,” he said on X.

“I refuse to join the Democratic vultures on Biden’s shoulder after the debate. No one knows more than me that a rough debate is not the sum total of the person and their record,” he added, mocking analysts who predicted he’d lose. He won by 5 percentage points.

Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant and former top Fetterman adviser in 2022, said that campaign recovered by seizing on a politically damaging statement by Oz and running ads on it.

“Last cycle, John had a very rough debate night overall. Dr Oz was good on camera, but ultimately said the gaffe of the night when he proclaimed that abortion was between ‘a woman, her doctors and local political leaders. We turned that into an ad and went on offense,” Katz told NBC News. “What voters took away from the 2022 debate was what the candidates said, not how they said it.”

At a rally on Friday in Raleigh, North Carolina, Biden was, to many observers, a different man than he was the night before in the debate. With an energetic crowd urging him on, he acknowledged his weak debate performance but drew a sharp contrast between Trump and himself.

“A lot of people have said to me we have to do something. I’ve said, take a deep breath and see what happens in a few days,” a veteran House Democratic member said. “It was a terrible night, and yes, the party right now is saying he looks 100-years-old. A large number of people are saying we cant win with Biden. But when I saw him in Raleigh today, I said, ‘Where was that guy last night?'”

Sahil Kapur reported from Atlanta; Kyle Stewart, Ryan Nobles, Rebecca Kaplan and Kate Santaliz reported from Washington, D.C.

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