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Top Democrats plead with party: Stop looking for a Biden alternative

Oct 28, 2023, 2:47 PM

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on October...

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 24. (Anna Moneymaker, Getty Images)

(Anna Moneymaker, Getty Images)

(CNN) — President Joe Biden is just as low in the White House’s internal polls as in any of the public ones. Whenever aides stress over the numbers in their weekly political meetings, Mike Donilon — for decades, Biden’s top political adviser — is the consistent voice of the president’s innermost circle, according to people who have heard him. Biden’s numbers, Donilon says, are pretty much where they were this far out from the 2022 midterms and all the doubts sounded the same; but the president’s team pursued its own careful approach to the campaigns and then saw Democrats exceed expectations.

But while Biden advisers are dismissive of Rep. Dean Phillips’ primary challenge launched this week, they are also annoyed about it. And that annoyance betrays the fact that some of them share the same uneasiness many Democrats feel about a president whose age is twice his approval rating.

Still, they remain confident that Biden is Democrats’ best option in 2024. They also repeat that the presidential election will be decided on razor thin margins – and that if Biden loses to former President Donald Trump, the GOP primary’s current front-runner, the country will never be the same. None are heading into next year feeling overly buoyant.

Now, leading Democrats tell CNN they have partly themselves to blame for Biden’s soft support — that months of airing out “what if” alternatives to him and Vice President Kamala Harris only served to undercut candidates who were never actually close to being replaced.

“In uncertain times — globally, on the economy — when you see the former president, with all of the crises, with a House that’s so dysfunctional, I think people naturally have a little bit of nervousness,” Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said in an interview two days before Phillips, a fellow Minnesotan, launched his presidential campaign. “Democrats by nature are a little bit skittish. They get themselves worried. They work themselves up. They talk in their groups, amongst one another — just stop it.”

A few minutes earlier, Walz had been onstage in Washington at a Center for American Progress event, chiding a crowd of engaged but worried Democrats, “Everybody who says, ‘I wish he was younger.’ I wish I was skinnier! [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis wishes he was more likable! It’s not going to happen. … There’s a responsibility for us not to buy into that.”

Or as Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle told CNN more bluntly, “People should shut the hell up.”

“I deal in the real world,” said the Philadelphia-area Democrat, who has been proudly supporting Biden for years. “He is going to be the nominee, regardless of whether people think they can construct on paper a more attractive nominee or not.”

Boyle and others slam what they say has been a dangerous feedback loop between Democratic leaders and political reporters daydreaming about a potentially dramatic election. Doubts have fed more doubts. News reports quoting politicians and voters and operatives questioning whether candidates other than Biden or Harris will emerge have led to more people asking those questions, dampening the president’s and vice president’s popularity and slowing grassroots fundraising. Columns suggesting that one of them should step aside get nervously emailed around, begetting more columns.

Even some of the people close enough to the administration to score invitations to the Rose Garden or to receptions around the pool at the vice president’s Naval Observatory residence keep chattering about whether support for Biden is like a political version of the emperor’s new clothes. No one powerful is willing to speak bluntly about his weaknesses, though they sometimes relay their fears to CNN while still at those events.

“Every time Democrats go on TV and say, ‘The president’s done a great job, but he’s 80 years old,’ all they’re doing is feeding this appetite out there by some for a third-party run,” said US Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a St. Louis-area Democrat. “And that could be the worst thing that happens in a century.”

“Joe Biden is on the freedom, democracy and opportunity agenda that beat MAGA Republicans in 2020, in 2022, and will win again in 2024,” Ben Wikler, the Democratic party chair in the top battleground state of Wisconsin, told CNN. “Every hour that someone spends fantasizing about some other ticket is an hour they could have spent calling voters or raising money to help reelect President Biden and Vice President Harris.”

‘The train is out of the station’

Phillips was sincerely torn in the weeks leading up to his announcement, weighing what people familiar with his thinking say was both a sincere belief that a Democrat needed to step up and challenge Biden and concern that he could feed more doubts about the president.

“If someone wanted to get their name ID out there, why would they do this and take the arrows and the mean-spiritedness and the aggression and the sacrifice that this requires?” he told reporters Friday morning in Concord, New Hampshire, ahead of filing his paperwork for the Granite State’s primary. (New Hampshire’s refusal to abide by national Democrats’ new calendar, under which the state no longer holds the first primary, means that voting there will be symbolic, with no delegates at stake. State party officials are planning to back a write-in campaign on Biden’s behalf after his campaign formally notified the secretary of state this week that he would not be participating.)

A better-known candidate with clearer appeal entering the primary was always closer to “The West Wing” reboot fan fiction, though Biden advisers kept tabs on potential threats — and very deliberately co-opted those potential future ambitions by naming most of them to the campaign’s “advisory board” or as top surrogates.

That is where those potential future candidates say they are happy to be — at least for now.

“The train is out of the station. It’s time for everyone to get on board. There is so much at stake in this upcoming election, from fundamental rights to our democracy itself,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is among those most discussed as a potential replacement for both Biden and Harris (and who was a runner-up for Biden’s 2020 running mate pick), said while at a Democratic National Committee meeting in St. Louis earlier this month to try to pump people up for the ticket. “We’ve got to stop hand-wringing and stop playing out different scenarios. It’s a waste of energy.”

Biden advisers say with a frustrated weariness that the core of his argument, even at his primary campaign’s lowest point in 2019 – that he would be the best positioned candidate to beat Trump – has already been tested, and Biden came out with 7 million more votes and 74 more electoral votes. They point not just to what he has accomplished in office, but to his holding together a coalition of Democrats from progressives to centrists better than anyone expected him to.

In a time of much partisan tribalism and information saturation, they say, no president is ever going to have poll numbers like in years past. They chalk up much of the focus on his age to Democrats who cannot conceive how Trump could be anywhere near competitive, as these Biden advisers try to rationalize polls that show the former president very much is. (They have given up trying to convince the chattering classes that moments such as Biden’s day trip to Israel demonstrate his continued vitality.) They dismiss the idea that some potential replacement Democratic candidate would all of a sudden open up a bigger lead over Trump or the other Republican prospects.

And in internal meetings and phone calls with others working on Biden’s reelection, they reiterate their insistence that this is all chatter that will fade once voters are faced with the choice, once again, between Biden and Trump.

“People talk about competency,” Harris said in her own keynote appearance at the DNC meeting in St. Louis. “I think we should just every week do a split screen at this point.”

Despite Phillips’ campaign billing his kick-off Friday as a “momentous event” in a mass text message sent to New Hampshire Democrats, few believe he has any chance of seriously registering in the race against Biden.

Boyle told CNN this week that between the war in Israel and Gaza and the chaos of House Republicans electing their new speaker, he had not had “one conversation with anyone” about Phillips.

Asked if he was worried about Phillips being a factor even back home in their state’s primary, Walz laughed.

“No, no,” the governor said. “Not going to carry Minnesota.”

Circling support for Harris

A few weeks before Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death, a Los Angeles Times column floated a wild idea that California Gov. Gavin Newsom should fill her seat by appointing Harris back to the Senate, a supposedly elegant solution that would allow Biden could pick someone else to be his running mate. California politicos started getting calls from supporters of the vice president, according to people who were told about the effort. The idea was ridiculous and offensive, they said, and they urged people to say it out loud.

They are not the only ones stepping up the offensive defense. Last month, after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to stop short of full support for Harris being on the ticket and Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin also appeared to hesitate over backing her, the reelection campaign scrambled into action. Reminders were sent around about how Biden advisers wanted that question answered, urging Democratic politicians to stop appearing to leave wiggle room, according to people who saw the messages come in.

Within minutes of Raskin going off the air, House Democratic leadership staff was in touch with his office and others, urging them to remember that they needed to stop stirring up doubts, on or off the record. And West Wing aides and a network of informal advisers have meanwhile stepped up their social media attention to Harris, boosting good news about her that they say disproves a Washington narrative that she is unpopular.

“All these pundits will talk about polling, polling, polling — OK, fine, let’s talk about that,” Harris said, drawing an enthusiastic standing ovation during the DNC meeting in St. Louis. “What we did on the climate crisis: I think 80% popularity. Lowering the cost of prescription drugs to $35 a month, I think everyone loves that. $2,000 a year for seniors for prescription medication, hallelujah. Fighting for relief of student loan debt. 800,000 new manufacturing jobs. Popular, popular, popular.”

When asked earlier this month if he thought it was time to stop questioning Biden’s and Harris’s spots on the ticket, Raskin told CNN, “Yes, I do.”

Asked if he was worried about the questions leeching support from Biden, Raskin hesitated.

“That which doesn’t kill him,” the congressman said hopefully, “makes him stronger.”

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Top Democrats plead with party: Stop looking for a Biden alternative