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The Sad Inevitability of Biden’s Reckoning

The Wall Street Journal

The fallout from last week’s presidential debate has thrust the Democratic Party into a spiraling crisis. Yet many in the party view the current reckoning as sadly inevitable—the product of years of defensive refusal by the president and his protective inner circle to acknowledge the decline in Biden’s public presentation that has long been obvious to voters.

Now, insiders admit, the party is reaping the consequences of its long failure to confront an issue that was only ever fated to get worse.

“This was all predictable, and it pisses me off that everyone is acting shocked now,” one longtime Democratic operative said on Sunday. “The shocking thing is that people engaged in this deception, or delusion, or both, for so long.”
President Biden’s shambolic performance in Thursday’s opening face-off with former President Donald Trump confirmed the worst fears about his competence and thrust previously whispered concerns into the open, forcing a wrenching and open-ended conversation about his ability to continue as the party’s standard-bearer. Over the weekend, officials, operatives, donors and party rank and file frantically groped for a way forward amid plummeting confidence about their chances to win the November election. Party insiders agonized over the chaos that a late attempt to reshuffle the ticket might unleash and fretted about the impossibility of forcing the president’s hand to drop out.

But the risks of seeking a second term should have been no surprise. For years, polls have clearly indicated that a majority of the electorate viewed Biden as too old to serve another term and questioned his faculties as a result of his age. Large percentages of Democratic voters have consistently said they would prefer a different nominee. Yet the president’s insular inner circle and the party’s top leadership continued to insist that these concerns are overblown or irrelevant, and they worked to squelch doubting voices.

“They were already behind, and they were hoping and assuming that the debate would change the dynamic of the campaign,” said Michael LaRosa, a former aide to first lady Jill Biden whose mild public criticism of the campaign’s strategy got him nasty pushback from many in Biden-world. “Now they’ve put themselves in an even more dire position, and put the party, frankly, in a really dangerous position.”

That Biden was slowing with age has been evident for years to those familiar with the quick-witted patter and glad handing vigor he once exhibited. Some longtime aides say it first became noticeable after his son Beau died of cancer in 2015.

Biden’s age was a liability for his campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination: In the first nominating contest, which traditionally privileges up-close-and-personal retail politics, Iowa caucus goers who had ample occasion to witness his rambling presentation issued a stark vote of no confidence in the ostensible front-runner. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, now the transportation secretary, won the most caucus votes, while Biden barely squeaked into fourth place.

Biden nonetheless powered to the nomination when the Democratic establishment, fearing a Sanders nomination, rallied behind him and South Carolina voters gave him his first primary win in the calendar’s fourth contest. By that point, the emerging Covid-19 pandemic had already made traditional campaigning impossible, forcing (or allowing) Biden to keep a limited schedule through November.

Still, the Biden of 2020 was vigorous enough to put in credible performances in primary and general election debates. As president—a tough job that famously ages those who hold it—his stumbles have increased in frequency and severity. In response, the White House has shielded him from the media, exposing him to far fewer press conferences and tough interviews than his predecessors. And they have reacted with fury to anyone who has dared raise the subject. When former Obama strategist David Axelrod gently suggested in November that Biden should consider whether running for re-election was in the country’s best interest, Biden aides publicly attacked him.

Biden’s allies worked behind the scenes to stave off a potential primary challenge, making clear that politicians and operatives who contemplated one would be summarily blackballed. As a result, a little-known Minnesota congressman, Dean Phillips, was the only Democratic officeholder to do so, arguing that voters deserved an alternative and that Biden couldn’t win. For his trouble, he was rewarded with the destruction of his once-promising political career. He forfeited his position in congressional leadership and was facing a primary challenge in his suburban Minneapolis district until he decided not to seek re-election.

Reporters and commentators who pointed out the obvious got similar treatment, berated in public and private and accused of helping Trump return to the White House. The White House also pilloried special counsel Robert Hur when he announced in February that he wouldn’t charge Biden with a crime for his handling of classified documents, describing the president, whom he interviewed for hours, as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Democratic lawmakers excoriated Hur, a former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, in a congressional hearing, painting him as a Republican stooge out to damage Biden.

Julián Castro, the former housing secretary who ran for president in 2020, said on NBC News Now on Friday that the Democrats’ current situation was the product not of one night but of two years’ worth of establishment pressure. “Anybody that stepped forward as a potential contender, the idea of having debates, campaign consultants that might think about supporting somebody else, all of them were shut down,” Castro said. “At each juncture, the opportunity for an off ramp was cut off, and now the party finds itself in a position where we only have four months left…to try and switch course.”

For some, the sadness of seeing an elder statesman in this state is curdling into anger that he and his allies let things get to this point, putting the country and the world in danger. “He’s always been so well respected. I’d rather he ended his career differently,” said one former Biden campaign aide. “He has earned his place in history. They are making a fool of him, and it’s upsetting. If you love your brother, your dad, your husband, you pull him out right now.”

Ironically, Biden’s best hope now may be that so many voters already harbored misgivings about his competence that the debate doesn’t really faze them but merely confirms what they already suspected and moved past as they weighed which ticket seemed like the lesser evil. Several Democratic operatives pointed out that it was elites—elected officials and media commentators—who seemed most shaken by Biden’s debate performance, while voters in focus groups were apt to view both candidates’ presentation negatively. In a campaign memo Saturday, Biden campaign strategist Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote that “the beltway class is counting Joe Biden out,” but that “on every metric that matters, data shows [the debate] did nothing to change the American people’s perception.”

To be sure, it is conceivable that the campaign is correct and this too shall pass like so many seeming crises that came before. Some Democrats are hopeful that the debacle will fade in retrospect and voters will refocus on the stakes of the election. For months, both campaigns, aware of their candidates’ unpalatability, have been working to reframe the contest in terms of their respective policy agendas, arguing that a polarized electorate will choose the ticket that most aligns with their worldview regardless of who’s on it.

Yet the party’s collective patience with the Biden camp’s gaslighting has manifestly worn thin, and many are no longer willing to go along with the charade. One six-figure campaign donor whose occasional criticisms of Biden have made him “persona non grata,” in his words, compared Democrats who continue to support the president to the Republicans who harbored misgivings but fell in line behind Trump. “They pulled the string, and the piñata broke,” the donor said. Biden, he said, is putting himself above the country.

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