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Dems in Disarray

House Democrats Put a Brave Face on Their Biden Gap

Lawmakers aired their grievances privately in a meeting on Tuesday, even as most publicly maintain their support for Biden.

Representative Jerry Nadler leaves a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus about the candidacy of President Joe Biden at the Democratic National Committee.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Representative Jerry Nadler seems resigned to a Biden nomination.

House Democrats emerged Tuesday from their caucus meeting publicly cautious about distancing themselves from President Joe Biden—no new Democrats defected from him, and some critics seemed to backtrack—even as many continued to voice mounting reservations in private.

The meeting, which took place in Democrats’ campaign headquarters just south of the Capitol so they could discuss campaign business, amounted to an airing of grievances, with multiple members raising worries about whether Biden is fit to run for reelection after his poor debate performance at the end of June. But no new Democrats broke with the president publicly after the meeting: With tones ranging from confidence to resignation, most said that he would remain the party nominee and that they would support him.

Biden has solidified his support from key constituencies, including the Congressional Black Caucus—with whom the president held a Zoom call on Monday evening—and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members reasserted their support for him in a statement that same night.

“We’re riding with Biden,” said Representative Jim Clyburn, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of Biden’s key House supporters, repeating the phrase to reporters multiple times after the caucus meeting on Tuesday morning. Clyburn’s 2020 endorsement helped Biden clinch victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary that year, resurrecting what had seemed to be a moribund campaign and putting him on a glide path to the nomination. Black Democrats have been key supporters of the president in and outside of Congress.

Progressives are also largely lining up behind Biden, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said on Monday that “he has made abundantly clear that he is not leaving the race.” She added: “He is the nominee. I am making sure that I support him and making sure that we win in November.”

Even some who had previously criticized Biden appeared resigned to his remaining at the top of the ticket on Tuesday. Representative Jerry Nadler, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee who had reportedly called for Biden to step aside in a conference call on Sunday evening, told reporters on Tuesday that “we have to support [Biden].”

“Whether or not I have concerns is besides the point,” Nadler said. “He is going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him.”

Behind closed doors Tuesday—and members were told to bring neither smartphones nor smartwatches so the confab could not be recorded—Biden came in for more open criticism. Representative Lloyd Doggett, the first Democratic lawmaker to call on Biden not to run for reelection last week, said that he made the case to his colleagues that the president should step aside, as did Representatives Seth Moulton and Mike Quigley. The latter told reporters that Biden “can’t win” and that his colleagues need to accept that he should step down.

Still, Representative Brittany Pettersen said that while some spoke out about their concerns regarding Biden, the conversation in the meeting remained “respectful.” “Nobody booed or cheered. It was a serious conversation,” she said. She added, however, that there also wasn’t clarity after the meeting: “There wasn’t one concise message.” Representative Steve Cohen was more blunt, telling reporters that not only are Democrats not on the same page, “we are not even in the same book.”

Moulton told reporters that private anxiety is only mounting. “A lot of colleagues have approached me and thanked me for my comments,” he said, adding that his concern was rooted in his belief that Biden has not proved he is up to the task of campaigning. “I haven’t seen any evidence or plan to make this better,” he continued.

Meanwhile, Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat who is retiring from his Michigan swing district, characterized Democrats’ mood as “anxious.” “There’s definitely a lot more being felt than what’s being said, that’s for sure,” said Kildee.

Still, other Democrats pointed out that it would be difficult to replace Biden at the top of the ticket this late in the campaign. Representative Juan Vargas called the anti-Biden push “a circular firing squad,” adding: “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen, where instead of taking it to the criminal, we’re taking it to the good guy.” Moreover, Biden is adamant that he will not step aside, which, as Nadler observed, could make House Democrats’ fretting—private or public—a moot point.

“I think at this point, it is a foregone conclusion that the president is going to run and we’re going to support him,” Representative Stephen Lynch said after the caucus meeting on Tuesday. “And I don’t think there’s a process available for anybody to change that. He says he’s firm in his commitment that he will be the candidate, and he will be the nominee.”

There is one point of consensus, Representative Pete Aguilar, the minority whip, said at a press conference Tuesday: “Every single member of the House Democratic Caucus is clear-eyed about what the stakes of this election are.” He added: “We are unified that Donald Trump cannot win.” Whether House Democrats truly believe Biden is the best candidate to defeat Trump is less certain.