Joe Biden might have pulled off a great escape – but the curtains can come down anytime

By The Guardian (World News) | Created at 2024-07-10 13:10:26 | Updated at 2024-07-21 20:10:09 1 week ago
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In his dotage and with images of his epic Georgia debate meltdown still fresh in the popular mind, Joe Biden is probably nobody’s idea of a Harry Houdini copycat.

Yet, with the Democratic party seemingly paralysed between the terror of a second Donald Trump presidency and fear of the consequences of taking decisive action, the US president may - barring mishaps - be on the cusp of one of history’s great political escape acts.

A meeting on Tuesday of the party’s House members in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington ended without any resounding unified call for Biden to stand aside as its presidential candidate in November.

On the contrary, the 81-year-old president – apparently so close to political extinction last week – seemed unexpectedly revived at the end of the event; members who had earlier forecast his imminent demise now changed tack to support his candidacy.

Jerry Nadler, a congressman from New York who only on Sunday privately called for Biden to abandon his campaign amid concern about his age and mental acuity dismissed his previous misgivings as “beside the point”.

“He’s going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him,” Nadler told reporters after the meeting.

Though hardly a ringing endorsement, it was a triumph of sorts for Biden – who the evening before had already earned the support of the congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses – and a reward for his chutzpah in writing to the Democratic congressional contingent en masse on Monday to tell them he was determined to stay the course, come what may.

A seventh congresswoman, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, added her voice on Tuesday to those who had already publicly called on Biden to stand aside following his bewildering performance in the 27 June debate, when he appeared powerless to counteract a torrent of untruths from Trump.

But it did not amount to a groundswell and all the indications were that Biden had wriggled out of the trap.

“They’ve accepted that there’s no alternative to having Biden, and the status quo is the only possible outcome, so long as Biden is determined to stay in, and he clearly is determined,” said Larry Sabato, director of the centre for political at the University of Virginia.

Biden’s Democratic critics missed their chance, argued Sabato, undone by a lack of ruthlessness.

“The opportunity to solve this problem came in the 24 to 48 hours after the debate,” he said. “That was the chance for an overwhelming number of Democratic members of Congress and Democratic donors to come out and say, it hurts as a family, but you must leave the race. And they didn’t do it.

“Everybody waited for somebody else to move. Nobody wanted to be first. So this is what they got, because they let Biden recover, get back on his feet and have his enormous family and staff take it from there.”

Does this mean that Biden is now assured of being the Democrat nominee against in Trump in November – a contest in which most polls have him trailing, though by a smaller margin than the initial debate fallout might have suggested?

Not necessarily, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and a member of the Democratic National Committee, who proposed a plan for an open competition to elect a new nominee at next month’s national convention in the event that Biden bowed to pressure to step aside.

“None of [the Democrats] want to make the decision,” he said. “[But] from what I heard coming out of the Democratic caucus, there were members from swing districts, some of whom were in tears about their futures and felt desperately that unless there were a change we might lose in November.

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“There was concern to the extent that they did not make a statement when [Hakeem] Jeffries [the Democratic leader in the House] adjourned the meeting decisively saying, this is the direction we’re going in. So he lives another day. But is that enough? I don’t know.”

Fueling the uncertainty is the the feeling that Biden will be prone to further verbal stumbles in the days and weeks ahead, likely triggering renewed doubts about his mental competence and fitness to campaign.

Zogby, who called the forthcoming poll against Trump an “Armageddon election”, said concerns over the president’s cognitive powers and age-related decline could become a feeding frenzy that could still sink his candidacy.

“Jesse Jackson, who I worked with, used to call it sharks in the water smelling blood,” he said. It’s very clear that this is where we are, that it’s been a story every single day. It will continue to be the story tomorrow, and most likely the next day. The press will be waiting for the next gaffe and misstep – and frankly I don’t know how we get over that.”

Larry Jacobs, a politics professor at the University of Minnesota, said predictions that Democrats were resigned to uniting behind Biden were “premature”.

“There has been kind of a counter offensive that’s been orchestrated by the White House, but you’re still seeing a drumbeat of doubts about Joe Biden, including alarming reports about visits from a Parkinson’s [disease] expert,” he said.

Biden, argued Jacobs, has been seriously undermined by putting his “political power on the line” just to save his candidacy.

“Each time an elected official, particularly if they’re well known, comes out and questions him, it’s another kind of demotion,” Jacobs said. “It’s a sign that his power, his ability to impose his will on his political party, is no longer what it was. So Joe Biden may hang on, but he’s weakened and he still may end up being pushed out.”

All of which raises the question of whether his Darwinian battle for political survival in his own party is worth it. If he prevails, can he still win the war against Trump?

Yes, said Sabato. “But only because he’s facing Donald Trump and because [Trump] is truly a living, breathing threat to the American republic. Even if Biden can’t win, Trump can lose. That’s really that’s what the debate was. Trump didn’t win that debate. Biden lost it.”

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