Democrats in ‘painful’ waiting game in party’s post-debate reckoning

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) — Democrats are bracing for a painful waiting game in the next few weeks as the party continues to reconcile its future after President Joe Biden’s devastating debate last week.

Democratic insiders told ABC News they anticipate the questions over Biden’s candidacy won’t be answered for at least another week — and possibly longer — as the campaign, lawmakers and strategists wait to see polling conducted with the debate at least a few weeks in the rearview mirror.

The Biden campaign, in the meantime, is rolling out a more aggressive strategy, having the president meet with Democratic governors, dispatching him to Wisconsin and Philadelphia and allowing an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an attempt to show voters he is equipped for another four years in office. While that pans out, however, Democrats described the uncertainty of the ensuing weeks as nothing short of excruciating.

John Morgan, a major Democratic donor, told ABC News that he anticipated the chorus of calls for a replacement on the 2024 ticket to quiet with “each successful” event Biden does. But Morgan said he suspended raising money for a fundraiser later this year “because I want to make sure that he’s going to be there.”

“It’s very painful. Uncertainty is painful,” he said. “Fear is painful.”

Already, the fear has put cracks in Biden’s dam of support among Democrats.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first congressional Democrat to outright call for Biden to drop out of the 2024 race. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was prepared to call on the president to step aside after his debate performance last week — only to be talked out of it by senior Democrats, two people familiar with the discussions told ABC News.

And South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Democratic kingmaker who revived Biden’s 2020 campaign with a key endorsement before his state’s primary and who after the debate vociferously defended the president, said he would support Vice President Kamala Harris if there were a vacancy atop the ticket — a comment that one informal Biden campaign adviser considered a “signal.”

Signs are becoming clear that Biden is hearing the criticism. The president has privately told at least two people close to him that he recognizes how difficult of a spot he’s in, and that he signaled to one ally that he is keeping an “open mind” about his path forward, sources familiar with conversations told ABC News. The White House has denied the report.

But Biden and his team also appear to be buying time. Another source told ABC News that the Biden team’s timeline for assessing the situation is a “week” or more, and in an internal memo obtained by ABC News and sent to campaign staffers appeared to brace for polling showing a dip for Biden.

“Polls are a snapshot in time and we should all expect them to continue to fluctuate — it will take a few weeks, not a few days, to get a full picture of the race,” the memo read.

“The president is not dropping out,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre added in her briefing Wednesday.

The exact length until either Biden or his critics back down, barring a sudden withdrawal, is the source of speculation. One source familiar with the Biden team’s strategy guessed it would be “a couple weeks” until one side blinks, while the informal adviser estimated it could take a week to 10 days.

“People want to have data to back it up, back up what they already know,” the informal campaign adviser told ABC News, adding that the waiting game would be “very” painful.

“He’s only going to go downhill, not uphill. So, we can’t do it with him,” the person said. “We love him. We appreciate him. He’s been one of the most consequential presidents in history, but he can’t be the guy. I had prayed that this day would not come, but unfortunately, it has.”

In the interim, Democrats are figuring out what to do.

Parlor games abound over who would be best suited to replace Biden and conversations are heating up over the logistics of an open convention.

James Zogby, a longtime Democratic National Committee member, said he sent a memo to DNC Chair Jaime Harrison outlining a replacement strategy, starting with Biden’s voluntary withdrawal and then a sprint by theoretical replacements to lock up support from DNC members — needing 40 in total, including four from each of the party’s four regions to be considered. A final vote would be held at the August convention.

“This is the Armageddon election. The outcome of this is critical for our future, and we need all hands on deck to win it. And the person at the foul line taking the shots in the closing seconds has to be a person in tip-top shape, ready to do it,” Zogby told ABC News. “We got to get them off the bench.”

The furor has Democrats scrambling for historical comparisons, with Morgan saying “what’s happening here is Watergate-ish,” but other Democrats are seeing a silver lining.

Despite the widespread disagreement over what Biden should do and the pain that comes along with it, every Democrat who spoke to ABC News agreed on the importance of beating former President Donald Trump. And with so much on the line, some Democrats who advocate for Biden’s replacement are adopting a so-be-it attitude if the turmoil is what it takes to have who they view as an electable candidate on the ticket.

“I think you are seeing, obviously, a lot of depression in those first few days, kind of reconciling the real rising reality of a potential Trump presidency to now seeing maybe the clouds starting to part and some real hope for a change and a new direction,” said the source familiar with the Biden campaign’s strategy. “This situation, to me, seems unsustainable.”

Other Democrats, however, are disturbed by the hullabaloo, arguing the Biden team’s plan deserved a chance to work and their compatriots shouldn’t get out over their skis.

“I think reassuring people is going to take a couple of weeks … We have to see what the polls say, but also, what impact, if any, does the interview have? He’s got events next week, what else are they going to be doing over the next couple of weeks that may shift the dynamic?” asked one senior party strategist. “As someone who’s worked in party politics for quite some time, people need to take a beat here, seriously.”

When asked if Democrats would follow that advice, the person chuckled, responding, “Have you met my party?”

ABC News’ Rick Klein, Rachel Scott and Selina Wang contributed to this report.

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