A private call of top Democrats fuels more insider anger about Biden’s debate performance

NEW YORK (AP) — A sense of concern is growing inside the top ranks of the Democratic Party that leaders of Joe Biden’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee are not taking seriously enough the impact of the president’s troubling debate performance earlier in the week.

DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison and Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez held a Saturday afternoon call with dozens of committee members across the country, a group of some of the most influential members of the party. They largely ignored Biden’s weak showing Thursday night or the avalanche of criticism that followed.

Multiple committee members on the call, most granted anonymity to talk about the private discussion, described feeling like they were being gaslighted — that they were being asked to ignore the dire nature of the party’s predicament. The call, they said, may have worsened a widespread sense of panic among elected officials, donors and other stakeholders.

Instead, the people said, Harrison offered what they described as a rosy assessment of Biden’s path forward. The chat function was disabled and there were no questions allowed.

“I was hoping for more of a substantive conversation instead of, ‘Hey, let’s go out there and just be cheerleaders,’ without actually addressing a very serious issue that unfolded on American television for millions of people to see,” said Joe Salazar, an elected DNC member from Colorado, who was on the call. “There were a number of things that could have been said in addressing the situation. But we didn’t get that. We were being gaslit.”

Many donors, party strategists and rank-and-file DNC members are publicly and privately saying they want the 81-year-old Biden to step aside to allow the party to select a younger replacement at the Democratic National Convention in August. As of now, though, Biden’s closest allies insist he remains well-positioned to compete against Republican Donald Trump and have given no indication they will push him to end his campaign.

Those best positioned to replace him — Vice President Kamala Harris, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer among them — reiterated their support for Biden after the debate.

Many are anxiously awaiting the first major round of post-debate public polling to determine their next steps.

Polls from CNN and 538/Ipsos conducted soon after the debate found that most debate-watchers thought Trump outperformed Biden. But the two men’s favorability ratings remained largely unchanged, just as they did in the aftermath of Trump’s conviction on charges in New York that he illegally participated in a hush money scheme to influence the 2016 election.

In a subsequent appearance on MSNBC, Harrison downplayed the significance of the conference call, which he said was part of a regularly scheduled communication “to talk about the state of the race” and the upcoming national convention with the DNC’s many elected members across the country.

Biden and his campaign have sought to project confidence in the days since Thursday’s debate in which the president, who already faced serious concerns about his physical and mental stamina, offered a performance punctuated by repeated stumbles, uncomfortable pauses, and a quiet speaking style that was often difficult to understand.

Just after Saturday’s DNC call, the Biden campaign released a memo from senior adviser Jen O’Malley Dillon insisting that the debate had no tangible impact on the election.

“On every metric that matters, data shows it did nothing to change the American people’s perception, our supporters are more fired up than ever, and Donald Trump only reminded voters of why they fired him four years ago and failed to expand his appeal beyond his MAGA base,” O’Malley Dillon wrote.

She added, “If we do see changes in polling in the coming weeks, it will not be the first time that overblown media narratives have driven temporary dips in the polls.”

Meanwhile, Biden spent much of Saturday courting wealthy donors in New York’s famed wealthy enclave of the Hamptons.

“I didn’t have a great night, but neither did Trump,” Biden said of the debate at one gathering in East Hampton.

Of Trump, Biden said, “The big takeaway was his lies.”

Harrison reinforced the president’s message on the DNC call, which spanned roughly an hour. Hannah Muldavin, a DNC spokesperson, said the discussion was a regularly scheduled quarterly conference call with the committee’s membership.

The topics included Biden’s energetic North Carolina appearance the day after the debate and a fundraising surge that produced more than $27 million for the campaign between debate day through Friday evening, Muldavin said.

Harrison did not ignore the debate altogether in his remarks, she said.

He briefly referenced Biden’s comments from his North Carolina speech that he doesn’t debate as well as he used to, but that he knows how to get up when he gets knocked down.

Salazar noted that Harrison also suggested that party leaders always knew the 2024 presidential contest would be close, a regular Democratic talking point that irks Salazar.

“This should not be a close race,” Salazar said, pointing to Trump’s criminal record and long history of falsehoods. “They’re the ones who should be looking for a new nominee, not us. And unfortunately for us, because of our president’s performance on Thursday night, that is now an open discussion.”


Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Washington and Josh Boak in East Hampton, New York, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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