Democratic panic deepens after dismal moment for Biden

Democrats are still reeling from a dismal day for President Biden on Thursday.

The report from Special Counsel Robert Hur that characterized Biden as a “well meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” was followed by a fractious White House news conference at which the president — seeking to shore up concerns about his cognitive state — misidentified the president of Egypt as the president of Mexico.

There is no escaping the intertwined issues of Biden’s age and mental acuity now. Polling has been showing for months those topics are among the top concerns of voters.

Some Democrats are no longer bothering to minimize the gravity of the situation, with a presidential election — almost certainly against former President Trump — just nine months away.

“Whatever language you use, I have not had a single person say, ‘Well, this really worked out well,’” James Carville told this column. “Obviously this has been a bad 48 hours here.”

Carville, best known for his central role in former President Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, added that Democrats were now looking to interventions from the Supreme Court, or a criminal conviction for Trump, in the hope that such developments would shift the election in Biden’s favor.

“We’re officially in Hail Mary mode here,” he said.

A different Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity, chose a similarly dire metaphor.

“We’re at a DefCon One situation,” the strategist said. 

“I think between the catastrophic Special Counsel report and the more catastrophic press conference that followed, and the even more catastrophic attacking of the Special Counsel for the report, they are magnifying and dismissing the concerns that the overwhelming majority of Americans have about Biden — including a lot of Democrats.”

Meanwhile, in a CNN appearance Friday, Paul Begala — who rose to political fame along with Carville during the 1992 Clinton campaign — described himself as a “Biden supporter” but continued, “I slept like a baby last night. I woke up every two hours and wet the bed. This is terrible for Democrats. And anybody with a functioning brain knows that.”

It’s easy to see why Democratic panic is rising.

If the election were held today, Trump — twice-impeached, four times-indicted and viewed by many Democrats as an existential threat to American democracy — would be the clear favorite.

Trump leads Biden by two points in a one-on-one match up, according to the polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ (DDHQ).

He leads by almost five points when independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is included.

Biden’s approval rating is mired far underwater in most polls — it’s a net negative 17 points in the weighted polling average maintained by data side FiveThirtyEight. 

Abundant polling even before Thursday’s events shows the degree to which voters are worried about the 81-year-old Biden’s capacity to serve a second term effectively.

In an NBC News poll released Tuesday, 76 percent of voters — and 54 percent of Democrats — said they had concerns about Biden’s physical and mental health during a second term. 

Another issue deepens Democratic gloom: the lack of any especially compelling alternative with which Biden could be replaced even at this late stage.

Plausible figures like California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer understandably showed no appetite to challenge an incumbent president of their own party. It would be unthinkable for Vice President Harris to do so — and she has her own vulnerabilities, including approval ratings that aren’t much different from Biden’s.

“Whether Democrats like it or not, this has become an issue,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini, referring to Biden’s age and acuity.

“But the fact is that Joe Biden is not going to turn 35 all of a sudden. And he appears to be inclined to run no matter what. So I think the question is, how do you run?”

Answering his own question, Tasini suggested contrasting the Democratic positions with Republicans on issues like abortion and immigration. 

On the former, Democrats have had considerable success in other election races casting themselves as defenders of reproductive choice. On the latter, Tasini suggested it should be possible to characterize the GOP as obstructionist after the proposed deal linking border security with aid to Ukraine and Israel collapsed amid Trump’s vociferous opposition this week.

Carville, for his part, contended Biden should amplify his achievements on topics like reducing drug prices and implementing some measure of student loan relief, while also promising inquires into price-gouging in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the moment, Biden’s allies seem to mostly be trying to put out the fire that the special counsel’s report ignited.

Harris at a Friday event asserted that “the way that the president’s demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts — and clearly politically motivated, gratuitous.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at Friday’s media briefing that the report’s commentary about Biden’s age “is something that we don’t believe lives in reality.”

But whatever the reality of Biden’s cognitive powers, the issue is not going away. 

And independent observers believe the president’s own press conference was a mistake that could come to haunt him.

“It was a major unforced error,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communications. 

Referring to the double punch of the press conference and the special counsel report that preceded it, Berkovitz said the effects on the small universe of persuadable voters could be grave.

“If you were on the fence, that pushed you off the fence,” he predicted.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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