The Debate Won Biden Some New Supporters: Republicans

Sensing the chance of a landslide victory in November, GOP candidates and strategists are hoping Biden stays at the top of the ticket.

President Joe Biden is seen with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson as he departs from the Friends of Ireland ceremony on the House steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 2024.

(Aaron Schwartz / NurPhoto via AP)

Amid the frantic speculations and chaos overtaking political discourse since last week’s presidential debate, Joe Biden’s candidacy has unified one key constituency: Republicans. As Democrats anxiously interpret polls and weigh ticket-swapping scenarios, Biden’s fiercest ideological foes very much want them to stay the course.

The clearest indicator of this consensus is the conspicuous silence of the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer. Donald Trump has never before managed to refrain from whaling away at his opponent’s weaknesses at rallies, Truth Social posts, and media interviews, but apart from one outburst the day after the debate, he’s been downright diffident while the drama over Biden’s prospects plays out. In part, of course, this posture reflects the old political dictum to never interrupt one’s opponents when they’re in the process of destroying themselves. But GOP ads in down-ballot races and Trump surrogates are duly hammering Biden’s debate performance as a proof-text of Democratic complacency and evasiveness. One devastating post-debate spot for Dave McCormick, the GOP challenger in Pennsylvania’s critical swing-state Senate race, contrasts coverage of Biden’s feeble debate performance with McCormick’s rival, incumbent Senate Bob Casey, telling interviewers that he has full confidence in Biden’s leadership and ability to stay on top of the formidable challenges of the presidency. “When will Bob Casey finally tell the truth?” the closing caption reads.

Should Biden remain at the top of the Democratic ticket, look for the GOP to unleash a firehose of similar attacks, from the presidential contest down to virtually every down-ballot race in the country. That’s a simple reflection of the adverse environment that questions about Biden’s fitness have created for the Democrats; in Pennsylvania, according to leaked internal Democratic polling, Biden now trails Trump by more than seven points, a two-point drop since the debate. Once-reliable blue states such as New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico, meanwhile, are tilting Trumpward.

For MAGA Republicans, the basic math here isn’t hard to follow. “Joe Biden is an anvil wrapped around the neck of every Democrat candidate and incumbent,” one senior GOP strategist said to NOTUS reporters Ben T.N. Mause and Reese Gorman. “Republicans should be praying nonstop he stays in the race.” A senior House Republican aide told Fox News’s Elizabeth Elkind, “Virtually any Democrat that potentially replaces Biden has an exponentially better chance of defeating Trump. Biden staying at the top of the ticket is the best-case scenario for a Republican trifecta.” Evidently the GOP electorate agrees: According to a new Times/Siena poll, the percent of Republicans wanting Biden to stay in the race increased from 21 percent before the race to 28 percent after.

It’s true that House Speaker Mike Johnson has called for a 25th Amendment inquiry into Biden’s ability to continue serving as president, while Texas GOP Representative Chip Roy has filed a related resolution calling on Kamala Harris to immediately assume the presidency, but these are symbolic appeals also calculated to supply fodder for anti-Biden campaign messaging in the fall. Capitalizing on a flagging Biden trying to marshal a fragmenting, unenthused Democratic coalition is the GOP’s best shot at taking not just the White House but both chambers of Congress as well—an ambition that is integral to the party’s long-coveted plan for total minoritarian dominance of the institutions of government. A fully MAGAfied Congress would not merely work overtime to enact the authoritarian agenda for a second Trump term now codified in the Heritage Foundation’s 2025 Project; it would also block desperately needed reforms to voting rights, reproductive justice, and the runaway Supreme Court.

The threat of a MAGA trifecta has House Democrats in panic mode. Texas Democratic Representative Lloyd Doggett was the first lawmaker to call for Biden to step down, while right-leaning Democrats Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and Jared Golden have already pronounced a Biden-led candidacy dead in the water. If the status quo holds, many more such alarms will be coming from the Democratic congressional caucus. Frontline house candidates “are not hesitating to tell the campaign how they feel,” one Democratic legislator told CNN. “They are saying they are going to lose if they have to run with Joe Biden.” Another House Democrat said to Punchbowl News that unless Biden moves into aggressive campaign mode,“he will lose more House Dems. It’s that acute.” The lawmaker predicted “the next wave” of Biden detractors will be senior House Democratic leaders and influential senators. Safe-seat House Democrats are now reportedly drafting a letter calling for Biden to drop out.

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But for a Biden-less ticket to reflect more than the 11th-hour panic of a governing elite, we need to reckon with how things were allowed to reach this dismal pass in the first place. A brewing rebellion in the most popular chamber of Congress—the longtime power base for New Deal Democrats who professed to govern as the party of the people—should not be a lagging indicator of electoral change. Yet in institutional terms, the Democratic Party is strategically insulated from such feedback.

Following the 2016 election, the Democratic National Committee launched a panel to diagnose the party’s failures and propose concrete measures to redress them, called the Unity Reform Commission. The group found that the party had become sclerotic and top-heavy with well-heeled consultants and strategists ignoring the plight of state and local Democratic organizations, all while the GOP directed massive resources toward state legislative races, ballot initiatives, and school board elections. As Unity Reform veteran Nomiki Konst writes, the commission proposed a series of measures to return power to the grass roots of the party, while also seeking to eliminate the brazen conflict of interest in elevating national consultants and lobbyists to key positions of power in the DNC. But the dismaying outcome, Konst writes, led directly to the present crisis:

Not only did the DNC leadership resist the reforms after members resoundingly voted to implement them, but the conflict-ridden rules committees and appointed leadership doubled down…pushing out reformers and replacing them with high-paid conflicted lobbyists and consultants with ties to oil and gas and weapons manufacturers.

These are the same decision makers who changed the presidential primary rules for 2020 and 2024—to clear out any potential opposition to their choice.

By pushing out and attacking any dissent within and outside of the DNC, and so openly closing off the party from transparency and a broader coalition, the Democratic Party has become an illusion. Big events, a platform with no teeth and performative committee meetings that are overruled by a few unelected consultants have led to the party losing state legislatures, bigger policy fights of the past and future and of course today’s existential crisis with Joe Biden’s viability.

Republicans well understand at this point that the consultant-led Democratic Party is barrelling toward electoral disaster—and they’re cheering on the Biden candidacy. If the leaders of the Democratic Party end up obliging them, they will be complicit in our democracy’s demise.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).