July 19, 2024

Democrats’ collective freakout over the fitness of US President Joe Biden hinges first and foremost on his ability to beat former President Donald Trump.

But in the distressed comments of lawmakers and strategists lurks the additional fact that the House and Senate are also up for grabs in November – and if voters turn on Biden, it could reverberate across the country and hand Republicans unified control of the federal government.

Here’s how Democrats are reacting.

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Damage control measures from the White House and Biden campaign are coming

In an effort to prove Biden can still think on his feet, he’ll meet the press and interact with lawmakers – things, shockingly, he has not already done in the wake of last week’s debate.

There are plans for a meeting with nervous Democratic governors this week; an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, with clips to be aired at the end of the week; and a Biden-hosted press conference during next week’s NATO summit.

Lawmaker calls on president to drop out with nod to Biden drag

The first evidence of actual fracture among Democrats is already here. It appeared on Tuesday when Representative Lloyd Doggett, a longtime Democratic congressman from Texas, became the first elected Democrat at the national level to reluctantly call on Biden to withdraw from the presidential race.

Doggett appealed to Biden’s sense of patriotism in a statement and noted that Biden is underperforming Democratic candidates for Senate in key states around the country. Incumbent presidents are supposed leave coattails for down-ballot candidates to ride in their wake.

For Democrats this year, even before Biden’s bad debate performance, the opposite was true. Biden may be a drag on Democrats’ already long prospects to keep the Senate.

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Senate majority is at risk

With a 51-49 majority, Democrats (including independents who caucus with them) have a tenuous hold on power in the Senate and are on defence in multiple consequential races.

Twenty-three seats currently held by Democrats are on the line in November compared with 11 held by Republicans. One Democratic seat, currently held by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia – who is not running for reelection and left the Democratic Party to register as an independent – is likely to move to the Republican column.

Implications for decades

Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, did not call on Biden to withdraw from the race, but he did point out that the president’s decision on whether to continue his campaign will have implications that extend well beyond the presidency and his own personal legacy.

“His decision not only impacts who’s going to serve in the White House the next four years but who’s going to serve in the Senate, who’s going to serve in the House, and it will have implications for decades to come,” Quigley said.

In the House, Democrats could be within striking distance of a majority since Republicans currently hold only a slight 219-213 majority.

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‘Team sport,’ and Biden needs help

Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, appeared at a New York City fundraiser last Friday alongside Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the New Yorker and top Democrat in the House who Democrats would very much like to be speaker.

Obama said general elections are like a “team sport” and the president is captain, according to CNN’s report, but in this case voters should be motivated by down-ballot races.

“We need the White House, because of the enormous power of the executive branch,” Obama said.

“But the critical need for us to regain the House and have Hakeem Jeffries as speaker should be sufficient motivation. And if we do our jobs on that front, that is probably the most important thing we can do for the Biden reelection campaign as well.”

The not-so-subtle implication there is that Biden will need to be propped up by other Democrats in order to win.

Fearing a ‘MAGA trifecta’

The Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator Paul Begala predicted on Monday on CNN’s “The Lead” that pressure on Biden is only just beginning since lawmakers are headed home to talk to their constituents over the July 4 holiday.

“I think voters are going to say, are you out of your mind? Because Democrats are worried that not only will Biden lose to Trump, but that he’ll drag down the House and the Senate as well. And you’ll have a MAGA trifecta – which Mr Trump himself says will be a dictatorship, at least for a day,” Begala told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Presidents are more productive in periods of unified government

Recent presidents have made their most lasting marks during periods of unified government, usually at the outset of their presidencies.

It was when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House during his first two years in office that Biden signed the massive Inflation Reduction Act, the bipartisan infrastructure law, the PACT Act to improve care for veterans and more.

It was when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House during his first two years in office that Trump signed some permanent corporate tax cuts into law.

The Affordable Care Act under Obama? Unified government. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which turns 60 years old on Tuesday? Unified government.

Granted, neither party is likely to have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to easily pass major and sweeping legislation. But certainly controlling the elected portions of the federal government creates an environment for productivity.

There has been lots of reporting about how Trump and his supporters will be better prepared to change the nature of government if they are to win in November. With the House and Senate, they could make more priorities permanent.

‘Just sit there and be Joe’

Even party stalwarts on the level of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose main goal for decades has been winning and keeping the House, said Biden must prove to Democrats and voters that he is still up to the job. She recommended he give a series of interviews or town halls.

“Just sit there and be Joe,” Pelosi said during an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday. “Show your values, show your knowledge, show your judgment.”

But Pelosi also said of Biden’s debate performance that it is a “legitimate question to say, is this an episode, or is this a condition.” While she quickly added that this was a legitimate question for Trump as well, citing his repeated lies during the debate, that’s far from an unqualified endorsement of his ability to be president – and she said both Trump and Biden could stand to take a cognitive test of some kind.

“Both candidates owe whatever test you want to put them to, in terms of their mental acuity and their health both of them.”

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