The last firewall

by Steven Roberts

“Save the House!” That’s the rallying cry Democrats are increasingly likely to embrace as they confront the fallout from Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance.

Here’s the reality: Biden shows no signs of withdrawing from the presidential race against Donald Trump, but his chances of winning in November are seriously diminished. And since Democrats have little hope of retaining control of the Senate, capturing the House could quickly become their main objective.

Democrats need a net gain of only five seats to achieve that goal, and Republicans are defending 17 districts that Biden won in 2020. As one Democratic candidate in a close race told Politico: “The way I’m talking to my donors is: The House is the last firewall, folks. We have to flip the House. Ninety-nine percent of the people I talked to can’t get their credit card out fast enough.”

“The House becomes the priority,” reports Punchbowl News. “We’re hearing tons of chatter in Democratic circles that suggests much of the donor cash could shift to House races. … Some Democrats now see a House majority as their only chance to prevent a GOP trifecta.”

As Punchbowl describes the stakes: “This would ensure that Democrats have, at the very least, a seat at the negotiating table for next year’s legislative battles, from the debt limit to government spending to the expiration of the Trump-era tax cuts.”

Attempts by Biden’s team to downplay the scope of the calamity have been, well, calamitous. One staffer blamed a “bedwetting brigade” of faint-hearted Democrats for exaggerating the damage. Another argued that “overblown media narratives” were to blame for any negative impact on Biden’s polling numbers.

That’s completely ridiculous. Anyone with at least one eye and ear — you didn’t need two — could tell how badly Biden performed. He managed an almost impossible feat: appearing older than his 81 years. The three-year gap between the president and his challenger looked like 20 on the debate stage.

In politics, an event resonates more widely when it reinforces an existing storyline, and voters were already uneasy about Biden’s obsolescence. When they saw him on that stage, tongue-tied and slack-jawed, they didn’t say, “That’s not the Joe I know.” They said, “Uh-oh, that’s what I’ve been afraid of.”

Afterwards, a CBS/YouGov poll found that 72% of voters think Biden lacks the mental capacity to be president, a jump of 7 points since February. In the same poll, 46% of Democrats said the president should not be running for a second term, an increase of 10 points in six months.

But Biden — backed by his family and close aides — is not one of those doubters. He’s a stubborn, prideful man who has wanted to be president his whole adult life, and he’s not about to yield the job willingly. And he can argue, validly, that he’s beaten Trump once already.

Moreover, any attempt to replace Biden on the ticket would probably makes things worse — not better — for the Democrats. Few analysts think Vice President Kamala Harris would be a better candidate, but if she were denied the nomination, the party would risk alienating their single most loyal support group: Black women, who voted 91% for the Biden-Harris team in 2020.

Donna Brazile, a Democratic operative and TV commentator, spoke for many Black women when she told the Wall Street Journal “there would be total chaos” if the party rejected Harris for the top spot.

Another problem: Even experienced state-level politicians have no idea how difficult it is to run for president. The spotlight is much hotter, the scrutiny much tougher and the bar much higher. Just ask Ron DeSantis. The Democrats have many promising young governors — Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Gavin Newsom of California, to name a few — but to expect any of them to run a successful national campaign at this point is totally unrealistic.

The election is still four months away, and of course things could change. The political landscape looks a lot different today than it did just a few weeks ago. Democratic donors and strategists will take some time to assess the battlefield. But come fall, if Biden is still on the ticket and looks like a loser, expect two developments: More campaign cash will be diverted from the presidential race to congressional candidates. And those candidates will start arguing that if Trump is going to win, voters should back Democrats for the House as the best way of combatting a deranged and dangerous president.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected].