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The Historical Echo Biden Has Tried to Suppress

The Historical Echo Biden Has Tried to Suppress

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More Democrats aired doubts about President Biden’s candidacy on Tuesday, the most public and direct voicing of concern since his disastrous debate performance on Thursday.

Only one lawmaker called for the president to withdraw from the race, but that person, Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas, invoked a historical comparison that is particularly resonant.

“I represent the heart of a congressional district once represented by Lyndon Johnson,” Doggett said. “Under very different circumstances, he made the painful decision to withdraw,” he added, calling on Biden to take the same step that Johnson did in 1968.

“Recognizing that, unlike Trump, President Biden’s first commitment has always been to our country, not himself, I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw,” Doggett said.

At happier points in his career, Biden himself has evoked Johnson, although more favorably. In 2017, at a point between his vice presidency and his presidency, he spoke at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where he said President Johnson’s civil-rights efforts had inspired him to enter politics decades earlier.

In 2021, less than two months after taking office, Biden brought up Johnson as he talked up his American Rescue Plan and his efforts to move the nation away from trickle-down economics. “This is the first time we’ve been able to, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm,” Biden said.

President Biden’s supporters have spent a lot of time this year rebuffing comparisons to 1968. That year, after Johnson announced he would not accept his party’s nomination for the presidency, his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, emerged victorious from a Democratic National Convention in Chicago that was rocked by riots and a violent police crackdown.

Biden allies have said that college demonstrations this year over the war in Gaza were nothing like the protests that shook campuses in 1968. Democratic officials have downplayed the likelihood that protests at this year’s convention, which will also take place in Chicago, could be on the scale of what happened there in 1968. And, of course, they have dismissed the possibility of the convention meeting without a nominee.

But Tuesday’s events made it clear that they have more to do to beat back the comparisons.

Other comments by Democratic Party leaders showed that the Biden team’s attempts to soothe their party’s panic have not worked.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, said it was a “legitimate question” to ask whether Biden’s calamitous performance was an “episode” or a “condition” — although she added that one could ask the same question about Trump’s falsehood-filled performance.

And Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, a longtime Biden ally, said he would back Vice President Kamala Harris if Biden stepped aside. He said that he wanted the ticket “to continue to be Biden-Harris,” but it was notable that such a close ally would even acknowledge a possibility that anyone other than the president could lead the ticket.

The White House is considering holding a meeting to reassure Democratic governors on Wednesday, my colleagues have reported, and the campaign announced plans to hold an event in the battleground state of Wisconsin on Friday. Biden is also planning a rare sit-down interview that day, with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

In a moment of extraordinary uncertainty — and with more people who have interacted with the president saying that his lapses have grown more frequent — it’s not clear yet whether that will be enough to calm Democrats’ worries.

There is one group of Democrats who are not publicly expressing doubts about Biden’s candidacy — and it happens to contain some of the people who might be best positioned to replace him in the unlikely event he leaves the presidential race.

That’s the group of Democratic governors viewed by the party — and perhaps by themselves — as having the best shot at the White House in 2028.

In recent days, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland, all of whom are viewed as rising Democratic stars, have seemingly moved to prove who among them is most loyal to Biden. They’ve taken to the airwaves to defend him and in some cases hit the campaign trail, often burnishing and celebrating Biden’s record better than he has been able to do himself.

I was curious about the delicate dance these governors are doing with Biden, so I called Shawn Hubler, a Sacramento-based reporter for The New York Times, seeking something of a case study on the governor who might be the best known of the bunch. Shawn has covered Newsom off and on since 2003, when he was the mayor of San Francisco, and she explained to me why, barring some major change in the political landscape, Newsom is unlikely to heed the calls from Democrats dreaming he’ll take over the ticket. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

One of the most striking images after the debate was a photograph of Newsom in the spin room, with dozens of reporters pressed in around him. What has stuck out to you about Newsom’s defense of Biden since those moments?

Long before this campaign, Newsom has felt that Democrats really underestimated Republicans, Trump and the MAGA right, and he has believed strongly that he needs to be sort of the tip of the spear for Democrats — someone who can take the fight to the right and stand up to a bully. Since the debate, I’ve been struck by his discipline and by his loyalty to President Biden. I think he also doubts that the candidate is likely to change. So he sees himself as being a loyal lieutenant and a fighter who has been telling people to calm down, that the race hasn’t really changed and that Democrats need to fight harder.

He’s been the subject of loud calls — or at least wish-casting — from some corners of the Democratic Party to take the fight to Trump himself by replacing Biden on the ticket. Can you imagine him doing that?

For Newsom, there’s not really a path forward that feels legitimate and true to his character. Even if the president were to step down, the logical person next in line would be Kamala Harris, another Californian whom Newsom has known for his entire career. They came up together in San Francisco. And he’s not going to go against Kamala, even though they’re known as frenemies in the small world of San Francisco politics. His eye has always been on 2028, so jumping in now just doesn’t make sense from a logistical standpoint.

Newsom is a governor, but he’s fashioned himself as a national figure, too. How intentionally did he do that?

He has been having a national conversation on behalf of an enormous state since he first ran for governor in 2018. During the Trump administration, there was a real foil for him, a real villain for him to tilt at. He relentlessly went after the Trump administration, with the exception of things like federal disaster assistance, and he’s lashed back at rising Republican politicians who have used California as a sort of foil to sell their own ideas. The failed attempt by Republicans to recall him in 2021 also left him with an enormous campaign war chest that he has used really effectively to raise his profile and amplify California’s Democratic narrative nationally.

This is a cynical point, but it almost feels like, for Newsom, if the goal is to be elected president in 2028, another four years of a Trump administration could help him raise his profile even more.

Four more years of Trump will play right into the framing that has buoyed Newsom into the position that he is in now. That would be right on brand. But I know that would be the last thing he wants, because four more years of Trump would not be good for California. Four more years of Joe Biden wouldn’t hurt him, either. He’s not in a lose-lose position.

He’s kind of in a win-win. Is there anything that you could see at this point that would cause him to abandon that ironclad loyalty to Biden that he has displayed over the past week and over the past months?

I don’t. Newsom came up in San Francisco, in the Bay Area and in the politics of the Bay Area, and one of the first rules of politics, both there and in most cities, is that you’re only as good as your word. So he understands how to keep his word. I know it sounds counterintuitive, and I suppose anything could happen, but I see him as a guy who doesn’t have a lot to lose by biding his time.

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