The Memo: Democratic fears rise as Trump’s chances soar after debate, Supreme Court ruling

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

The Memo: Democratic fears rise as Trump’s chances soar after debate, Supreme Court ruling

Former President Trump’s chances of winning back the White House have soared in recent days — pitching Democrats into a stew of panic and despair.

A week ago Democrats clung to several hopes, only to see each of them dashed in a period shorter than 90 hours.

They believed President Biden could use an early first debate to prove his vigor and acuity. They thought the debate would focus voters’ minds on the perils of a potential second Trump presidency. And they hoped Trump might find himself on trial for Jan. 6-related offenses before November.

None of it happened.

Biden’s dismal performance at Thursday’s debate was the first earthquake. The aftershocks are still being felt, with the party in turmoil over the question of whether he should go forward as the nominee. 

Then, on Monday, the Supreme Court carved out a sizable swath of immunity for Trump from any criminal prosecution.

The court did acknowledge that Trump, or any president, could still be prosecuted for “unofficial” acts. But it remanded the question of which of Trump’s contentious acts were official and unofficial back to lower courts. Arguments over that question will almost certainly push any actual trial past November’s election — if it ever happens.

“The Supreme Court decision is a much more powerful one than some had expected it to be,” Trump crowed on social media.

“They just handed Donald Trump the keys to a dictatorship,” the Biden campaign’s principal deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks told reporters on a conference call.

Biden spoke from the White House about the Supreme Court decision on Monday evening.

He lamented that it left “virtually no limits on what a president can do” and admitted that it is now “highly, highly unlikely” that Trump will face a Jan. 6-related trial before November’s election.

His remarks were brief, lasting less than five minutes, but free of verbal miscues.

Still, Democratic stress levels will reach further into the stratosphere if Biden now gets hit by a wave of bad polls. 

The early signs are ominous.

A Saint Anselm College poll on Monday found Trump leading Biden by two points among registered voters in New Hampshire. In 2020, Biden won the Granite State by seven points, and it has not usually been classified as a battleground state this year.

Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville told this column on Monday afternoon that the party had to make a change at the top of the ticket.

“The country does not want to choose between President Biden and Trump. They are stuck,” Carville said.

Asked about the uproar that would follow if Biden were to be pushed out of the race — perhaps opening the door to a contested convention in August where rival candidates would press their claims — Carville insisted chaos would be a price worth paying.

“I’ve got news for you. The United States’ history is difficult. And yeah, it’ll be a mess. There’ll be a thousand reasons we can’t do it. But 72 percent of the people want us to do it. That’s pretty powerful,” he said.

The number appeared to be a reference to a CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday that showed 72 percent of registered voters do not believe Biden should be running for president.

Carville added: “Every process argument you can imagine has been thrown at me. But I know this: We stay the course, we’re done.”

The Biden campaign, of course, vehemently disagrees. 

The tone was set by Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon who blamed “the beltway class” for “counting Joe Biden out” in a Saturday memo. “This will be a very close election. It was always going to be,” she wrote, adding that the campaign remains “confident” of a Biden victory.

Biden loyalists are trying to use liberal outrage over the Supreme Court ruling as fuel to mobilize voters for the president.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) said on the Biden campaign media call that voters “are not powerless. We don’t have to sit idly by as Donald Trump comes after our freedoms…We can come together and elect Joe Biden, a man who has always and always will stand up for our rights.”

But right now, the concern among Democrats is that Biden is a candidate fatally flawed by his own seeming infirmity — and that a loss to Trump would be a cataclysm.

There are massive hurdles around trying to take the nomination away from Biden — not least the fact that he ran the table in the party primaries and therefore has more than enough delegates to claim the nomination if he wants it.

Even if he were somehow persuaded to stand aside, the question of “what next?” looms over the party. 

Biden’s obvious heir apparent is Vice President Harris. But her approval ratings are similar to the president’s, her own 2020 campaign for the nomination was underwhelming, and it’s not clear she would fare any better against Trump.

On the other hand, a fresh contest for the nomination that saw someone else become the nominee — the two most frequently mentioned names are California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) — could infuriate some Black Democrats, who would surely feel Harris was being deprived of her rightful chance to become the first Black female president.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley said the dynamics around Harris made him hesitant about the idea of running a nominee other than Biden.

“The problem I have is that if Kamala Harris wasn’t then selected, it would tear apart the party. And her poll numbers are pretty poor,” Manley said.

Manley cited several recent Supreme Court decisions — not just the Trump immunity case — as underscoring the stakes in the coming election. He highlighted the so-called “Chevron” decision last week, which hollows out regulatory powers, as one example.

“All of these recent rulings really get to some core issues in our country and show that the Supreme Court has been hijacked by the hard-right in this country. We Democrats,” he said, “need to do a better job of selling [our message] to the American people.”

Another Democratic strategist, Hank Sheinkopf, acknowledged that the double blow of the Supreme Court decision and Biden’s debate performance was “a terrible combination for Democrats and the White House” — in part because the high court’s decision plays into Trump’s arguments about the cases against him.

Biden is still reeling from that combination.

It’s not clear yet whether he will be able to steady the ship.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.