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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This should not be just Joe Biden’s decision’: While other Democrats try to move on, Adam Smith calls for his party to act

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks as Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., listen during a news briefing Tuesday after a weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)
By Orion Donovan Smith and Nick Gibson The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats emerged from caucus meetings on Tuesday with a mostly muted message of support for President Joe Biden, despite signs that many in the party still quietly harbor doubts about Biden’s ability to win and serve a second term in office.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, who leads nearly half of House Democrats as chair of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters as she left a morning meeting at party headquarters near the Capitol, “I am fully behind him as our nominee until he’s not our nominee.” But Rep. Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat, repeated his call for Biden to drop out of the race.

“The stakes are too high,” Smith said in an interview Tuesday night, warning that if Democrats don’t act decisively, they could “slow-motion walk” into a scenario where Biden remains the party’s nominee and former President Donald Trump wins a second term in the White House.

“I think everyone wants to try to find a nice way to do it,” he said. “And look, if there was a nice way to do it, I’m there. I’m not looking to be an asshole here, but if there’s not a nice way to do it, then do it the not-nice way. It’s just too important.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have tried to move the spotlight away from Biden and toward issues on which public opinion favors their party. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington emerged from Senate Democrats’ weekly lunch and delivered remarks to highlight Trump’s record on abortion.

“We all know Donald Trump ended Roe v. Wade,” Murray said, referring to the 1973 decision that guaranteed nationwide abortion access until three Trump-appointed justices helped the Supreme Court overturn it in 2022. “We all know Republicans championed that for decades. And we know that Trump will absolutely ban abortion nationwide.”

Trump, who has kept relatively quiet since the June 27 debate that proved disastrous for Biden, has tried to distance himself from efforts by his fellow Republicans to sharply restrict abortion nationwide. Democrats have seized on Project 2025, a set of policy proposals produced by former Trump administration officials at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Trump has said both that he doesn’t know anything about Project 2025 and that he disagrees with parts of it, without specifying which ones he opposes.

After the Washington senators spoke alongside Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, they sought to pass three bills by unanimous consent to protect abortion and reproductive health care, knowing Republicans would block the effort. The Senate is set to vote Wednesday on a nonbinding bill to express support for abortion access.

In her remarks, Cantwell cited a report published by her office on the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade that highlights the impact of that decision and state abortion bans along the Washington-Idaho border, which she called “a microcosm of the havoc that these laws are wreaking.”

After addressing reporters, Cantwell told The Spokesman-Review she wasn’t asking Biden to step down and she believes Democrats need to work together to deliver a clear message about their party’s vision for the U.S. economy.

“Look, we had a discussion,” Cantwell said of the lunch meeting. “We’re going to keep that within the caucus. But I think we had some ideas about how to proceed next. Personally, I want a standard bearer that’s going to keep it on an economic message. I don’t think we’ve done enough of that. I think we have to do more of that. Whoever’s leading has to do more of that.”

One Washington congressman is not happy with that approach. Rep. Adam Smith, of Bellevue, is one of just seven House Democrats who have publicly called for Biden to drop out of the race. Three others reportedly said the same in a private call on Sunday before staying silent or expressing tepid support for Biden when lawmakers returned to the Capitol the next day.

In an interview Tuesday, Smith declined to comment on what others said during that call, but he expressed growing frustration with how his fellow Democrats are handling their concerns over Biden’s age and fitness and his ability to lead a winning campaign.

“I think the general opinion is, ‘Well, gosh, it’s Joe’s decision. So if he does it, what are we going to do?’ ” Smith said. “I could not possibly disagree more strongly with that assessment. This should not be just Joe Biden’s decision. It’s entirely too important.”

Smith acknowledged the pressure congressional Democrats are facing from the White House, and he said he believes Biden has been a great president.

“But my focus is what puts us in the best position to win what is the most consequential election in my life, and I think it’s opening up the convention and saying we’re going to pick a different nominee,” he said.

Echoing many other Democrats, Cantwell said the decision to choose Biden was “in the voters’ hands,” but Smith challenged the idea that Biden shouldn’t be replaced on the party’s ticket just because he won a series of largely uncompetitive primaries.

“I mean, if the primary voters had seen that debate performance, do you really think the outcome of those primaries would have been the same? I don’t,” he said. “So it’s up to the leadership in our party to stand up and say what everybody knows, and everyone’s trying to figure out a nice way to do it. I don’t care if there’s a nice way to do it or not. The most consequential election demands that we do it. If you’ve got to break some furniture to get it done, then go break some furniture.”

Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has interacted with Biden regularly over the years and said he noticed that the president “was definitely stiffer and had a harder time talking – there’s just no two ways about that – just in the last six months or so.” But he said the debate represented a turning point, because Biden’s performance forced Democrats to seriously consider other options.

“I mean, he was the oldest president when he got elected the first time, and I think there was an assumption that he wouldn’t run for a second term,” Smith said, adding that he was skeptical when Biden announced his re-election bid. “What is happening behind the scenes, what the Biden campaign is trying to do, is run out the clock and say, ‘Hey, nothing to see here. Everything’s fine.’ And some members are falling for that.”

While no other Democrat came close to unseating Biden in the primary, Rep. Dean Phillips, of Minnesota, ran a long-shot campaign and repeatedly questioned Biden’s age and fitness to serve another term. On Tuesday, Phillips told reporters, “If this has been vindication, vindication has never been so unfulfilling.”

Biden’s next big test is a news conference scheduled for Thursday at the close of a summit marking the 75th anniversary of NATO, the transatlantic security alliance. In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Friday, Biden asserted that no other candidate could “hold NATO together like me.”

Smith called that assertion “crazy,” but Rep. Marilyn Strickland, a Democrat from Tacoma, offered the sort of interpretation of Biden’s words that has become increasingly common among his supporters in Congress.

“I think when Joe Biden says, ‘Only I can hold it together,’ he means the Biden-Harris administration,” Strickland said. “As we know, the vice president has been very, very active with our allies around the world. And so what he probably meant was, ‘The Biden-Harris administration has a great record supporting NATO.’”

Asked if she believes Harris would be a capable president, Strickland said, “Well, Joe Biden is going to be the candidate, but Kamala Harris has proven over the past 3½ years that she does have what it takes to be president of the United States, both here at home and abroad.”

Cantwell also defended Biden’s comment on NATO, before pivoting to reiterate the need for Democrats to focus on domestic issues.

“I think it’s really clear, listening to that ABC News interview, the president has been doing an outstanding job on foreign policy,” she said. “I can’t imagine what he’s holding at bay, so he’s doing a tremendous job there. But I’m a person who believes we have to focus on the economy.”

Calls for Biden to drop out of the race aren’t just coming from Democrats in Congress. Miguel Valencia, a Democratic precinct committee officer and at-large member of the Spokane County Democrats’ executive board, thinks Biden has done an excellent job during his term but said he would like to see the president step away from his reelection bid.

Valencia, who’s running to represent Spokane Valley and the surrounding area in the state Senate, said he sees Trump as a threat to democracy due to his authoritarian tendencies and past calls to do away with sections of the Constitution as part of his claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

In 2022, Trump posted on his social media platform Truth Social, “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great ‘Founders’ did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!”

Valencia, 25, said the election this November should be an easy win for any Democrat challenging Trump.

“This should be a layup election, and I think with really any other reasonable Democrat at the head of the ticket we’ll win, almost guaranteed,” Valencia said. “And the only reason that Donald Trump could win is with Biden at the top of the ticket.”

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect Miguel Valencia’s age.