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Democrats criticize Biden privately, back him publicly. Sound familiar?

For years, Democrats mocked Republicans for their politically craven fealty to former president Donald Trump.

They rolled their eyes when their Republican colleagues claimed they just hadn’t seen the latest tweet. They talked knowingly about how, behind closed doors, many Republicans conceded that, yes, they wished Trump would just disappear — Rumpelstiltskin-style, in a poof of smoke — never to be heard from again.

But now, they’re borrowing a page from the Republican playbook.

Following President Biden’s halting and politically damaging debate performance on June 27, Democratic lawmakers and strategists who regularly lambasted Republicans are offering one, often painfully candid, assessment in private (Biden cannot beat Trump and needs to step aside) and a different, less-than-truthful one in public (Biden had “one bad night,” but he’s up for the job of beating Trump).

They have also begun offering variations of the “I just need to see more of Biden to feel confident in supporting him” excuse — their version of the fail-safe Republican “I didn’t see the tweet” chestnut.

“We’ve spent years shaming Republicans for blindly following Trump off the proverbial cliffs, especially when it meant an electoral disaster for their party, like the cycles of 2018, 2020, and 2022,” said Michael LaRosa, a former Biden White House communications official. “It turns out, we’re just as loyal to the name or leader of our party, as well, even if it invites political risk for everyone in the party running on the ballot.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, actor George Clooney, a prominent Democratic donor, also said the quiet part out loud, calling on party leaders “to stop telling us that 51 million people didn’t see what we just saw.”

“We love to talk about how the Republican Party has ceded all power, and all of the traits that made it so formidable with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, to a single person who seeks to hold on to the presidency, and yet most of our members of Congress are opting to wait and see if the dam breaks,” Clooney wrote, before urging Democrats to “speak the truth.”

Of course, the situations are hardly analogous. With Trump — who can be bullying, cruel, misogynistic and routinely traffics in racist tropes and falsehoods — issues of character are what have long repelled Republican voters and officials alike.

During the 2016 presidential race, an “Access Hollywood” video emerged of Trump boasting about groping women, and more than a dozen women came forward accusing him of sexual misconduct. Last year, a New York jury found that Trump sexually abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll and, more recently, another New York jury convicted him on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He also refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, encouraging his supporters to do the same — a decision that ultimately contributed to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

By contrast, Biden’s only sin in the minds of his supporters right now is aging, and publicly grappling with the indignities and fragility of entering his ninth decade.

“I reject the scale of Biden’s failures compared to Trump’s — it’s just not a comparison,” said Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist and ardent Trump critic who works as a writer for the Bulwark website.

But, Miller added, he nonetheless sees similarities between his former party and how Democrats are handling the current moment.

“The gap between private and public as a means of self-protection, of career protection, is very similar — shrouding that careerist unwillingness to say the truth in some fake, high-minded notion that they’re doing the right thing in private,” Miller said.

Even here, Democrats on the whole are being more candid than many Republicans beholden to Trump. So far, 12 House members and one senator have called for Biden to step aside as the party’s presidential nominee, and several other lawmakers from both chambers have gone public with their concerns. On Wednesday, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointedly told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Biden — who has repeatedly said he has no plans to bow out — needs to make a “decision” on whether he is running for president.

During the Trump years — and even now — the Republicans who dared to publicly utter what many of their colleagues privately whispered could almost be boiled down to a lonely trio: Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. (The two House members no longer hold office, and Romney is retiring when his term ends at the end of this year.)

Will Ritter, co-founder of Poolhouse, a center-right ad agency, said that during Trump’s presidency, the constant message from Democrats was “‘brokered convention,’ ‘25th Amendment,’ ‘protecting the party,’ ‘protecting democracy.’”

Now, however, Ritter said, the Democrats “are headed over a cliff,” and the new message has become “one bad night” and “he’s always had a stutter” — a reference to comments from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, who said Tuesday that Biden has long had a stutter and should not be held to “too high a standard.”

“We’re getting honest talk from George Clooney, and cute word games from almost every elected Democrat,” he said.

Since Biden’s debate debut, the president’s team has also lost credibility with the media — a public rupture that comes after years of Biden aides browbeating reporters for daring to broach the age of the 81-year-old president.

“The other point Republican staffers have just been laughing about is how finally the Biden administration is getting a big dose of what the normal Republican candidate faces in terms of the press,” said Elise Jordan, a former George W. Bush staffer and aide on the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who now considers herself an independent. “It’s just so much harder to deal with, and it’s not going to end, either.”

Biden, too, is exhibiting some characteristics that are shared by Trump and some other politicians. He distrusts negative polls. He has begun lashing out at “elites” and the media. He is now relying heavily on what he personally sees and hears, in situations tailored only to feature his supporters. And he has surrounded himself with a small, insular circle reluctant to bring him bad news.

Jordan said her takeaway from watching Biden’s interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos last Friday was that Biden “was absolutely Trumpish.”

“He was so arrogant and seemed to feel entitled to the office, not that it was an honor to serve, and he didn’t seem to be concerned with democracy, which is allegedly the whole reason for his candidacy,” Jordan said.

In some ways, the about-face from many Democrats may not matter. A key voting bloc this election cycle is the “double hater” voters disillusioned with both major-party options. Nonetheless, many remain driven by negative partisanship — the belief that the other side is so cosmically awful that party tribalism kicks in and they will show up and vote for just about anyone to stop, in the case of Democrats, Trump.

LaRosa, for instance, describes himself as a Biden supporter who has never supported a challenge to Biden or a third-party candidate. But since leaving the White House, he has at times been publicly critical of Democrats and the Biden operation, and noted their strategy “for the last year has been to deny data, undermine or ridicule anyone who questions them, and wage war against the free press.”

“Now, President Biden is left without any goodwill and his message is undercut,” LaRosa said. “You can’t say that Trump is a threat to democracy while you crucify reporters for asking questions, tell us not to believe poll after poll, and manipulate the primary process to crush your political opposition.”

“It’s all,” he added, “sort of Trumpian, to be honest.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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