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After "shocking" debate performance, N.Y. Rep. Ryan "not happy" to call on president to step aside

New York Congressman Pat Ryan speaks in Kingston during his Election Night watch party
Jesse King
New York Congressman Pat Ryan speaks in Kingston during his Election Night watch party

New York Congressman Pat Ryan represents one of the House’s few swing districts, and on Wednesday, the steadfast Biden ally called on the Democratic president to withdraw from the presidential race.

Ryan, a Democrat from the 18th district, is a former Ulster County Executive who has first-hand experience winning narrow races. He says Joe Biden is not the best option and should stand down for the good of the country.
 
Ryan spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus Thursday morning.

You and I have talked every couple of months for the entirety of President Biden's term, and you've been a really loyal supporter of his. So what changed? 

I mean, I'm still a huge fan of the president. I think he's been a historic president in a great way, and delivered tremendous amount for my district, for the country. The reality is, speaking out for me really feels like and felt like a patriotic duty, one because of the Trump threat, the existential threat that Donald Trump represents to our Constitution, to the oath that I took to support and defend our Constitution, not only as a member of Congress, but as a military officer, as West Point graduate. 

I mean, this is a guy who's a convicted felon who tried to overturn the 2020 election. He wants to criminalize abortion. Wants to give more tax breaks to billionaires and big corporations. He wants to gut Social Security. He's got a 900-plus page plan, Project 2025, which everyone needs to look up and read, that's really right out of the authoritarian playbook. So Trump is not fit to serve, and must, I believe, it’s imperative he is stopped, and that means being honest about our own party and putting forth our strongest candidate. And I do believe the president has really dedicated his whole life to serving the American people, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. And as someone who I think is a patriot and a person of great integrity, I believe he needs to understand really, for the good of our country that stepping aside in the upcoming election would be a delivery of the promise he made to be this bridge to a new generation of leaders. So I'm really hoping he'll listen. And it's not just to me, but it's to a lot of people I've talked to in the district who really want a leader that will put country over party.

Well, he wrote a public letter to members of Congress saying he's staying in the race before your call and those from others for him to step aside. So do you think this pressure campaign will actually be successful? 

Look, I'm a freshman House member. I'm not a big deal senior person here, and not planning to be, by the way, either. But I just felt it was my responsibility to not only say what I felt to be the truth, but also to channel what I heard. We were home for about 10 days of district period around the July 4 holiday, and talked to thousands of people. And I mean, look, people are just people are losing trust in our democracy, in both parties, and they're really yearning for a leader who will listen and put their interests and the greater interest of the country first. And I think we have a the president has a historic opportunity to do that, in contrast to the Republican Party who are lockstep behind Trump and don't question any of the outrageous things he's done and said and has said he plans to do if, God forbid, he gets near the White House again.

So who would you replace him with?

Well, again, that that's certainly above my pay grade individually, and I think it should be as many Americans as we can possibly get to participate in what I know is a very compressed and unique sort of time and space, but I think we can do it. We've had these sorts of moments before in our country's history, at contested conventions and open conventions, and not what anybody hoped for or designed. But that is democracy, and I think some sort of compressed process that allows the most people to share their vision, their forward-looking vision, their optimistic vision for the country, and then make that decision. Again, it would be a really stark contrast to what will happen next week at the Republican National Convention. 

Let me ask you this. Empirically, how do you know that Biden is losing and presumably having an effect on other races? 

I mean, I'm largely basing this not on sort of punditry or polls or data, but really on what I'm hearing from folks that I talk to. I'm relatively new to this, but won two hard races here in this district, and I feel like I know where people's heads are at and what they're looking for. And the concern is just that whoever runs against Trump has to be able to forcefully, compellingly, from their heart and soul and with precision and specificity and emotion, make the case against Trump and for a positive vision. And that is my concern, that the president just hasn't been able to do that, and we've seen statewide public polling data already validating that before what happened in the debate. What happened in the debate was, I think, sort of shocking to everybody I've talked to, and we have to recognize our eyes are open, and that, you know, like I learned as a young military officer, when the situation changes in combat, you've got to change and adjust.

How did this problem sneak up on the Democratic Party? I mean, we're speaking in July of an election year. His age has not been a secret, and there have certainly been reports and whispers and concerns about President Biden's vigor in recent months. 

Well, I mean, he has been delivering. He's been, you know, to our district and across the country for years. I mean, you look at what he has done, and his administration and team, capping the price of insulin, investing in infrastructure, millions of good paying jobs with the CHIPS Act, including many in our district, in Poughkeepsie, with IBM and many other places, millions of veterans helped through the PACT Act, which is very meaningful to me personally, and I know many, many veterans, especially of my generation. So he has been delivering, and that's why I've been so supportive and appreciative on behalf of my constituents and the people of Hudson Valley. But again, as the situation changes, that's just sort of the moment that we're in. 

Just one more thing. I think this has been a moving target for people since the debate. There was the question of whether he could give a forceful interview with George Stephanopoulos, and then we're speaking just ahead of a press conference that's going to be coming during this NATO meeting, and there seems to be so much pressure on every public appearance the president makes. Is there anything that he could do at this point that would reassure you or change your mind about your call for President Biden to step out of this race? 

Well, I took some time, I mean, almost two weeks after the debate and this is a heavy, serious, fairly unprecedented decision for me, on behalf of the people I represent and for the country. And so I'm certainly not happy to be doing this or expecting to be doing it. And I made the decision in a way that I think, you know, factored in what I'm hearing from the people I represent. And so I wouldn't have said it if I didn't believe it to be true. And the reality is that this is sort of an example of, rather than talking about the elements of Project 2025 that would rip away fundamental freedoms from millions of Americans, give more money and power to the elites that have been running this country for far too long, rather than talking about that, rather than talking about the outrageous things that Trump said in that debate and the lies that he spewed and continues to spew, we're talking about the fitness of President Biden, and that is the problem with less than 120 days to go until an existential moment for our country.

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A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.