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Joe Biden, Presidential Debate, 2024
President Joe Biden during a commercial break at the CNN Presidential Debate, the first of two scheduled debates between the major party candidates in the 2024 election cycle, in Atlanta on June 27, 2024. Photo credit: © Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press Wire

It still seems to be an election hinging on which candidate voters worry the most about.

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— OPINION — 

Post-debatcle, I am torn. Like virtually every Trumpophobe I know, I’ve spent most of the hours since the disaster in Atlanta — including the wee, small hours, when the whole wide world is supposed to be fast asleep — in a state of shock. 

You prepare for worst case scenarios, not for worse than worst case scenarios — and that is what we had on our hands. Not a lot of disagreement about that — except perhaps from a few paid shills.

What there is real disagreement about is what to do — or rather what Joe Biden and the Democratic Party should do. Because, when it comes down to it, there’s not much that we — as private citizens — can actually do.

And there, I think, is the rub. There has been a rapid, loud, and in some cases panicky response to Joe Biden’s abject failure to project the strength and fitness expected in a president. Instead of refuting all the simmering concerns about his age and physical and mental firmity, the president confirmed them — unmistakably, luridly in the view of many. 

No spinning it, no getting past it. Not only the worst debate performance of the modern era, but one coming at a juncture where it was generally agreed Biden needed a win to close on a front-running opponent whom nothing, including felony convictions, seems to touch. 

It was a performance there will almost certainly be no way to erase or set right by a great “comeback” at the next debate: Donald Trump would be a strategic fool of the first order if he does not find an excuse to withdraw from that debate. And Trump and his team are no strategic fools.

So it is understandable that a broad swath of the commentariat have issued swift calls for Biden to exit the race. Among them: The New York Times Editorial Board, Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman; never-Trumpers Steve Schmidt and Charlie Sykes; Thom Hartmann, Bari Weiss, Ezra Klein… The list is long and includes WhoWhatWhy’s own editor-in-chief and much of our senior staff. 

Others, including prominent substacker Heather Cox Richardson, while acknowledging the crisis, have remained more equivocal or agnostic about the solution. We are all, metaphorically speaking, “in the streets”; but not everyone is carrying a torch or a pitchfork.

Why I’m Not Carrying a Pitchfork

I am among those who have been slow to take up arms. Of course I have a deep respect and admiration for Joe Biden, along with a great deal of gratitude. He has had to deal with the COVID-19 mess left by his predecessor, a fiercely inimical Supreme Court (and many lower federal courts), and an opposing “party” in Congress whose first priority is seeing him fail, not to mention the state-level yahoos and a biased media, all within the toxic cocoon of the ongoing Trumpocene. I view what he has achieved under these conditions, whether with executive orders or hard-earned bipartisan buy-in, as magnificent and I regard him as the best president of my adult life. 

But that is not the main reason for my hesitation. Rather it is a profound uncertainty about the relative temperatures of frying pan and fire. To wit: How would a Biden replacement be managed? Is there a path through that minefield that wouldn’t entail a massive risk of political chaos, even poorer electoral prospects, and the potential implosion of the Democratic Party — which right now is the only entity standing between us and an authoritarian, fascist future?

Of course, it is our shared fear of the horrific consequences of a Trump victory that has motivated just about all these snap calls for Biden to go. In the midst of the maelstrom, and alarmed as I was, I found myself channeling Indiana Jones’s dad in The Last Crusade, as he counsels his breathless son to “count to 20 — in Greek.” Because at least some of the calls didn’t seem to be all that well thought through.

NYT vs. WaPo: A Telling Contrast

Consider, for example, the lead editorial published Friday by The New York Times Editorial Board: “To Serve His Country, President Biden Must Leave the Race.” It weighs in at 18 paragraphs, 1,120 words, plenty of ink. It lays out in some detail the successes of Biden’s presidency, the mortal danger Trump poses, and the fact that Biden “is not the man he was four years ago,” concluding that it’s time for Democratic leaders to confront him with “the hard truth.”

This is all well and good. But the penultimate paragraph reads as follows:

The clearest path for Democrats to defeat a candidate defined by his lies is to deal truthfully with the American public: acknowledge that Mr. Biden can’t continue his race, and create a process to select someone more capable to stand in his place to defeat Mr. Trump in November. (emphasis added)

That’s it: “create a process to select someone more capable.” That’s the only mention in the whole piece of anything related to the “how.” Stated like an afterthought — and easy for them to say! 

Is it possible that the politically savvy poobahs of the Times don’t grasp how fraught that process is likely to be? I had to wonder whether they were just being lazy or had skirted the issue deliberately and disingenuously. 

This is, after all, the same paper that has been applying a double standard to Biden and Trump for years. They exhibited a stubborn reluctance to call Trump’s lies “lies” until they lay about 30,000 deep on the Oval Office floor. Even their polling (with Siena College) has been notable for generating a succession of “Biden in Trouble” headlines, the latest being a pre-debate outlier that had Trump +6 nationally over Biden among registered voters. In a way, defenestrating Biden without even a nod at a viable path forward fits right in.

To its credit, the embattled Washington Post’s editorial board, having acknowledged the disaster and dilemma, paid serious attention to the very serious problems entailed in creating a process. Their grasp of those challenges was even reflected in their editorial’s headline: “How Biden and the Democrats should think through what to do now.” 

The thrust of the piece is that Biden should be doing some serious soul searching about what he can deliver in the rest of this campaign (and implicitly in a second term, should he win), which I agree he should and which, if reports are accurate, he and his family appear to now be doing. 

But the Post editors also acknowledge that shoving him aside against his will, to the extent that would even be possible, would open major wounds and might not even improve the party’s chances in November. They spend several long paragraphs running through the obstacles and contingencies, ultimately proposing, as did WhoWhatWhy’s own editor, a specific outline for a process the party might consider.

While I regard such a process — a handful of promising candidates would engage in debate leading up to an open convention — as fraught in its own right, the journalistic contrast with the Times’s slippery dodge couldn’t be clearer.

“If the Assassination Could But Trammel Up the Consequences…”

I am, as I said at the outset, personally torn. If I believed that Biden’s replacement could be managed adroitly and candidates nominated who possessed a combination of experience, name recognition, and the skills to out-campaign Biden against Trump, I’d board that bus with few qualms. I could, in the abstract, picture a ticket like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock checking that box (and mollifying the displaced Kamala Harris’s fans into the bargain).

But, apart from Biden’s own evident recalcitrance, consider how much buy-in, how much selfless cooperation would be demanded of how many players to rapidly engender a Democratic Party unified behind those, or any, candidates. 

I’ve seen enough of politics in my lifetime to be highly skeptical that the Democrats can just go ahead and “create a process,” as the Times so glibly recommends. The risks of internecine strife, and even party implosion, which the Post recognizes, are hardly negligible. The fire is likely enough to be scorching hot.

Other commentators — including Robert Reich and the Los Angeles Times editors — echoed the Post in painfully acknowledging that no scenario gives the Democrats an easy out; there’s no distant archway with golden rays of sunlight gleaming through. Some problems (pace Gene Krantz who, in Apollo 13, prophesied that the looming disaster would turn out to be NASA’s “finest hour”) may not have a good answer.

Stopping to Take Stock

That dead end, which I also personally arrived at, led me to reconsider just how dire the situation actually might be. What prospects does Biden have of recovering and winning?

That overarching question breaks down into three component questions: 

  1. How much electoral damage did Biden’s performance actually do? 
  2. How enduring will that damage be? 
  3. To what extent is it a harbinger of bad or worse things to come?

The answer to the first question comes down to polls (and focus groups). However awful one’s own subjective impression may be, elections don’t turn on such indicators but on the collective impression reflected in polling numbers. We can grumble about our political enslavement to polling, and about its vagaries and inaccuracies (a subject I know intimately and have just written about), but the one thing we can rely upon polls to portray accurately is movement of the proverbial needle, from one set of polls to the next, before and after a potentially impactful event.

We don’t yet have much to go by but what I have seen is of great interest. FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos to poll a large group of likely voters both in the days leading up to the debate and again (a large subset drawn from the initial respondents) on the morning after. Such before-and-after, apples-to-apples polling is a very powerful tool for assessing event impact.

It is no surprise that 538/Ipsos found that, by a very wide margin (60 to 21), voters thought that Trump won the debate and that most rated Biden’s performance as poor. Much more surprising, perhaps, and far more important in answering our overarching question, was the very limited impact the poll found on candidate support and voting intentions.

Biden’s favorability rating dropped from 39.7 to 39.3 percent, while Trump’s rose from 39.2 to 39.7, a combined movement of less than 1 percent. When respondents were asked, before and after, whether they would consider voting for each candidate, Biden’s “yes” percentage dropped from 48.2 to 46.7, with Trump’s rising from 43.5 to 43.9 (notably still nearly three points behind Biden’s “yes” number). A post-debate poll from Morning Consult seemed to corroborate, with Biden maintaining a 1 point lead nationally, though it also showed Democratic voters’ deep concern about their presumptive nominee.

These are hardly the seismic jolts that one watching the debate with head in hands and a row of stiff drinks might expect. The barely-a-ripple horse-race impact measured here should not be all that surprising, however, given what we know about how polarized and locked-in the electorate is in its support of and attachment to these two too-well-known and starkly different men. Just as Trump’s felony conviction had barely measurable impact on the race, so it appears Biden’s debate gak has inflicted no immediately fatal wound — certainly not deep enough for Biden to have queued up his “I’m passing the torch” speech the day after.

Will It Fade or Fester?

The second and third questions can only be fully answered with time, the one thing Democrats don’t have much of. But there are a few dynamics we can consider now. 

Thinking about the endurance question, experience tells us that the public memory tends to be short, selective, and highly unpredictable. The unsettling image flashed on millions of retinas Thursday night may fade to a blur in the months to come; it may also fester in the corner of millions of minds. Judging by the 538/Ipsos measure of immediate impact, however, it has not done much to change the electoral calculus at the moment one would expect maximum impact. So, unless other polls come out that paint a very different picture or voters’ impressions intensify rather than fading with time, Biden might be in considerably less trouble than a crestfallen debate viewer might assume. 

Ironically, one of the factors that might well drive such an intensification is the very clamoring among the commentariat for Biden to go, as exemplified by the Times editorial dissected above. Especially when there is perceived consensus among those believed to be in the know, there is a good deal of potential power to mold public opinion. So it will be interesting to see whether the replacement drumbeat, to which there has been some gradual pushback, intensifies or dies down; and whether it is taken up within the political sphere as it has been in many corners of the media.

For what it is worth, in one corner of that political sphere, Donald Trump — who made nary a mention, in his day-after rally, of Biden’s night-before nightmare — is quite plainly relishing the prospect of facing off against an opponent, in Biden, whom he judges to be severely, perhaps mortally, weakened. He is therefore very uncharacteristically not twisting the knife on Biden, avoiding doing or saying anything that would further spur the Democrats to replace him. If the Democrats were to steer their course by Trump’s assessment, replacement of Biden would be something of a no-brainer.

“Tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow…”

This leaves the third, and in many ways most critical, component question: Will Biden’s performance Thursday turn out to be a one-off — just a very, very bad night — or is there more in the same or similar vein to come? The answer to that question is really what would make all the difference in choosing the best of all the bad options for how to proceed.

Unfortunately, those with the most insight into this crucial question — Biden and his inner circle — also have, to put it mildly, a big dog in the race. They are reported to be huddling to review the situation, but how much objectivity might we expect from their soul-searching? And as for those of us looking through the windows, how much do we really know?

We know that Biden had a cold of some severity, was tired, worn down, and mystifyingly over-prepped as if for a defense of a Ph.D. thesis, or perhaps a debate against a Mitt Romney rather than the Gish galloping, Gatling gun lie machine that they knew all too well Donald Trump to be. 

Biden himself is hardly blameless for that abysmal prep, but that is not the point. If Team Biden set him up to fail, presumably that dreadful mistake can be corrected (although, as noted, it is highly unlikely that Biden will get another debate-stage crack at Trump).

More serious is the fact that Biden proved unable to course-correct in real time, recognize and process what was happening, and start calling Trump out on every lie (given the fact that it was obvious that moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper had no intention of doing so). 

It was as if Biden was programmed for the wrong debate and couldn’t deviate or adjust. That is obviously, beyond being a missed opportunity to make the case against Trump, a bad look in itself.

Sidebar: I suspect that if their fates were reversed, right-wing conspiracy theorists would have been all over social media with their suspicions that their guy had been slipped a mickey. One thing there wouldn’t have been was so much as a single call for Trump to drop out. That’s not how the MAGA/GOP — a party that is thrilled about having a pathological liar, bully, felon, and bullshit artist carrying their banner — rolls. It should not be lost how much it is to the left’s and Democrats’ credit that they are open to questioning and challenging instead of blind and cultish worship.

Biden’s presentation certainly came off as weakness, if not outright mental decline (a colleague of mine even asked, could Biden have been sundowning?). But, as some have pointed out, a president’s job involves many skills — appointing wisely, listening, discussing, directing, coordinating, deciding — but does not include debating, certainly not with a hostile opponent who refuses to answer the questions put to him and lies as most people breathe. 

So, as Lawrence O’Donnell opined, the format is actually an awful test for presidential candidates; he suggests, instead, that questions be put to a candidate and his staff members, who are then observed working through their response as a team — just as would happen every day in the Oval Office.

Well, that’s a great thought, but the fact is Biden proposed the debate, had an equal say in setting the terms and rules, and then went ahead and failed his own test. But voters — locked-in and perhaps intuiting to some extent the irrelevance of debating success, under such conditions, to presidential success — seem to be grading the president gently, such that he may live to fight another day.

Which leaves us wondering about those days — specifically what shape Biden will be in in the months and years to come. 

If we extrapolate from Thursday a sad path of steady, or even intermittent, decline, it is hard to ignore a dark cloud hanging over a second term that will add four more long years to the president’s perceived infirmities. Persuadable voters will continue to worry about that, as they continue to worry about Trump’s character and the danger he poses. It still seems to be an election hinging on which they worry about more.

Biden came out Friday, at a rally in Raleigh, NC, with renewed vigor, projecting a strength and intensity voters will remember from his State of the Union performance a few months ago. He owned his failure of the night before, acknowledged that he’s not the debater (or the athlete) he once was. But he brought along and proudly displayed his moral compass. Here is what he said:

Folks, I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t — debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. 

I know — I know — I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. And I know like millions of Americans know: When you get knocked down, you get back up.

Some critics have likened this to striking out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, only to come back the next day to hit a home run in batting practice (though his Raleigh speech has gotten quite a bit of play). There is, of course, much truth to this: Biden blew it big-time on the big stage. If voters were worried before, many are more worried now. And some who weren’t worried before have doubtlessly begun to wonder.

But if the before-and-after polls mean anything, the debate disaster wasn’t Biden’s electoral Waterloo. It remains to be seen whether the Biden of Thursday night in Atlanta or the Biden of Friday afternoon in Raleigh is the Biden we will see over the months to come, into November and beyond. Or will it be some kind of awful Jekyll and Hyde act? 

Sticking with him carries much risk. So does replacing him. I think for Democrats the reality is sinking in that there are no low-risk options.

So, for now at least, the question becomes: Can he get back up? And, more crucially, can he stay back up?


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