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Panic Mode

Ditch Biden. That Debate Performance Was a Disaster.

Joe Biden’s job at Thursday’s debate should have been easy. He failed on every level.

Joe Biden speaks in front of a blue background at Thursday's presidential debate.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Joe Biden at Thursday’s presidential debate

Joe Biden went into Thursday night’s debate with one advantage: He had lower expectations than any incumbent president—with the possible exception of his predecessor—in the 60-year history of American presidential debates. Voters already thought that he was too old, that he was ill equipped for the job of of the presidency, that he was incompetent. He had little to lose. He was already bottoming out in the polls. Voters, meanwhile, had clearly forgotten about the daily terrors, abuses, and embarrassments of the Trump era.

Thursday’s debate should have been a tap-in. All Biden had to do was appear mildly competent. All he had to do was let Donald Trump be Donald Trump. Then the rest would take care of itself.

It’s hard to see how the bar could have been set any lower. And yet Biden not only failed to meet it, he delivered what may very well be the single worst debate performance in American history. Again and again, with no prompting, he made his opponent’s case for him. He was often incoherent, frequently appeared to forget the question he was responding to, and consistently failed to make the very easy and simple case for his reelection. He allowed Donald Trump—a man who was terrible in every Republican primary debate in 2016 and who decisively lost every presidential debate in 2016 and 2020—not only to appear competent in comparison, but to seem normal. This was a disaster, from start to finish. It is impossible to see how Joe Biden can continue as the Democratic nominee for president.

Here is how easy this should have been for Joe Biden. For one thing, most of the subjects favored him. Yes, there were several questions about the economy and immigration. But many of them revolved around issues that are seen as political advantages for Biden: abortion, foreign policy, the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet, again and again, Biden let these opportunities slip through his fingers and barely seemed to register that he was playing on home turf.

During this debate, Donald Trump basically said he would withdraw from NATO. He vociferously defended the January 6 rioters—and said that the people who prosecuted them should be imprisoned. He patted himself on the back for overturning Roe v. Wade, which has galvanized voters in red and blue states across the country. Again and again and again, he made it abundantly clear that he was not qualified or capable of being president—he is a mad man, somehow even more now than he was when he left office three years ago.

Trump also could not get out of his own way. He made bizarre accusations about Nancy Pelosi’s daughter and vile ones about Joe Biden’s son. He kept returning to one of his worst gaffes, his (alleged—but come on) denigration of American veterans as “losers and suckers.” Asked about Americans struggling with addiction, he instead went on a rant about his own personal grievances. He said the sentence “I didn’t have sex with a porn star.” It was a debate performance that should have reminded every single viewer about every single reason why Donald Trump is unfit to be president. He is a hideous narcissist. He is a weird freak. He lied in every answer—often several times. It should be self-evident that he is incapable of holding any position of responsibility, let alone the most important one in the country.

And yet. And yet. Joe Biden still somehow failed to look like the obvious, reasonable choice. Over and over again, he let Trump off the hook—about his fascistic effort to overturn the 2020 election, about his despicable racism, about his pivotal role in taking reproductive rights away from tens of millions of Americans, about the fact that he is a singularly dangerous figure in American politics.

Biden was, for much of the debate, barely coherent—hoarse and confused, he frequently seemed to doze off mid-sentence and then wake up in a different one. He was markedly and substantially worse than he was in either of the 2020 presidential debates against Trump. Again and again, when Trump presented him with an easy opportunity to attack, he let it pass, stumbling over clapbacks and talking points. He didn’t mention that Trump is a convicted felon until the forty-fourth minute of the debate. He let him off the hook for trying to violently overturn American democracy—and for presenting the goons that tried to do that as the real victims. At one point, he turned a question about his biggest strength—abortion—into one about his biggest weakness: immigration. Early in the debate, responding to a question about the pandemic—another strength!—he uttered this sentence, the actual meaning and structure of which linguists will be parsing for centuries: “Making sure we make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with Covid, excuse me, with umm dealing with everything we had to deal with. Look, we finally beat Medicare.”

Look: Trump’s answers were often mind-bending. They are packed with so many lies it is often difficult to fact-check them in any conventional sense. He was also a disaster. But he has been this disastrous before and will be again. Biden should have been prepared to press the case that he is a unique threat to the country. But he let it slip from the first moment of this debate to the closing statement. This performance should be a wake-up call to Biden’s defenders in the Democratic Party. Yes, replacing the president will be chaotic. But it is undoubtedly better than whatever it was that we just watched.

This is a debate that can and should lead Democrats to ask serious and complicated questions. Biden had one job here, and it shouldn’t have been hard. He had to convince voters that he could clear the lowest bar in American history: that he is more capable of leading and governing than Donald Trump. He not only failed to clear it, he made Trump seem reasonable and coherent by comparison. The questions facing the party will be logistically complex, but they shouldn’t be emotionally difficult. Joe Biden is losing this election. He has been for months. And for months, we have been told by his defenders that once we get a split-screen moment with Donald Trump, that will all change: Voters will be reminded of the disaster that Trump is and the existential risk that he poses to the country itself.

We just had that split-screen moment. Biden not only failed to make the case that he is capable of beating Donald Trump, he failed to make the case that he is capable of leading for another four years. Democrats are panicking, and they are right to. This was a disaster, from start to finish. Unless something is done, it could have catastrophic consequences.