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Reality Check: AGE v LIES

What the first ever June Presidential Debate revealed. 

Having followed politics since the early 1970s, becoming politically active in the mid-1980s and professionally writing about it since the mid-1990s, I have learned to do two things at once – parse the immediate reaction to an event and then (the tougher of the two) frame its consequence to the larger effect on campaigns and the eventual election. Both are not to be ignored. There can be a tendency to prize one over the other, especially in the last three decades when the immediacy of gaff, scandal, and apparent victory can linger for a few days or even weeks but tend to skew the larger picture. This doesn’t happen sometimes – it happens every time.

Let me explain in the context of what may have been the worst showing of either candidate in a debate I have seen this side of Putnam Country dog catcher and its not-so hidden implications for the fall.

What transpired over 90 minutes during the first presidential debate of the 2024 race was exceedingly less ideal for the current president and frighteningly alarming for the last guy to hold the job. The former, Joe Biden, got the worst of it – only because expectations were so low and his opponent so nakedly vulnerable on nearly every issue offered by the CNN “moderators.” I put the term in quotations merely because it seemed neither were inclined to moderate anything. They tossed up serious issues into the ether and watched silently as Donald Trump bloviated incoherently with a deluge of spectacular lies and the president mumbled disjointedly as he meandered into several competing subjects at once. 

The other reason this “performance” was more injurious to Biden’s campaign is because he had one job to do on that stage: to quell fears he is way over the hill and prove he is still sharp and able to fight against the domestic terrorist that stood across from him. Neither transpired. If anything, the opposite happened, and it scared the living shit out of Democrats from every corner of the political spectrum.

For those of us who know that a repeat of the disastrous Trump presidency would be far worse for the nation than the productive current one, this was very bad. As I wrote last week, and these 90 minutes did nothing to refute its core principle, an empty Gatorade bottle would be better than another Trump presidency. The economic numbers (high GDP, lower inflation, increased jobs, wages, and a manufacturing boom) and legislative accomplishments (Chips Act, Infrastructure investment, codifying Marriage Equality) don’t lie, but I have already said my piece on that.

Yet, in a debate the candidate with a majority of the American electorate behind many issues – women’s reproductive rights, climate change, gun safety, support of Ukraine and NATO, etc. – should be able to easily articulate this. Biden could not at all, and that is the very problem his campaign came in with and left with: the narrative that he is not up to the challenge to deliver this message. 

What happened Thursday was that Biden fucked up and Trump showed he was insane, both negative narratives equally on display, but one is getting the preponderance of backlash and furor, President Biden. This gets us to the second part of the political equation – the long-range reverberation and overall effect of an event like this.

No one – and I mean even Trump, because it was the one thing he has ever apologized for – believed that the “grab them by the pussy” tape from Access Hollywood that emerged three weeks from Election Day would not sink Trump in 2016. He won. When the Paula Jones sexual harassment scandal came out during the ’92 campaign, it was pretty much written in stone that Bill Clinton was doomed. He won. In both cases, as in many others, there was a visceral explosion of fear and loathing in the support system of the candidates. We didn’t notice the larger picture that came to fruition on Election Day because we were focused on the immediate event. The deranged pitching of “Biden needs to step aside for a younger candidate” after this mess tells me more about the level of support for the president than any time before the debate. 

You want enthusiasm? You got it.

The one thing that has remained steadfast among the majority of people (many of them undecided because they are disillusioned about two old white guys we’ve already seen being the choice this November) is that they are quite apparently wanting, hoping, cringing, praying they can feel good about voting for someone than against the other. When people ask, “If Trump lied every time he opened his mouth (over 30 according to CNN’s fact checks) and said dangerous and crazy things in that debate, how come only Biden is getting shit for sounding and looking feeble?” It’s because more people than not want Trump to be humiliated and beaten. It’s the old, “Flip a coin to decide what you want… then as the coin is in the air ask yourself if you are rooting for one outcome over the other… that is your choice.”

Democrats, clear thinking Independents, and people who watch a convicted criminal, twice-impeached morally bankrupt and wildly fascistic Donald Trump bluster nonsense like a maniac at every turn want someone on the other side to smack him down. This is what I get from this panicked reaction, because it’s not the media or the moderators or the pundits or the pollsters to accomplish, it’s the guy on the other side, and that guy failed miserably to do that. This is why we have the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on one side while the other just shrugs.

It appears more people would like to defeat Trump than want to have a reason to hold their noses and suspend their conscience to vote for him. Biden let that majority down. 

To wit: When Trump said he had a better economy than Biden, the president failed to give blatant numbers that could easily shut him down. Even when the numbers in the topic question – highest national debt under Trump (over 8%) and now Biden (4%) – Trump just said Biden’s was higher. All the president had to do was simply say, “The moderator just read the numbers, my deficient is half yours.” Instead, he appeared flummoxed it was even uttered, as if he had never met this walking bullshit machine. When Trump blathered on about infanticide being legal in blue states (it is illegal in all 50 states) Biden went back to a question four minutes earlier. When Trump somehow twisted his blatant crimes against the state on January 6 into some weird takedown of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi and claimed he was asked to speak that day when he not only planned the event, tweeting, “Come to D.C. it’s going to be wild!” after telling the domestic terrorists that their election was stolen for months, Biden just mumbled some poorly reasoned shit.

This upset more people than not, reenforcing the notion that those people still do not want to vote for the guy who after four chances did not say he would accept the very election he is embroiled in. They were clearly and openly rooting for Biden to fight back when Trump claimed he didn’t create mask mandates in 2020 (when Trump was president, not Biden) or slashed prescription drug costs (a popular Biden accomplishment). In the same debate, Trump simultaneously claimed to have the widest deregulations ever while also being best president in history on the environment and got away unscathed. This was on Biden… so they come on cable news to ask for someone else. 

The question before us today and for the next four months remains: Do those upset people now turn around and vote for the guy they wanted to do better at this debate or the guy they clearly from this reaction want to defeat? I don’t have the answer to that – no one does, except the voters, who will make that choice on November 5, but it still doesn’t change the evidence that the conundrum (debate or no debate) tells us more about what might happen that day than we can see now.