Biden 219
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Trump 306
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Political Wire logo Historian Says It Would Be Mistake for Biden to Drop Out
Bonus Quote of the Day
Fetterman Says Abandoning Biden Is the ‘Dumbest Shit’
Voters More Concerned About Biden’s Age
And the Survey Says…
Top Aides Shielded Biden from Staff

We are hard at work on the Sunday post. However, we got 80,000 words' worth of reader comments on the debate. That's enough for a novel, and it takes some time to sort through, organize into topics, edit, etc. We hope to have today's post up by 10:00 a.m. PT. Thanks for your ongoing patience.

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      •  The Day After

The Day After

Today, we are going to break the normal template, and instead give a rather detailed rundown of material related to the debate, and to Joe Biden's candidacy. Part of the reason this is so late is that this post took a lot of time and thought to put together. A lot.

Tomorrow, we are going to answer some reader questions, and run some reader letters, about the debate. We may have a little bit of other material, but the post-debate fallout is currently of great interest and of monumental importance, so it's mostly going to be debate-related material tomorrow. We were going to answer reader questions today, but this post is already very long (in part because we worked answers to many frequently asked reader questions into it). It also occurred to us that this post may trigger some good questions that have not already been sent in.

So, here we go: our assessment of where things stand, with the benefit of 36 hours' or so having passed. Buckle up, because it's gonna be a bumpy, 8,000-word ride:

  • The Media Response: Yesterday, you would have been hard-pressed to find a major media outlet that did NOT have a "Biden must go" piece. Sometimes, they came from the editorial board. Sometimes, they came from one or more columnists. Whether those columnists really believed what they were writing, or whether "Biden must go" was a lay-up column subject that could be knocked out in an hour so the writer could spend the rest of the day at the beach/the lake/the movies while the clicks rolled in, we don't know.

    The one that got the lion's share of the attention was from the The New York Times. Under the headline "To Serve His Country, President Biden Should Leave the Race," the Gray Lady's eddi board wrote:
    As it stands, the president is engaged in a reckless gamble. There are Democratic leaders better equipped to present clear, compelling and energetic alternatives to a second Trump presidency. There is no reason for the party to risk the stability and security of the country by forcing voters to choose between Mr. Trump's deficiencies and those of Mr. Biden. It's too big a bet to simply hope Americans will overlook or discount Mr. Biden's age and infirmity that they see with their own eyes.

    If the race comes down to a choice between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the sitting president would be this board's unequivocal pick. That is how much of a danger Mr. Trump poses. But given that very danger, the stakes for the country and the uneven abilities of Mr. Biden, the United States needs a stronger opponent to the presumptive Republican nominee. To make a call for a new Democratic nominee this late in a campaign is a decision not taken lightly, but it reflects the scale and seriousness of Mr. Trump's challenge to the values and institutions of this country and the inadequacy of Mr. Biden to confront him.
    One of us, namely (Z), has some experience in the newspaper business, having worked for The Daily Bruin (the third-largest newspaper in Los Angeles by circulation, at the time) and for The Los Angeles Times. The desire of The New York Times to get their thoughts out there as soon as possible is pretty much hardwired into a journalist's psyche. However, we tend to think that this is a situation that called for patience. Wait a couple of days, get the lay of the land, make sure rational analysis is controlling your thought process rather than emotion, and THEN give your assessment. Obviously, the NYT did not agree.

    If you are interested in more "Biden must go" editorials/op-eds, then here are specimens from The Washington Post, CNN, Slate, The American Prospect, The Daily Beast, The Guardian (UK) and The Atlantic.

  • The Republican Response: The Republican response to the debate was exactly what you would expect. There was much praise for Donald Trump. Of course, Trump could have stood up there and drooled for 90 minutes, and Republicans would have hailed it as the finest public appearance by a president since the Gettysburg Address. At the same time, and equally predictably, there was much opportunism on that side of the aisle. Basically, there were two themes to the responses.

    The first of those themes was concern trolling. Former speaker Kevin McCarthy, who aspires to a seat in a potential Trump 47 cabinet, is a good example. He appeared on the Fox Business channel, and said the Democrats really should consider finding a new candidate, because Biden is so far gone, he is incapable of negotiating with Congress anymore. Now, keep in mind that there are plenty of people who witnessed McCarthy saying, behind the scenes, that Biden is a quite able negotiator. Also keep in mind that McCarthy has only begun flogging this "Biden can't negotiate bit" for the last month or so, as he began angling for that cabinet seat. Finally, keep in mind that the well-being of the Democratic Party is way down on the former speaker's list of concerns, right there with the well-being of the environment and the well-being of American democracy. That should give you some basis for deciding how much stock to put into McCarthy's assessment.

    The other theme is "it's time to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment." Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters that "There's a lot of people asking about the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment right now because this is an alarming situation." Notice the use of the Trump trick of attributing this insight to "people" without using any names. To give another example, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) announced that he is going to sponsor a resolution calling on the Cabinet to remove Biden under the terms of the Twenty-Fifth. Such a resolution, if it passes, will have exactly the same impact as back in 2020, when it was Democrats calling for the Twenty-Fifth to be invoked. That is to say, zero. Roy is a shameless show horse, and this is his latest act. He just beat the Lauren Boeberts and Marjorite Taylor Greenes of the GOP to the punch.

  • The Democratic Response: We started with the media response and with the Republican response so as to get them out of the way. Joe Biden does not give two craps about what the media thinks or what Republicans think, and so those entities will not have any impact on his thought process.

    Biden does care about what his fellow Democrats think, particularly the senior members of the party. In fact, it might be fair to say that, among current and former officeholders, there are four people whose votes matter: Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). You could probably add the Clintons to the list, and maybe Jimmy Carter, if you really wanted. But among politicians, the first four tower over all others.

    Among the rank-and-file Democratic politicians, there was much wringing of hands and rending of garments on Friday. Their primary concern is that if the donors think Biden is doomed, then all the money will dry up. We are not professional politicians, but we kind of doubt that. If the donor class really does think Biden is doomed, but Biden doesn't drop out, then the clear alternative strategy is to make damn sure that the Democrats control at least one chamber of Congress. So, we would guess that if there really is a Biden doom spiral, the other Democrats running this year will actually see MORE donations than they otherwise would get. In any case, the Biden campaign spent all day Friday working the phones, trying to calm Democratic officeholders and other key players down.

    As to the former presidents, and former near-presidents, we can find no indication that Carter has issued forth with an opinion. It's not impossible that he could speak up and say something like, "There are always bumps in the road, and you just have to get past them." But he is unlikely to call for Biden to drop out. First, because he's a Southern gentleman. Second, because his health may not allow him to watch the debate and/or participate in a national conversation like this.

    The Clintons, for their part, remain all-in on Biden. They both said that everyone has a bad night on the debate stage, and this happened to be Biden's. Hillary took to eX-Twitter to follow up with this message:
    The choice in this election remains very simple.

    It's a choice between someone who cares about you—your rights, your prospects, your future—versus someone who's only in it for himself.

    I'll be voting Biden.
    We will get to Barack Obama in the next section. As to the leaders in Congress, Schumer was reportedly nervous about what would happen at the debate, and even suggested the blue team might need to be ready to find a new candidate. Pretty prescient. Immediately after the debate, however, he posted this to eX-Twitter:
    Tonight's debate made the choice clear:

    Four more years of progress, or four more years of attacks on our fundamental rights and our democracy.

    We've got to get out the vote for @JoeBiden, @KamalaHarris, and a Democratic Senate and House!
    Jeffries and Pelosi were entirely non-committal on Friday morning, when speaking to reporters. By yesterday afternoon, however, they were cautiously back aboard the S.S. Biden. What you can infer from this is that they are persuaded he is not going to drop out. They are probably also persuaded that his dropping out is not a net positive for the Party.

  • Two Votes of Confidence: It is our guess that there are two people who, if they were in agreement that Biden should drop out, could probably get him to do it.

    The first of those, of course, is Obama. And his response was very nearly identical to that of the Clintons. He also said that sometimes people have bad nights, and he also hopped onto eX-Twitter with a message:
    Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself. Between someone who tells the truth; who knows right from wrong and will give it to the American people straight—and someone who lies through his teeth for his own benefit. Last night didn't change that, and it's why so much is at stake in November.
    You can see the recurrent theme running through all the Democrats' messages: Sure, Biden blew it, but c'mon, look at the alternative. Note also that one might be inclined to discount Obama's assessment because he and Biden are so close. That is true, but Obama can be plenty mercenary when politics call for it. It was he who persuaded Biden to bail out in 2016 so that the road would be clear for Hillary Clinton (well, except for that Sanders-shaped speed bump). Point is, these aren't just the words of a Biden friend, they are also the words of a shrewd political mind who has already reached his conclusions about the best path forward.

    The other person who matters most, of course, is Jill Biden. If she and Obama were both to tell the President he has to go, we think he would probably accede to that. But the First Lady might be able to do it all on her own, if she was really committed to getting her husband to step aside. She is not. On Friday, speaking to a group in New York City, the First Lady said:
    So, let's talk about last night's debate, because I know it's on your minds... I said, "Look, Joe, we are not going to let 90 minutes define the 4 years that you've been president." What my husband does know how to do is tell the truth. When he gets knocked down, Joe gets back up, and that's what we're doing today.
    To recap, the most senior members of the Democratic Party either responded instantly with "stay the course," or eventually came to embrace that position. And, in particular, the two people who matter most are squarely behind the President. Under those circumstances, it is very, very hard to imagine Biden throwing in the towel (or the delegates to the DNC rebelling against him). The only other thing that MIGHT change his thinking is polling numbers. We'll get to those in short order.

  • Biden's Response: Given what we have written so far, you surely know what's coming here. At least, you know part of it. Biden, of course, has no intention of leaving the race. And his response to Thursday night's disaster had two parts to it.

    First up, he acknowledged that he blew it badly, telling the crowd at a rally in North Carolina:
    I know I'm not a young man, to state the obvious. 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 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.
    Clearly, his remarks, and those that the First Lady offered 500 miles to the north in New York City, are quite similar. In any case, note that many men—Trump being the most obvious—would never admit to a moment of weakness like this. We would interpret this admission as a sign of character, not unlike John F. Kennedy's taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs. We reach back that far into the past, because there aren't too many examples of presidents owning up to high-profile failures.

    Biden followed that with a speech that was not only capable, but was reminiscent of his very successful State of the Union speech from earlier this year. You should consider watching some of it:

    Honestly, it's hard to believe that the guy in Atlanta on Thursday night, and the guy in North Carolina on Friday were the same guy.

    We wish we could give you a slam-dunk explanation for how someone could be so different in a span of just 12 hours. But we don't have a slam-dunk explanation. We'll just give you a few thoughts and, assuming you agree with us that friday Joe and Thursday Joe were radically different people, you can chew on the question for yourself:

    1. License to Ill: He clearly is suffering from some sort of respiratory illness; the coughing, etc., are present in footage from both Thursday and Friday. And (Z), who has extensive experience with respiratory illness (four different bouts of pneumonia, among other things), can confirm that they manifest differently depending on many different factors, not the least of which is time of day (things are usually worse in the evening). It's also possible—and this is speculative; there's no public information speaking to this—that he took some sort of medication for whatever he has before the debate. That too can manifest differently, depending on circumstances. It would be ironic if, after all the Republican talk of Adderall, cocaine, Mountain Dew, etc., the drug that was actually affecting Biden was a depressant, like dextromethorphan (cough suppressant).

    2. A Modern-Day Atlas: There was enormous pressure on Biden on Thursday, under the circumstances. It's not just his presidency; the not-unreasonable narrative is the fate of the democracy is on the line in 2024. There is nobody alive, even Biden's predecessors, who can speak to having that kind of weight on one's shoulders—"You've got 90 minutes to save the fate of the free world." Maybe anyone would have wilted under those circumstances.

    3. Cue the Lone Ranger Theme: Biden was expecting blustery Trump. He got Gish gallop Trump, instead. For those not familiar, the Gish gallop, named after now-deceased evolution denier Duane Gish, is a debate "technique" where you spew so many lies, it's not possible to answer them all, particularly when your response time is limited. The person most associated with Gish galloping these days is Daily Wire windbag Ben Shapiro; it's the "technique" he uses in all those videos where he claims to have "destroyed" some person (usually a hapless college student) in a "debate."

      The reason that we put words like "technique" and "debate" in quotes in that previous paragraph is that the Gish gallop is not allowed in formal debates, because it's not debating, it's propagandizing. Even when you know it's coming, it's nearly impossible to respond to, which is why disingenuous people like Gish and Shapiro utilize it. Maybe if Biden was 100% sure what Trump was going to do, he would have been in a better position to respond. But maybe not. Really, the responsibility for shutting down the Gish gallop lies with the debate moderators. And Thursday's moderators were not really moderating. More on that later.

    4. First Impressions: We noted this in our debate write-up, but we'll point it out again: Biden's first answer on Thursday was a disaster. His second and third answers were mediocre. And then, he found his footing and put in an average performance. He was rarely great but, after the first 15 minutes or so, he was rarely terrible. So, it's those first 15 minutes that are really the basis for everything that's been said since then.

      There is simply no question those 15 minutes were really problematic. However, the weight of the evidence does argue that those 15 minutes were an anomaly. The other 75 minutes of the debate, the State of the Union, the various sit-down interviews, the speech on Friday, the people who deal with Biden behind the scenes and say he's perfectly sharp, etc. In any evidence-based field—law, politics, history, medicine, chemistry, etc.—you always get some evidence that points one way and some evidence that points the other, and you have to decide which direction is more fully supported by the evidence. As bad as Biden was on Thursday, from roughly 9:00 to 9:15, the weight of the evidence suggests he's fine.

    5. Bad Day: As you can see above, folks who have been in Biden's shoes (the Clintons, the Obamas), and who have stood underneath those harsh spotlights on that debate stage, say that sometimes you just have a bad day.

      We do not have that particular experience, but we do have the related experience of having delivered thousands of lectures before crowds large and small. Most lectures are about average relative to our baseline. Occasionally, maybe one lecture in 20, you'll absolutely hit it out of the park. And occasionally, again maybe one lecture in 20, you'll drop the ball badly. Every time either one of those two scenarios happens, you try to think about exactly why things went so right, or why they went so wrong. And... there aren't many answers. It just happens.

      This is not to say that, once or twice a semester, we get as tongue-tied as Biden was on Thursday. Our bad days aren't quite THAT bad. That said, neither of us has a stutter, neither of us is ever under that kind of microscope, and all we have to deal with is students, not Donald Trump. Maybe, if (Z) was delivering his Great Depression lecture (a toughie) on camera in front of 50 million people, and it was one of those "this just isn't clicking" days, he would have a meltdown, too.

    We are going to get e-mails from people who, after reading the previous paragraphs, are going to accuse us of being Biden apologists. These e-mails will be off the mark. We are not trying to excuse Biden's performance. We are trying, as we explain above, to reconcile Thursday night Biden with Friday morning Biden. The difference is stark enough that it's tough to do.

  • How to Dump Him?: Let us now approach the question from a slightly different angle. What are the options for replacing Biden?

    The first possibility is that the Democratic Party decides that the President's wishes don't matter, and that they will move forward with a new candidate whether he likes it or not. The Party's rules, as currently constituted, say: "Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them." That leaves two sub-options. The first sub-option is that multiple thousands of delegates decide to glom onto that part about "the sentiments of those who elected them" and to back some other candidate. The second sub-option is that the Democratic National Committee has an emergency meeting and decides to change the rules.

    Both of these options are, barring additional adverse news for Biden, extreme long shots. The people who are delegates and the people who run the DNC are, by definition, Democratic loyalists. The great majority of them are also, specifically, Biden loyalists. We've written it before, but this is simply not a demographic that is going to launch a rebellion against the President.

    That brings us to the second possibility. Biden could resign immediately, making Kamala Harris the president. She could govern for a few months, try to demonstrate she's up to the job, and then she would almost certainly be the nominee by acclimation at the Convention. The problem here, beyond the fact that there's no indication Biden is open to this, is that voters would likely view it as gaming the system. Harris is already more unpopular, in most polls, than Biden is. Gaining the presidency by a form of subterfuge is not likely to make her MORE popular than she already is.

    The third possibility is that Biden announces he's stepping aside, and that there will be an open convention. That would create a lot of excitement, a lot of drama, and would turn a major-party convention into must-see viewing for the first time in, what, half a century?

    However, would it leave the Party better off? That's a rather sizable unknown. Yesterday, there was no shortage of "Who could the Democrats turn to?" The lists included the usual suspects: Harris, Govs. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) and Andy Beshear (D-KY); Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg; Sens. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA); and former first lady Michelle Obama, most commonly.

    We will offer a few thoughts here. To start, as we noted yesterday, a new and different candidate will be exciting and shiny. They might be able to ride that wave of excitement right into the White House. That said, it would have to be a 10-week wave, which is a pretty long time, and they would have to spend some portion of those 10 weeks under a microscope they are not used to. Think about the pressure that Joe Biden was under, as we describe above, and that he was apparently not ready to handle, despite this having been the fifth time he participated in a nationally televised, general election debate. Then imagine any of the candidates above being asked to deal with that same pressure. Klobuchar and Buttigieg have done a few candidates' debates, and the rest have less experience with the format than that. Are any of them a cinch to walk onto that stage and hit a home run? Or even a solid single?

    There's also the fact that all of these people have their liabilities. As we wrote Thursday, maybe there is someone there whose liabilities are less serious than Biden's liabilities. But that's far from certain, especially since many of them have already gone head-to-head with Biden and lost.

    And then there is the question of party unity. If there's a sprint-type race to the nomination, will the supporters of the losing candidates rally behind the winner? Or will it be Hillary vs. Bernie, Part 272? That is another unknown. However, we will say this: If this process were to take place, and it were to produce a white man as the candidate, thus passing over the Black, female VP, that might be hard to swallow for the women, the Black voters and the Black women voters who are the backbone of the Democratic coalition.

    Finally, there is only one candidate on the list that would largely not be subject to most of these concerns, and that is Michelle Obama. However, she has said over and over that she despises electoral politics, and that she has no interest in running for president or any other office. Probably best to believe her.

    The executive summary here is this: Biden plans to remain in the race. This being the case, the structure of the Democratic Party, along with the lack of a clear and available upgrade, make it nearly certain that he will get his wish.

  • What Do the Numbers Say?: We looked for polls conducted after the debate was over. It's been less than 2 days, so there aren't many. but there are three we'd like to note. The first is from Morning Consult/Axios. The finding that made all the headlines was that 60% of respondents thought that Biden should "definitely" or "probably" be replaced as the Democratic candidate. That sounds bad, but consider two things. That 60% was based on ALL respondents, including Republicans. Among Democrats... well, we don't know, because they did not provide cross-tabs. More significantly, the same group where 60% said Biden should drop out still favored Biden over Trump, 45% to 44%.

    Next up is a poll from FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, They asked a fair number of questions, like "how did the candidates perform, as compared to your expectations?" The answers to these questions are exactly what you would expect (e.g., Biden underperformed, and Trump did about as expected). The one question worth paying attention to, since it's not guessable, is who gained and lost support. According to their numbers, support for Donald Trump inched marginally upward, from 43.5% to 43.9%. That's not a surprise, since Trump didn't really do anything to help himself during the debate. Support for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. inched up a bit more than that, from 17.3% to 18.4%. And support for Biden dropped by... 1.5 points, from 48.2% to 46.7%.

    Finally, the poll from Data for Progress. Like FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos, they asked a lot of questions, which you can pore through by clicking on the link. And a lot of them had bad news for Biden, like respondents think he is too old to be president. However, this is the one part of the survey really worth noting:

    Every Democrat polls at between
43% and 45%, none of them poll better than Biden against Trump, and only Harris polls equally

    It is true that if one of these people got the chance to be the candidate, they could build on their current support with some good speeches, and maybe a solid debate performance, and by being shiny and new. But maybe not. They could melt under the world's most powerful microscope. They could have a skeleton emerge from their closet. They could be resented by supporters of one of the candidates who got passed over.

    As we note above, we believe that if Jill Biden and Barack Obama presented a unified "You gotta drop out, Joe," then Biden would listen. We also believe that if the numbers said he was a dead man walking, and that switching to Harris or Whitmer or Klobuchar would dramatically increase the odds of defeating Trump, Biden would take note of that. But, at least thus far, the numbers do not support that. Even with passions (and disappointment) running high, he does not appear to have taken much damage from his awful performance. We frankly admit to being surprised by that.

  • The Historical Analogues: Since we happen to have a historian laying around, we might as well comment on this, since lots of others are doing so, and since we got some questions about it.

    The obvious historical analogue here is 1968, when a damaged president, namely Lyndon B. Johnson, dropped out after the Democratic primaries had started. This threw the party into some amount of chaos and, of course, the Democrats lost that election.

    The other obvious analogue, which is 1952, is getting less attention. In that case, there were only a few primaries and caucuses, and they were not really determinative in any way. Still, Harry S. Truman, wounded by the Korean War, dropped out, and created some chaos. There was less chaos than in 1968, although the Democrats also lost in 1952.

    Here, to the extent that it's useful, is a list of all the times a sitting president who could have run again has, instead, stepped aside. Note that we are not counting presidents who served two full terms prior to the adoption of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, as the unofficial two-term limit had enormous currency, even if it was not yet law: We are also excluding the election of 1908, as Theodore Roosevelt, having served 7 years, felt bound by the traditional two-term limit.

    Year President Replacement Result
    1844 John Tyler (W) Henry Clay (W) Loss
    1848 James K. Polk (D) Lewis Cass (D) Loss
    1852 Millard Fillmore (W) Winfield Scott (W) Loss
    1856 Franklin Pierce (D) James Buchanan (D) Win
    1860 James Buchanan (D) John Breckinridge (SD)/Stephen Douglas (ND) Loss
    1868 Andrew Johnson (D, though elected on a fusion ticket) Horatio Seymour (D) Loss
    1880 Rutherford B. Hayes (R) James A. Garfield (R) Win
    1884 Chester A. Arthur (R) James G. Blaine (R) Loss
    1928 Calvin Coolidge (R) Herbert Hoover (R) Win
    1952 Harry S. Truman (D) Adlai Stevenson (D) Loss
    1968 Lyndon Johnson (D) Hubert H. Humphrey (D) Loss

    To the extent that these past examples are instructive, it usually doesn't work out so well to toss an incumbent overboard (even if they are wanting to be tossed, as, for example, Polk and Arthur were). Parties are 3-8 in those situations, or 3-7 if you want to exclude the wonky 1868 case.

    Note also that examples of the opposite situation—parties that considered dumping a candidate but did not—exist, though they can be harder to tease out of the historical record. The most famous example is 1864, where a serious "dump Lincoln" movement threatened to push Old Abe aside. There was a similar movement in 1940, in an attempt to stop Franklin D. Roosevelt from breaking the two-term tradition. Again, these examples are a little harder to find and pin down, given the smoke-filled-room nature of presidential politics before 1950 or so, but the general theme is that parties that stuck with a problematic candidate were generally glad they did so.

    It's a little bit questionable to draw conclusions from a relatively small sample size, particularly when most of the specimens in the sample are from more than a century ago, when things were quite different. Still, to the extent there's a historical argument here, it argues against dumping Biden.

  • Trump the Liar: We have thus far focused on Biden and the Democrats, because that's really what's important here in terms of the current political situation. And we'll get back to Biden and the Democrats at the end. But for a moment, let us pause and just say a bit more about Trump's debate performance. There has been some amount of criticism about the lack of attention paid to his lies and his refusal to answer questions. In fact, there is something of a narrative developing that the lies/deflections did not get any attention at all. Here, for example, is what Heather Cox Richardson wrote:
    Tonight was the first debate between President Joe Biden and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and by far the most striking thing about the debate was the overwhelming focus among pundits immediately afterward about Biden's appearance and soft, hoarse voice as he rattled off statistics and events. Virtually unmentioned was the fact that Trump lied and rambled incoherently, ignored questions to say whatever he wanted; refused to acknowledge the events of January 6, 2021; and refused to commit to accepting the result of the 2024 presidential election, finally saying he would accept it only if it met his standards for fairness.
    We really don't agree with this assessment. It's true, Biden's poor performance got a lot of attention, since that is bigger news than "Trump lies, yet again." Still, our writeup had a fair bit of verbiage (1,054 words, to be exact), including a fair bit about Trump's dodging the questions, his rambling (with examples), and his lies (also with examples). We saw a number of other pieces that also dwelled on this. And the most widely circulated post-debate commentary, perhaps, is the 15 minutes that Jon Stewart did on a live episode of The Daily Show:

    It's worth watching if you have not seen it already. Stewart gave just about equal time to Biden's faltering and Trump's lies; the title is literally "Jon Stewart's Debate Analysis: Trump's Blatant Lies and Biden's Senior Moments." And the conclusion was, in effect, one guy might be slipping, but the other is an unacceptable malignancy.

    The bottom line is that it's worth noting again (and again and again) that Trump lied and lied and lied some more. CNN's fact-checker, Daniel Dale, identified 9 false or misleading statements from Biden and a staggering 30 from Trump, and Trump's were almost invariably more extreme than Biden's. That's 30 falsehoods in 40 minutes, 12 seconds of speaking time, or about one falsehood every 1 minute, 21 seconds. And he also managed, yet again, to avoid the tough questions that the Foxes and Newsmaxes of the world never ask.

    There is no way Trump will ever have a debate go as well for him as this one did. Biden will be better prepared for Trump's approach next time and hopefully the moderators will, as well. For this reason, it's hard to believe that Trump will actually show up for the second debate. You know, quit while you're ahead.

  • CNN the Enabler: Moving on to CNN and their moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, we were critical of them in our write-up yesterday. Having had time to reflect on it some more, we think we were not critical enough.

    In particular, we noted that the moderators chose not to push back on any claims made by Trump (or Biden), regardless of how outlandish, and said we found that choice questionable. That's too soft; we think it was flat-out, 100% wrong. Slate's Molly Olmstead wrote a piece that raises an excellent question, namely: If the moderators aren't going to get involved with the debate, and are just going to read questions, when why is there always an emphasis on choosing journalists? Might as well use game-show hosts or AI.

    And even if Tapper and Bash had made a promise not to get involved, well, things change and you have to adapt. In particular, as we noted, Trump made a statement that "all anchors" agree he never said complementary things about the white supremacists in Charlottesville. At that point, Tapper and Bash were a part of the debate, and a part of the truth, whether they liked it or not. And the fact that they did not have the courage to say something, rules or no, means that they implicitly communicated the message that Trump was telling the truth about "all anchors." It should also be noted that CNN political director David Chalian specifically said before the debate that the moderators MIGHT call out "whoppers." So, Tapper and Bash clearly had room to push back at things like "the Democrats want abortion to be legal for 3 days after birth," even if they chose not to.

    One other criticism, which is a small detail, but we think is kind of a big deal. The first time Tapper addressed Trump, he called him "Former President Trump." Thereafter, Trump was addressed as "President Trump." This strikes us as inappropriate, and something of a PR assist for the former president. That is especially the case when "former president" was already established as a form of address.

    Perhaps the best indication that CNN did not do its job was the praise heaped upon them by Trump supporters. Jason Miller, Sean Hannity, Elon Musk, and Trump himself, among others, have gushed about how "fair" the debate was. In their world, of course, "fair" means "Trump was able to say whatever he wanted, without limits, and without any pushback."

    One other thing that we'll stick here. The ratings are in, and our pre-debate guess that they would be blockbuster appears to have been incorrect. Roughly 51 million people watched on TV, which is considerably lower than the 65+ million that we guessed. However, there were also 30 million "starts" of debate livestreams. It's tough to convert those into total viewers since, of course, a single person could start a stream one time or a dozen times. So, maybe the total TV/online viewership was 81 million, and maybe it was 55 million—nobody knows. In any case, the lower-than-expected ratings are being attributed to the early date in the election cycle, and people not yet paying attention to the presidential race. We guess that's good news for Biden.

  • The Bottom Line: Let us start this section by making something very clear. We are not here to write about what we want Biden to do. What we want does not matter, and, in any case, we do not write this site to push our own political views. What we are here to do is to try and make sense of what the politicians are thinking, and what the voters are thinking, and to communicate our senses of those things with as much evidence as we can marshal on our relatively tight publication schedule. In any event, based on the evidence we lay out above, the following things appear to be true:

    1. Biden does not intend to drop out.

    2. The people closest to him, who might persuade him to drop out, want him to stay in.

    3. The way the nomination process is set up makes it near-impossible to replace him, if he is not willing.

    4. The polling numbers that we have, thus far, do not suggest that dropping him would improve the Democrats' chances.

    5. Historical analogues, to the extent they exist, do not suggest that dropping him would improve the Democrats' chances.

    So, we are essentially back to where we were prior to the debate. Barring a dramatic change in circumstances, Biden is going to be the Democrats' candidate. The voices calling for him to drop out are going to be louder. And they are going to be nastier, too, at least judging by the many unpleasant e-mails we've gotten in the last 24 hours or so. But those voices aren't going to change anything.

    Ultimately, the very most important question is this: If a voter is wavering, and was undecided before the debate, do they now have information that will help them make a choice? Maybe. We don't claim to really understand the double-haters. However, if a person is deeply concerned about the harm Trump will do, then Biden remains the only means of preventing that harm. That is true even if Biden spends 4 years sitting at the Resolute desk, drooling on his desktop calendar. To put this another way, we struggle to fill in the blank in this sentence: "Now that I have seen Biden's decline, I guess I will have to vote for Trump, because at least Trump ________________________."

    Another factor to consider is that even if Biden is not up to being a full hands-on president, he wouldn't be the first one. Ike was popular and was a talented administrator, but basically spent 8 years playing golf while the country was on autopilot. Ronald Reagan didn't play golf, but neither was he a micromanager like Jimmy Carter. In the absence of an interested president, the cabinet runs the country. Would you rather have the country be run by the people Biden chooses or the people Trump chooses? Trump said he picks only the best people, but the turnover among his top appointed officials was 92%. If they were such great picks, how come so many left (in some cases due to scandals)? This is the highest since Ronald Reagan. In contrast, for Biden, the corresponding number is 71%, which is about average for all presidents since Reagan.

    While we are at it, let's also throw out the standard disclaimers. There's still a lot of time left between now and the election, and Biden can (and surely will) go on TV to show that he's not mentally gone. Meanwhile, the next "known unknown" is likely going to be adverse to Trump; that is his sentencing on July 11.

    Finally, there are certainly going to be a lot of polls out in the next few days. We will probably write about some of them. However, remember that emotion is still running high. You might see Donald Trump get a bounce in his numbers. More likely, you will see movement from the Biden column into the undecided/third party column. Do not take these numbers seriously. There's almost always some sort of post-debate shift, and most of the time it fades away. We won't know if Biden's poor debate performance did permanent damage for at least 2 weeks (and waiting a month would be even better). And based on the preliminary results we outline above, it's not looking like that will be the case.

And there you have it. That's 8,264 words' worth of thoughts and information, now that we've had a little time to reflect and review. We hope that at least some part of it was instructive. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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