Calls for Biden to Step Aside Are About to Get Deafening

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For Democrats who tuned into Thursday night’s debate looking to calm their worries about President Joe Biden’s age and acuity, they came away with zero remedy. Within 10 minutes of the CNN-hosted event’s start, some of even Biden’s most loyal supporters found themselves asking if the nomination was, in fact, settled.

How bad was it? Vice President Kamala Harris rushed to join the clean-up, booking late-night cable appearances.

“Yes, there was a slow start but a strong finish,” said Harris, whose prospects for replacing her boss on the top of the ticket were getting hard scrutiny in real time as the debate unfolded. “Listen, people can debate on style points, but ultimately, this election and who is the President of the United States has to be about substance, and the contrast is clear,” she said on CNN in a show of unity with her boss.

At times jarring and deserving of double-takes, the evening left Democratic insiders gobsmacked. His campaign team tried to mask the disaster but there was no denying things did not go as planned. And with a painful 53 days until Democrats have their next big night in front of a national audience with the opening of their nominating convention in Chicago, the fumbling impression left Thursday evening is going to be the image that endures for a stretch.

Biden has faced pivotal nights like this before, the most analogous being his March State of the Union. Then, as now, voters were looking more at Biden’s performance than substance. The fears about the President’s capabilities faded somewhat when Biden nailed that performance. No one would say anything close to that on Thursday.

At times seeming to seize up and at others appearing confused, Biden rambled his way through a 90-minute session against former President Donald Trump. While it evened-out as the night progressed and Biden loosened up, the initial burst of anxiety among Democrats was not the prototypical bed-wetting that the President’s inner circle has proven adept at brushing off. The split-screen was impossible to ignore: Trump was not only more restrained than is typical for him, but he looked steadier even as he dodged specific questions in favor of populist platitudes.

Read more: Trump’s Debate Strategy Was to Let Biden Bury Himself

Biden took the stage with small, slow steps. He often steadied himself with both hands on his lectern. He looked down during some uncomfortable moments, appearing to zone out. And some of his answers veered wildly away from their intended marks, such as his invocation of Americans murdered by those in the country illegally. The question in play? About abortion rights.

"I spent half my career being criticized for being the youngest,” Biden said when asked directly about his age. Then, unprompted, he started talking about computer chips. “This guy is three years younger and a lot less competent,” he said of Trump.

There are some facts that no performance—even a flawless one—can erase or reverse. These are the two oldest presumptive nominees in history. The presidency takes a toll on everyone, and both men moved into the Oval Office as not-young men. At the time of their first head-to-head debate in 2020, they seemed like patrician party elders trying to steady a nation wrecked by a pandemic. Four years have not helped either look younger, and there is no denying that Biden, in particular, looks a little less steady, his voice a bit thinner, his jabs a little duller. Certainly, this Biden is not the man who stopped the panic inside Democratic circles in 2012 after Barack Obama’s objectively terrible first debate against Mitt Romney.

The stakes for such an evening are always high. Americans are facing a choice between an 81-year-old sage with a literal senatorial vein and forgetful streak or a 78-year-old blowhard dragging behind him felony convictions and looming indictments. At the core of the decision is one posed by Ronald Reagan in the lone debate of the 1980 presidential race: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

Read More: Our Exclusive Interview with President Joe Biden

The debate comes at a moment of a tight campaign, with Trump narrowly leading in most national polls and sitting stronger in the handful of states that will ultimately decide the race. Trump has narrowed Biden’s fundraising advantage and seems to have paid no real price for his 34 felony convictions in New York. And, it’s not exactly a secret even among Biden’s biggest defenders that the incumbent needed to knock it out of the park on Thursday.

"I really don't know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don't think he knows what he said either,” Trump said in an early moment that thwacked hard. “We’re trying to justify his presidency,” he said later.

Biden’s showing did little to remedy that reality. Message chains among Washington Democrats devolved as the night unfolded into crippling anxiety. “Unintelligible must have been the [closed captioning],” one senior Democrat strategist mused. “It would have been the most honest.”

Panic is not too strong of a word to describe some of those conversations. More than a few text chains were asking who knew the Democratic National Committee rules about how a nominee is locked in. Every elder strategist who still hopes to be part of the Biden orbit seemed to have found themselves on flights Thursday evening, unable to comment because they claimed they weren’t even watching.

Trump is, at his core, a showman with few beliefs of his own. Biden, who has a half-century of debating under his belt and spent a week secluded at Camp David practicing for the debate, did not put on a matching spectacle. Instead, Biden tried to prosecute the fact-based case against Trump while his predecessor danced around the specifics and hurled invective back across the eight-foot gap between the men.

“He gets paid by China. He’s a Manchurian candidate,” Trump said.

A cheap shot, sure. But it’s one that rings much louder than almost anything Biden had at the ready.

“If he wins this election, our country doesn’t stand a chance,” Trump said, reverting to vague warnings.

A disturbing echo of that sentiment kept coming through: if Biden remains the nominee, Democrats might not, either.

There were still small reasons for Democrats to hold out hope, however faint. Trump remains a petty figure who continues to insist the 2020 election was rigged and thus illegitimate. He continues to vow retribution against those who he thinks wronged him. “Joe could be a convicted felon,” Trump said. “This man is a criminal.” And Trump—who is a convicted felon—continued to hurl inaccurate statements and fling innuendo all while flagrantly misrepresenting his own histories.

"The only person on this stage that is a convicted felon is the man I am looking at right now,” Biden said.

Biden also tried to fact-check Trump and landed some rehearsed barbs. “You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden said in one honed line, ticking through a litany of Trump’s history.

But Biden’s rejoinders were no match for Trump’s antagonism. It was clear Biden had prepared, but he suffered from the curse of someone who memorizes a script without understanding any of its subtext. To summon the words he hammered home, he often appeared to be staring off into space.

Trump, meanwhile, just showed up and was himself with a coded appeal to his base supporters.

“You’ve destroyed the lives of so many people,” Trump said, accusing Biden of ruining the lives of innocent individuals connected to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He continued to insist that the protestors who sacked Capitol Hill were escorted in by police. And, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Trump continued to indulge in the Big Lie that he had actually won but the results were rigged.

“There’s no evidence at all,” Biden said.

He was right. But that’s the norm when it comes to Trump. What isn’t the norm—at least not to most Americans—is seeing a President seeming to sleepwalk through 90 minutes of live television.

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