Democrats Can No Longer Pretend Biden Is Fit to Be President

The Democratic establishment has been fretting about Joe Biden’s fitness for years behind closed doors, while misleading and dissembling about it in public. Last night’s presidential debate shattered the facade.

Joe Biden at the first presidential debate at CNN Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (Kyle Mazza / Anadolu via Getty Images)

There’s a lot you could say about last night’s presidential debate.

There was the depressing spectacle of each candidate competing to outflank the other on the right, whether on who curbed migrants more, who was tougher toward China, or who added less to the deficit. You could mention the dearth of ideas for how they would actually improve working Americans’ lives, and the embarrassment of watching the two candidates for the most powerful office on Earth arguing about their golf handicaps.

There was also the litany of absurd lies and shocking racism from Donald Trump, like the claim that “we have the largest number of terrorists coming into our country right now,” or when he attacked his opponent by saying he “has become like a Palestinian,” but “a very bad Palestinian. He is a weak one.”

But let’s be honest: there’s nothing worth talking about more than, and nothing anyone wants talk about more than, President Joe Biden’s alarming and dreadful debate performance — and, more importantly, the media and Democratic establishment’s reaction to it.

“Watch Me”

For months now, Biden, his party, and his advisers have been responding to the public’s growing concern over the president’s fitness; the alarm over interviews and appearances that show him trailing off, confusing things, and becoming incoherent; and his unprecedented absence from unscripted media appearances by insisting the public wasn’t seeing the whole story. The videos were fake, doctored, or taken out of context, they said; behind closed doors, he was sharp as a tack, brilliant, incisive, if only people could see it. “I’ve spent a good bit of time with Joe Biden,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough insisted three months ago. “I undersold him when I said he was cogent. He’s far beyond cogent. In fact, I think he’s better than he’s ever been, intellectually, analytically.”

The US public finally got the chance to do that last night, and the result is that what’s been a long-simmering concern has become a raging house fire. You can almost pin-point the moment Biden lost the debate to about eleven minutes in, in his response to a question about why the superrich should continue to pay so little in taxes when the national debt was the size it was. In a scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched footage of the president’s unscripted appearances, what started out as a decent answer with a few stumbles ended with him forgetting what he was saying, trailing off, and saying something nonsensical:

We’d be able to right — wipe out his debt, we’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do — childcare, eldercare, making sure that we continue to sustren [sic] — strengthen our health care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person, er, eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the, uh, with with with the COVID — excuse me, with, um — dealing with, everything we have to do with, uh — look, if — we finally beat Medicare.

Trump’s rejoinder? “Well, he’s right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.”

It didn’t get better from there. Talking about his recent executive order gutting asylum, he boasted of a drop in migrants crossing the border and vowed he would “continue to move until we get the total ban on the — the total initiative relative to what we’re going to do with more Border Patrol and more asylum officers.” (Trump: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”) Later, asked about Social Security — a major vulnerability for Trump, who said in March he would cut the program — the president finished his answer after only forty seconds, needing prompting from the moderators (“you still have eighty-two seconds left”) to add to his answer and make the obvious attack on Trump.

Biden’s fumbles were particularly glaring on abortion, one of the few issues the president has an advantage on. Talking about his support of Roe v. Wade, Biden said it “had three trimesters” — a term meaning three different stages of a pregnancy, which of course doesn’t apply to court decisions — with the third one being “between the woman and the state,” before immediately saying politicians shouldn’t be making choices about women’s health. At one point in the middle of talking about the cruelty of Trump’s push to let states decide abortion policy, he inexplicably brought up the case of a woman killed by an undocumented immigrant and Trump’s attendance at her funeral.

But maybe the lowest point came when Trump made the ludicrous claim that in blue states, doctors “can take the life of the baby . . . even after birth” and “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby.” Biden responded that “only when the woman’s life is in danger, if she’s going to die — that’s the only circumstance in which that can happen” — making it seem like there was actually truth to Trump’s outrageous lie.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

This is not even close to a comprehensive list of things that went wrong for the president. Whatever you think about Biden, it was often tough to watch, and there’s little point continuing to retread his worst moments last night. The campaign’s attempt to spin this as the result of a cold won’t convince anyone, especially when reporter Nancy Cordes told CBS her initial questions about Biden’s performance were met with forty-five minutes of “radio silence,” before White House and campaign personnel all simultaneously inundated her with that excuse.

What was arguably more significant is that the disastrous performance seems to have shattered the unofficial taboo among liberal commentators and loyal Democratic apparatchiks around publicly acknowledging Biden’s difficulties. Their assessment was brutal.

“There is a deep, wide, and very aggressive panic in the Democratic Party,” said CNN’s John King. “It started minutes into the debate and continues right now. It involves party strategy, elected officials, and fundraisers.”

“Telling people they didn’t see what they saw is not the way to respond to this,” tweeted former Barack Obama speechwriter and adviser Ben Rhodes.

“The biggest thing in this election is voters’ concerns . . . with his age, and those were compounded tonight,” former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told Rachel Maddow, noting that Biden and Trump “seemed about thirty years apart” in age.

“At the end of the day, Joe Biden looks like the caricature conservative media has been painting,” said NBC’s Chuck Todd. “There were no clips tonight, right? This was — you saw it before your eyes.”

“He wasn’t capable of doing any better than he did,” said Chris Wallace on CNN, noting the six days of debate preparation that led up to Biden’s performance. “You can’t come back from that.”

MSNBC’s Joy Reid admitted that “after tonight, his party doesn’t believe” he can beat Trump. A Democratic congressman at a watch party with colleagues on Capitol Hill told CNN Biden’s muddled answer on the national debt plunged the room into silence and made him want to jump off a bridge. One CNN commentator said he was getting texts from “leading Democrats across the United States” expressing worry that they were going to lose because of the president.

Worse, there is now open talk from these same quarters about replacing Biden as the nominee, four months after the idea briefly gained traction and was swiftly shut down.

MSNBC’s leading hosts openly discussed the possibility of removing Biden, with Nicole Wallace revealing that “there is a conversation happening inside Biden’s circle” and within the Democratic coalition about “whether he should be in this race tomorrow morning.” “We’re still far from our convention and there is time for this party to figure out a way forward if he will allow us to do that,” Van Jones, who had served with Biden under Obama, said on CNN. Former senator Claire McCaskill, about as loyal a pro-Biden pundit as you can find, declared that Biden had “failed” at the “one thing he had to accomplish,” before disclosing that she was hearing from “a lot of people,” including those in “high elective offices” that there was “a lot more than handwringing” going on — before suggesting that Biden’s closest current and former advisers “have a heart-to-heart with the president about his ability to exude strength.”

“The man on the stage with Trump cannot win. The fear of Trump stifled criticism of Biden. Now that same fear is going to fuel calls for him to step down,” one veteran Democratic strategist and Biden backer told the New York Times’ Peter Baker, who outlined panicked discussions among Democratic officials about persuading Biden to step down. Politico reported on Democratic strategists being inundated with pleas from donors and others that someone intervene to convince the president to drop out (“Our only hope is that he bows out, we have a brokered convention, or dies”).

By the end of the night, the New York Times opinion page had three separate op-eds from prominent liberal columnists calling on Biden to step aside, including liberal darling Nicholas Kristof as well as Tom Friedman, one of Biden’s favorite columnists and one he’s known personally for decades. As of this morning, there’s another, and still another is coming. Identical calls appeared in the Atlantic and from the Financial TimesEdward Luce, who had earlier called on Democrats to “end their self-imposed censorship on Biden and fix this.”

Maybe most damning for Biden is that this morning, he also officially lost Morning Joe. Scarborough — whose show, an oasis of fawning praise for the president that he reportedly religiously watches, and who just three months ago assured his viewers he knew firsthand that “this version of Biden . . . is the best Biden ever” — joined the calls for the president to step aside. “If he were CEO and he turned in a performance like that, would any corporation in America, any Fortune 500 corporation in America keep him on as CEO?” he said this morning.

A Crisis of Their Own Making

To be clear, Democrats and pundits aren’t melting down about the president and suddenly begging him to quit the race because of one bad debate performance. They have been openly talking and worrying about what we all saw last night for years now — only they’ve been doing it behind closed doors to each other, not telling the rest of us what they see and know, and quickly closing ranks whenever it’s brought up publicly. What happened last night was that it finally became impossible for them to keep pretending.

The dilemma the party is in now — pressure a stubborn Biden to end his campaign, or plow ahead with a toxically unpopular candidate who scares voters with his public appearances and must be kept away from unscripted television — was completely avoidable and is a bed entirely of Democrats’ own making. Biden’s problems might have been exposed earlier, and a capable successor already found through the democratic process, if the president had been forced to take on one or more primary challengers.

Instead, the party decided it would smother democracy to protect the struggling president, ruling out any debates and even simply declaring him the winner of some primary contests without any voting. Meanwhile, the media — from the crudest partisan organs to sober, serious establishment institutions — misled, denied, and dissembled on what has been an open secret within elite circles for months and years.

Biden may be resisting the mounting pressure from within the party and liberal establishment as of this morning, but persuading him to clear a path for someone else is a win for everyone involved. For the president, at serious risk of undoing what he sees as one of his chief accomplishments and bringing a now-radicalized, vengeful Trump back to power, it will rescue his floundering legacy. For the party, it gives them a fighting chance to win in November and an opportunity to reset.

But replacing Biden likely won’t be enough. Democrats would have to pair it with a drastic course correction, ending his unconditional support for Israel’s campaign of mass murder that has split the party and threatens to explode into a disastrous regional war any day now, while dropping Bidenworld’s insistence on running on nothing but fearmongering about Trump and taking a page from the Biden 2020 campaign instead to offer voters actual, bold ideas for how they will make people’s lives better.

The four months left before voting is more than many countries’ entire election campaigns. There is more than enough time to do all this. Delaying it won’t make it any easier — and walking it back after all this will only further damage the public’s already shaky faith in the press, institutions, and the Democratic Party.