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Faces of Death

Biden’s bet on an early debate ends in calamity.

People watch the CNN presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump at a debate watch party at Shaw's Tavern in Washington, D.C. on June 27, 2024. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Did you miss Thursday night’s debate? Let me catch you up.

You’re caught up.

I tuned in feeling offended on Joe Biden’s behalf that Republicans had stooped to accusing him of drug use in order to delegitimize a vigorous performance preemptively. Then, after watching him for 30 seconds, I found myself thinking, “He should do a bump of coke during the first commercial break.”

His voice was raspy. His answers were halting and, shall we say, inelegant. He spent much of the evening staring at Trump slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, looking every inch like a man who, well, might have dementia.

Half an hour in, I began to worry that he wouldn’t be able to finish. Half an hour later, I hoped he wouldn’t be able to finish, as that would leave Democrats with no choice but to replace him as the nominee.

Watching him was so distressing that at one point I felt the urge to turn it off and put on something less unsettling, like Faces of Death.

Then it occurred to me that I was already watching Faces of Death, in a manner of speaking.

Joe Biden may well have many years of life left in him but, one way or another, he will not be president next year. As former Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri noted afterward, he had one job last night and he failed at it more spectacularly than anyone in the history of this format.

He and his team agreed to an early debate with Donald Trump because they assumed it would transform the race into a referendum on the former president. Had everything gone according to plan, Biden would have sounded sharp and commanding while Trump would have lapsed into ranting like a lunatic. Americans would have been jolted into remembering why they dumped one of them for the other.

Democrats won’t win if the election is a referendum on Biden’s presidency. But if it’s a referendum on whether an unstable coup enthusiast should get a second crack at power? Sure, they can win that.

Biden’s performance has foreclosed that possibility. The race will now be a referendum not just on his first term but on his ability to remain lucid during a second, and there’s no way to undo the impression he left at the debate with respect to that. He can’t win anymore.

Against all odds, the Democratic Party has maneuvered itself into placing a disgraced, vindictive authoritarian on a glide path to returning to office. Donald J. Trump, criminal sociopath, will now be seen by swing voters as the less unfit of their two options, God help us. 

In 2024, the hour for cope has come early.

Cope takes different forms. For pundits, today is a day to cheer yourself up by trawling through your archives and declaring, “I thought Joe Biden was too old before thinking Joe Biden was too old was cool.”

A few weeks ago I covered “the un-message-able problem” of the president’s age. In February I argued that replacing him as the nominee was the least bad option for Democrats. Last November I riffed at length on Politico’s scoop that his staff believes he “simply does not have the capacity” to govern and campaign like his predecessors did. Months before that, in February 2023, I made the case that neither prong of the Biden-Harris ticket seemed fit for office.

Heck, worrying about Biden’s age pre-dates my time at The Dispatch. A recurring theme in posts at my old haunt was that perceptions of his mental competence inform perceptions of his governing competence and vice versa. For most presidents, a policy mistake is simply a mistake; for Biden, policy mistakes feel like ever-mounting evidence of an old man losing his marbles and being overmatched by events.

Strangely, some Republicans have also resorted to cope in order to process what they saw last night. Most are exultant, but for a conspiratorial movement given to wild theories to explain Trump’s failures, his easy victory over Biden seems … too easy. What if the president’s dismal performance was orchestrated by the establishment somehow to create a pretext for replacing him on the ticket with a stronger candidate?

For pundits and right-wingers, coping today is simple. Whereas for Democrats it’s so agonizingly difficult that most haven’t bothered to try.

Some have. Look around online and you’ll find a liberal strategist nervously assuring voters that they’re voting for an administration in November, not for a candidate, or that the president’s big problem on Thursday night was that he had a cough. The normally sensible Sen. John Fetterman reminded supporters that he once endured a nightmarish debate and went on to win, as if defeating a blow-dried celebrity quack in his first run for office is equivalent to beating a charismatic former president with his own personality cult.

But they’re outliers. To a degree not seen in my lifetime, a consensus formed overnight—literally!—within the commentariat of a presidential nominee’s party that he must be replaced on the ballot.

The only near-precedent was the backlash to the Access Hollywood tape in 2016 and that was comparatively easy for Trump apologists to overcome. The recording in that episode was made years before the election and what Trump said on it amounted to a moral failure, not an intellectual one. Those who had already deluded themselves into believing that he could perform the duties of the presidency responsibly had no trouble assimilating the tape into that belief as ancient history and “locker-room talk.”

Biden’s debate failure was intellectual. It bore directly on his ability to do the basic tasks of his job for the rest of this year, never mind for four years beyond that. And there’s no way for Democrats to argue that he might improve over time, as someone who’s failed morally might. It’s all downhill for Joe.

There’s simply no spinning it so most Democrats aren’t pretending otherwise. “Telling people they didn’t see what they saw is not the way to respond to this,” Obama-Biden alumnus Ben Rhodes tweeted afterward. Another veteran of that White House, Jon Favreau, called it “a f—ing disaster. I think it was maybe the worst debate I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” The president’s own former communications director, Kate Bedingfield, pronounced it “really disappointing” and said Biden had failed to prove that he has the energy and stamina to govern.

Again, these are people who worked with or for him. For years.

Political coverage in the hours after the debate was a frenzy of panicked Democrats texting reporters to say that Something Must Be Done. “This race is effectively over,” one party lawmaker told NBC News. “No Labels and Dean Phillips won this debate,” a former Biden advisor said to Politico, recalling the longshot efforts on the center-left to sound the alarm about the president’s age before it was too late. Reached for comment by The Free Press, Phillips himself replied tersely, “Gandhi said to speak only when it improves upon the silence.”

“Our only hope is that he bows out, we have a brokered convention, or [he] dies,” one adviser to liberal donors said of Biden. “Otherwise we are f—ing dead.”

Finding themselves suddenly staring into the face of death, many Democrats and their fellow travelers in the commentariat have begun rallying around the particular Something that Must Be Done. Which brings us to the most ambitious form of cope—that Thursday night’s debacle might be good for the party in the long run.

The logic is simple. Biden is a freakishly weak incumbent who trailed Trump consistently in polling even before the debate. Yet Trump is a widely disliked demagogue who’s never earned as much as 47 percent in the national popular vote. Practically any Democrat except Biden would beat him like a drum. Now, lo and behold, Democrats have been given an ideal excuse to replace the president on the ticket.

“If Joe Biden were not the candidate, if there was another candidate, I think Donald Trump would be in deep trouble,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod said on Thursday as the smoke cleared. Chatter about that possibility has begun in earnest within the party, apparently, with allies of potential nominees being lobbied privately by friends. Republicans are worried about the prospect too, with one source telling The Dispatch that “Trump loses” if there’s an 11th-hour switcheroo on the Democratic ticket.

Is that so?

Consider this: The American left is about to embark on the sort of recriminations that normally follow an electoral fiasco four months before Election Day.

I can’t remember that happening in any other presidential race. There were previous elections that devolved early into foregone conclusions, such as in 1984 and 1996, but those defeats were viewed as products of “political gravity.” An incumbent was on the ballot and the economy was looking up, ergo the challenger was doomed through no fault of his own. Walter Mondale and Bob Dole were seen less as hapless incompetents who’d bungled winnable races than as sacrificial lambs.

That’s not the situation this year. The Democratic Party understood from the jump that it had an enormous problem with the president. The president understood it too, even if he was too proud and pig-headed to admit it. Voters have expressed their alarm about his age and condition in too many polls to mention here, by margins rarely seen in modern American politics. Biden and his party did nothing.

Now, before we’ve even reached July, the Republican candidate looks poised to jog to victory. And not just any candidate but a cretin who plausibly might threaten the entire constitutional order.

If Democratic denialism ushers in a menagerie of fascists who might have been stopped by any non-demented nominee, it’ll be the most egregious case of political malpractice in American history. Some Biden voters are beside themselves about it today, understandably. Others will follow suit if the polls next week start to move in the direction we all expect. The left has paid a steep price over the last 15 years for its officials overstaying their time in office; as the bill now comes fully due, Democratic voters have four months to somehow shunt aside their rage about it and get motivated to vote for a man whom many have now no doubt concluded is unfit for office.

How are they supposed to do that when they’re furious at him and his campaign for having lied to them about his condition while he foolishly went about seeking another term? He’s gone from Trump-conquering hero to Trump-enabling villain in the span of a day.

“That’s why they need a brokered convention and a new nominee,” you might say. Oh? What makes you think Biden will make it easy for the party by standing aside for someone else?

Does this sound like a man who’s preparing to withdraw? Does this sound like a party establishment that’s preparing to pressure him to do so?

Apparently his campaign called an all-staff meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss The Situation. I expect that the president strode in there, told them all to buck up, and vowed that together they’d defeat Ronald Reagan this fall.

He’s not going to be replaced at the convention unless he allows himself to be. Democratic delegates won’t risk a catastrophic party split two months out from Election Day by dragging an incumbent president kicking and screaming off the ballot. If they choose someone else over his objections and that substitute loses to Trump, they’ll be scapegoated by the party rank-and-file for not having stuck with Biden. (Of course, if they do stick with Biden and he loses, they’ll be scapegoated for not having chosen someone else.)

That explains why Democratic lawmakers have so far declined to publicly call for him to bow out of the race post-debate. To say something like that would be to make an enemy of the president and of many voters who believe that he’s still their best option, warts and all. It would be seen as disloyal and demoralizing, teeing them up to be blamed for undermining faith in Biden if he goes on to lose. And if he goes on to win, the White House will never forget which fickle party leaders abandoned him in his hour of need.

You don’t move against the king unless you’re sure he’ll be deposed. And Biden won’t be deposed unless he wants to be.

There’s a very realistic possibility that he stupidly refuses to quit, his polls gradually degrade as numerous shaken Democratic voters peel off for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and far-left candidates, and his party finds itself relegated to also-ran status by October against … Donald Trump. Perhaps the looming certainty of a second Trump term would rally voters behind Democrats down ballot, at least, in hopes of providing a congressional check on his power. But it’s easy to imagine it going the other way: Demoralized liberals might end up staying home on Election Day, engineering a Republican wave in the House and Senate.

What if cooler heads prevail upon the president to stand aside and we get that brokered convention after all, though? That’s when the Axelrod plan comes into its own, right?

Again, I’m skeptical.

I’m trying to picture what an open convention would look like in the heat of August, in Chicago, with Hamasnik fanatics outside the building spoiling for a fight and tempers flaring inside the building as the game of thrones to succeed Biden turns cutthroat. There might be an actual body count. 

But lay that aside. Who’s the replacement if the president bows out? Kamala Harris?

We’ve been through that. Her favorability remains lower than Trump’s and Biden’s. If Democrats passed her over for someone who isn’t also black and a woman, it would be seen as an insult to one or both of those two important constituencies. And if they don’t pass her over because they fear offending those constituencies, they’ll almost certainly lose to Trump—possibly by a wider margin than Biden would.

“A vote for Biden is just a vote for the vice president,” said one Arizona debate-watcher who supported the president in 2020 to the Wall Street Journal last night. He did not say it enthusiastically.

Who else, then? Michelle Obama? She hates politics and has resisted grassroots pleas ad nauseam to rescue the party.

Gavin Newsom? A smug, unctuous progressive governor synonymous in the public imagination with California’s decline is not the Democratic savior.

Josh Shapiro? He’s been governor of Pennsylvania for less than 18 months. Ditto for Maryland’s Wes Moore.

Almost by default, you’re left with Gretchen Whitmer, who would at least probably deliver her home state of Michigan. (No small thing in this election.) Maybe pairing her with an African American running mate would blunt the racial politics of denying Harris the nomination.

But I question whether even she would be able to win at this point.

It’s a matter of expectations. Americans will spend most of the next two months coming to grips with the suddenly overwhelming likelihood that Donald Trump will be president again. Nearly half of them have already come to grips with it; Biden’s debate calamity will give an additional number of undecideds an opportunity to talk themselves into believing that, when you really think about it, Trump isn’t so bad. 

By the time a new Democratic nominee is chosen at the convention, a majority of voters will have rationalized preferring Trump. There’s no reason to think they’ll be easily moved off of that preference by a new candidate like Whitmer, of whom most will know next to nothing. Why would they abandon a known quantity like the former president at that point for an enigma being foisted on them by a party whose first choice turned out to be demented?

It’s not as if Whitmer is a world-beating charismatic retail phenomenon who’ll dazzle them on the stump. In fact, I suspect many voters would bear her and Democrats a grudge for the bait-and-switch the party pulled by swapping her in for Biden at the last second. They wouldn’t want to reward left-wing dirty pool with four more years of the presidency. And the irregularity with which Democrats chose their nominee might cement in their minds the perception that Donald J. Trump, authoritarian extraordinaire, is actually “the normalcy candidate” in this election.

I wouldn’t assume at this point that Democrats will succeed in replacing Biden even if the entire party, starting with the president, supports the idea. Republicans will use every legal means available to keep the wounded incumbent on the ballot. They might even succeed.

The long and short of it is this: I need a Canadian green card. (Call me, Justin.)

But it’s also this: Barring another campaign-upending event, a Trump victory might now be fully baked in.

Maybe not. Perhaps, if Biden is replaced in August, Democrats will collectively be so relieved and grateful for a new lease on political life that they’ll unite behind Whitmer or whoever. Staring into the face of death and surviving is a heck of a morale booster.

But things could still get worse for them. The president’s polls might slip enough to wound him badly yet not quite so much as to leave him a dead man walking, denying party leaders the excuse they need to find a new nominee. Picture a 49-42 Trump lead in national polling next week. Many liberals could rationalize how a Biden comeback maybe possibly conceivably might happen in a race like that. And many would. 

Or, to get darker than usual, a foreign malefactor who watched last night’s debate might take Biden’s condition as an invitation to behave aggressively. “Weakness” is an evergreen Republican critique of Democratic foreign policy but it’ll have special resonance for voters going forward if China, say, does something wacky before November. America isn’t going to reelect a man whose health is already a major national security risk.

As July 4 approaches, we find ourselves in a world in which Trump’s odds of reclaiming the presidency are higher than they’ve ever been while the Vichyists abroad are poised to make historic gains at the polls. 2024 isn’t the beginning of the end for post-liberalism, it’s the end of the beginning.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.