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Moment to Moment

The bill has come due on Joe Biden’s age.

President Joe Biden makes brief remarks at the beginning of a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office at the White House on February 2, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

America’s long-term interests are rarely served by near-term electoral strategy.

For instance, new data from the Congressional Budget Office released on Thursday projected that interest on the federal debt will become the second-largest line item in the federal budget this fiscal year, exceeding spending on defense and even on Medicare. Conservatives have warned for ages that unsustainable borrowing would lead to a fiscal doomsday in which debt servicing eventually cannibalizes other national priorities, but neither party wanted to risk the electoral backlash that would have followed from addressing that responsibly.

And so here we are. Doomsday has come sooner than expected.

The behavior of the Republican establishment over the past eight years is another illustration of the point. They accommodated themselves to Donald Trump in 2016, not wanting to alienate their voters by admitting that he’s unfit to be president. They did it again, for the same reason, after he plotted a coup and incited an insurrection. And now they’re doing it a third time despite 91 felony counts pending against him and counting. Their electoral logic is sound—the party can’t win if it’s divided over its leader—but they’ve unleashed a rolling civic disaster in the process whose outcome remains ominously unclear.

“Just win, baby” is a good motto for a football franchise, less good for stewards of the public trust.

But on Thursday the bill came due for Democrats’ own electoral short-sightedness too.

My colleagues at The Morning Dispatch have all the gory details from special counsel Robert Hur’s report on how Joe Biden mishandled classified documents. Superficially it was a political victory for the president: Hur declined to file any charges against him and took pains to distinguish what Biden did from Trump’s allegedly far more troubling conduct.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

According to Hur, hours of interviews with the president revealed that at times he couldn’t recall when he was vice president and “did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.” As early as 2017, in conversations with his ghostwriter, Biden’s memory was “significantly limited” and he showed evidence of “diminished faculties,” the special counsel claimed.

After the report was released and caused a sensation in political circles, the president called an impromptu press conference and indignantly denied that his memory is impaired … while misidentifying the president of Egypt as the president of Mexico. It’s not unusual for political leaders to mix up names and places—Trump has done it before—but it’s happened a lot lately to Joe Biden, and in unusually concerning ways.

The Democratic Party not-so-suddenly finds itself facing a short-term electoral crisis that holds potentially catastrophic long-term civic consequences for America. Democrats have lived moment-to-moment politically for four years without dealing frankly with the advanced age of their leader, one of the most obvious and predictable problems a major party will ever face.

Doomsday has come sooner than expected.

Hur’s report is the first quasi-authoritative on-the-record confirmation we have, I believe, that Joe Biden is no longer up to snuff cognitively. Sources have whispered to reporters about it anonymously for years but only staunch Republicans (and, er, Dean Phillips) have made the allegation frankly. This time it’s coming from the president’s own Justice Department.

Liberals groped for effective spin when it was released yesterday afternoon.

Some grumbled about what they viewed as excessive coverage of Hur’s claims about Biden’s impairment in the very right-wing New York Times. A few optimists pointed out that the president sometimes gives lucid interviews. One gamely noted that Biden had spoken to the special counsel shortly after October 7, the day of Hamas’ rampage in Israel. Why, the president was merely distracted by the grave international crisis that had been foisted upon him.

So distracted that … he couldn’t remember when he’d been vice president?

Most of the complaints focused on Hur’s motives, mindful that it was Donald Trump who appointed him as a U.S. attorney in Maryland. Numerous liberals compared the report to what James Comey did to Hillary Clinton in 2016, declining to charge her yet seemingly going out of his way to cause her political damage by stressing how reckless she’d been in handling classified material. Same here: Instead of concisely explaining why Biden had committed no crime, Hur had supposedly gratuitously impugned the president’s cognition. 

He did that, they alleged, to atone to Republicans whom he knew would be disappointed in him for not indicting Biden. Or, perhaps, Hur is so rabid a partisan himself that he couldn’t pass on an opportunity to wound the president politically nine months before an election. Biden’s own lawyers issued a statement after the report came out denouncing the ugly details about his memory lapses as “prejudicial” and not “appropriate.”

But Hur had a legal reason to include them in his findings. His investigation had to do with whether Biden had willfully retained classified material; in light of his memory issues, “It would be difficult to convince a jury they should convict him—by then a former president who will be at least well into his eighties—of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness,” he wrote. Very simply, given the evidence of the president’s impairment, it was unlikely under the circumstances that criminal intent could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Hur was accounting to his superiors why no charges would be filed.

He wasn’t even the one who released the report to the public. That fell to Biden-appointed Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was thrust into an impossible dilemma by the result of the investigation. Garland could either be transparent and publish Hur’s report, embarrassing the president terribly, or he could try to keep it under wraps and wait for the inevitable subpoena from Congress—or internal leak—to reveal the explosive details. In which case Garland himself would be accused of a failed cover-up of Joe Biden’s mental state.

There’s a word that summarizes the desperate, panicky Democratic finger-pointing on Thursday afternoon. That word is “cope.”

The hard truth is that it was a matter of time before the president’s senescence exploded as a political issue in a spectacular way. Most of us assumed that moment would come when he suffered a health crisis; instead it came when his own DOJ, in an official investigation, concluded that he’s too feeble-minded for a jury to believe he’s capable of felonious mens rea. The bomb has gone off at last, and members of Biden’s party privately seem to recognize the scale of the blast.

It’s been a long time coming. The fuse has been lit for years.

Biden’s age was obviously a concern in 2020, when he turned 78. But pandemic restrictions gave him an excuse to keep a light campaign schedule and the gravitational pull of Trump’s Trumpiness kept public attention focused on the incumbent. In the end Biden got elected because he’s a dinosaur from the comparatively normal Before Times in American politics. He was as generic and well-known an establishment Democrat as one could want, and if you squinted hard, his age looked a bit like wisdom and experience relative to Trump’s chaos.

But even if you didn’t squint, it didn’t matter in context. A vote for Biden was simply a vote to end the Trump experiment before it caused an irreparable civic calamity. Democrats and their anti-Trump allies were living moment to moment, nominating the most electable candidate they could find and a running mate who checked all the right demographic boxes without worrying about anything beyond Election Day. Just win, baby—the country depended on it.

Democrats have spent the four years since alternating between denial about growing public concern over Biden’s decline and excuses that it isn’t quite the right time to do anything about it. Had Trump left politics, lowering the stakes of the 2024 election by an order of magnitude, I think party chieftains might have lobbied the president hard behind the scenes to retire gracefully after one term. But, no doubt to their surprise, Trump never went away: His party didn’t turn on him after January 6, didn’t abandon him after he was indicted four times, and didn’t swing toward a younger and more competent challenger like Ron DeSantis when given the chance.

Because the stakes of the next election have remained existential, there’s never been a non-risky time for Democrats to shove an incumbent who defeated Trump once before toward the exit. There’s no consensus choice available to replace him as nominee, for one thing; public opinion about his vice president is, shall we say, underwhelming. And a serious primary challenge mounted by a credible opponent like Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmer looked likely to do more harm than good. Either Biden would prevail and be weakened in the process or the challenger would prevail and divide the Democratic Party. In each scenario, a second Trump presidency would be that much more likely.

So Biden’s party went on living moment to moment politically, sticking with its leader in the blind hope that this issue would work itself out somehow. Trump would end up in prison before the election, perhaps. Or voters would be swayed in the end by insistent liberal messaging that every apparent “senior moment” the president suffers in public is an artifact of stuttering or a hiccup that all extemporaneous speakers sporadically face. Hushed concerns about his age would surface from time to time in major political media, but there was no need to worry. Trump certainly couldn’t beat him. 

New York Times reporter Astead Herndon put it this way:

In an era before television or radio, maybe a “gentleman’s agreement” to politely overlook the president’s incapacity might have worked. (It worked okay for Woodrow Wilson, although he didn’t run for reelection after being debilitated.) To believe it might work in an era of mass media is delusionary, especially when the electorate is already anxious about Biden’s health. According to the latest NBC News poll, 51 percent of registered voters in October 2020 said they were concerned that he lacked the mental or physical health to be president. Today no less than 76 percent say they’re concerned about it in a second term. Just 48 percent say the same of Trump.

“Do you know how hard it is to get 75 percent of Americans to agree on any political question?” an amazed Nate Silver wondered. There’s literally no scenario in which that share will shrink by Election Day, either. Time moves in only one direction, and thus so will public opinion on this subject.

The bomb was always eventually going to go off. Democrats procrastinated and lied to themselves about it in the idle hope of not weakening their nominee, and their reward will be saddling themselves with a badly weakened nominee anyway. For the sake of short-term electoral advantage over Trump, they’ve gifted themselves a ticket that might be uniquely incapable of defeating him a second time. The long-term consequences to the country may be dire.

It’s a “stunning dereliction” of duty by the party of the left, one Dispatch colleague told me today. The fact that it’s largely a reaction to an even more stunning dereliction of civic duty by the right since 2016 is no consolation.

And so we’re facing a campaign that will itself be lived moment to moment for the next nine months, one in which the race might plausibly be upended in an instant by either nominee suffering a personal catastrophe. Trump might be sabotaged by an adverse court ruling or some mind-boggling new act of insanity or illiberal vindictiveness of his own. Biden might fall ill or derail cognitively in public in a way that leaves no doubt about the extent of his decline.

Somehow, the greatest country in the world has had two presidents in a row who warrant serious 25th Amendment speculation—and we’re going to nominate both again

There’s no way to predict how such a race might unfold. It’ll be touch and go until November 5.

Is there anything Joe Biden can do between now and then to convince Americans that he won’t become a vegetable during his second term?

The universal prescription among political spin doctors today is that he needs to make more public appearances—many more—to reassure them of his wherewithal, ideally beginning with the Super Bowl pregame show on Sunday. The White House declined an invitation for the president to appear on that program earlier this week, an almost unthinkable missed opportunity for an incumbent to speak to an enormous audience in an election year. Now that Hur’s report has been published and Biden’s age bomb has gone off, I think he and his team have no choice but to reverse themselves.

But that won’t cut it, of course. Nothing short of regular appearances by Biden in unscripted settings for the rest of the campaign stands a chance of reassuring Americans that he’s up for another term. Even then, I fear there’s no way to undo the damage that’s already been done; the president’s media tour would be largely a matter of preventing public doubts about his competence from getting worse.

And Jonathan Last is correct that a high batting average in these appearances might not be enough given the depth of suspicion about him. “It doesn’t matter how well Biden does in public,” he writes. “He can be great for 90 minutes, but if he makes one mental slip it becomes confirmation for voters that their biggest concern about him is true. He has to be perfect. Every day. For nine months.”

He won’t come close. There’s a reason he didn’t want to do the Super Bowl interview, you know.

Before too long, we anti-Trumpers might even have a change of heart about the prospect of a Joe Manchin third-party candidacy. At the moment, Manchin looks like a villain set to divide Biden’s coalition and inadvertently get Trump reelected. But if another Biden age bomb goes off in the thick of the race, Manchin might be the closest thing available to a life raft for Democrats and their allies. Kamala Harris won’t beat Trump, but a centrist from Biden’s party with a reputation for bipartisanship  … might? 

Maybe? If the Democratic Party abandons its own nominee and gets behind him foursquare?

It’s an outlandish scenario, but there’ll be many of those before November. Like I say: Moment to moment.

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.