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Old Dog, New Trick
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Old Dog, New Trick

Have Republicans really set expectations too low for Biden?

U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron pose ahead of an official state dinner on June 8, 2024, in Paris. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)

Debate is usually pretty lively on The Dispatch Podcast. But not always.

On the latest episode, the panelists found themselves in heated agreement that Republicans have foolishly overstated the extent of Joe Biden’s infirmity.

The conversation was inspired by last week’s splashy Wall Street Journal piece documenting “bad moments” that the president has had during private meetings with members of Congress. Of course he has bad moments, Jonah Goldberg noted. He’s 81! Biden is a very old man who’s slowed down considerably. But nothing in the Journal story supports the GOP narrative that he’s non compos mentis.

Mike Warren concurred, noting that Biden’s deficiencies on foreign policy likely have less to do with senility than with the fact that he’s, er, always been bad on foreign policy. So did Sarah Isgur, a former campaign operative, who saw political malpractice in Republicans’ attempts to convince the public that the president can’t string a sentence together. Instead of promoting the Journal story, she argued, right-wingers should resent it for having lowered public expectations of Biden’s mental acuity so soon before the first presidential debate. Stupidly, the GOP continues to do everything possible to lower those expectations itself.

Listening to that discussion unfold, however, it struck me as a very 2015 way of thinking about political messaging.

Which was embarrassing, since I’ve made the same points in the virtual pages of this newsletter that Jonah, Mike, and Sarah did.

Last month, when the first presidential debate was announced, I described the GOP’s manic efforts to convince Americans that Biden is semi-catatonic as strategic insanity. The more voters are led to believe that the president can no longer function, I argued, the harder it’ll hit them when they turn on the debate and find that he discusses policy more cogently than Trump does. There’s no way for Democrats to effectively “message” the subject of Biden’s age—but, by setting up Americans to be pleasantly surprised by his mental acuity, Republicans might be doing it for them.

The logic is elementary and irresistible: If retail politics is a contest to shape public opinion, a party should take care not to shape it in a way that will make it easier for their opponent to impress undecided voters. Yet that’s what Republicans have done, supposedly.

That’s political malpractice—in 2015. Is it still political malpractice in 2024?

If over-the-top Republican attacks on Biden’s fitness for office are making it easier for him to impress Americans, it’s strange that the polling about his fitness for office is so dismal, no?

The “Biden is senile” stuff didn’t start recently, after all. It began in 2020, before he was president, when pundits on the right paid significant attention to his “basement campaign” and the “early lid” that was frequently called on his daily schedule. They’ve kept at it so doggedly that it’s now a political tradition for Republicans to wonder before the annual State of the Union whether he’ll remain coherent for the duration and then, when he does, to accuse him afterward of having been on drugs.

And while the president isn’t in front of television cameras as often as his predecessors were, voters have of course had many opportunities to see him in action over the last three and a half years. He’s slowed down, yes, and he definitely has his “bad moments”—but Weekend at Bernie’s this isn’t, no matter how vehemently Republicans insist otherwise.

Since 2021, the GOP has set public expectations of Biden’s cognitive ability on the floor and he’s regularly cleared that bar in public appearances. Per the DisPod convo, one might therefore assume that the public has come away feeling relatively impressed by what they’ve seen from him.

One would be wrong.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in April found only 37 percent are at least “somewhat” confident that Biden is mentally fit to do the job. (For Trump, the number was 52 percent.) An identical share said the same in an Associated Press survey taken in February, with no fewer than 80 percent(!) of independents admitting they’re “not very” or “not at all” confident in Biden’s mental capability.

When CBS News asked voters last week which candidate has the mental and cognitive health to serve as president, a mere 27 percent said “only Biden” while another 8 percent said both. ABC News got a similar result on a question about which candidate demonstrates the “mental sharpness” needed for the presidency: 42 percent said that applies more to Trump versus 23 percent who said it applies more to Biden.

Imagine being pitted in comparative polling on mental fitness against a guy who says stuff like this—and routinely losing:

I suppose it’s possible that the public’s assessment of Biden’s cognitive ability would be even worse if Republicans weren’t constantly lowering expectations by calling him a vegetable, but I’m skeptical. In a hyperpartisan age, 37 percent realistically feels about the lowest a major-party candidate could score.

It’s more plausible that Republican attacks on the president’s fitness simply haven’t mattered either way and that the public has lost faith in him for more organic reasons. They’ve seen some of his “bad moments” on TV or online, they know he’s not getting any younger, and so their faith in his ability to do the job for another five years has plummeted accordingly.

But we should consider the possibility that—contra Jonah, Mike, and Sarah—the right has successfully wounded Biden by falsely yet constantly accusing him of senility. Instead of lowering expectations for him to easily surpass, I think they’ve set expectations for him that may be effectively impossible for him to exceed.

In the pre-Trump glory days of 2015, the strategic argument against lowering expectations for one’s opponent made sense. The art of political messaging was about taking what reality gave you and putting the most advantageous spin on it for your side.

You wouldn’t run around before a presidential debate insisting that your opponent was senile if he wasn’t—not because you were above such things, but because you feared that undecided voters would grade that opponent on a favorable curve if you did. Better to accuse him of having a mind like a steel trap so that, if and when he suffered a “bad moment,” that curve would bend the other way.

In 2024, on the right at least, the art of political messaging is about creating your own reality.

Or, more specifically, it’s about creating a reality for those who are already disposed to accept it and creating doubt for those who aren’t.

The supreme example in the Trump era is the “rigged election” lie of 2020, a stupendously successful messaging operation given the magnitude of the claim relative to the dearth of evidence to support it. As of December 2023, despite numerous failed court challenges and swing-state “audits” that revealed no meaningful electoral chicanery, barely more than six in 10 Americans believed Biden won the presidency legitimately. Less than a third of Republicans agreed that he had; only two-thirds of independents did the same.

And, amazingly, across all partisan groups the number who thought the president was legitimately elected shrank since 2021. That shouldn’t have happened according to the logic of “expectations”: Because Trump and his cronies hyped election fraud so relentlessly, the subsequent lack of proof should have turned Americans against the idea. As with Biden’s alleged dementia, when you create a dark expectation about the other party that isn’t borne out, public esteem for the other party should grow.

But Americans’ faith that Biden was legitimately elected didn’t grow after 2021. It diminished. Republicans created an alternate reality and, through sheer persistence, steered voters across the political spectrum in their direction. Why would we doubt their ability to do the same with respect to the president’s mental fitness for office?

Right-wing retail politics in 2024 is a machine designed to engineer consensus around any claim Trump might make to serve his political needs, credible or not. We saw it operate with ruthless efficiency after he was convicted in Manhattan, when Senate hopeful Larry Hogan of Maryland urged respect for the verdict and was immediately excommunicated from the party by the co-chair of the RNC and Trump’s top campaign adviser.

Trump’s entire political project can be understood as building and refining that machine to produce Republican consensus on demand. Practically all political disputes are presented in apocalyptic terms as a conflict between real Americans and variations of “human scum,” and information is strictly gate-kept by friendly populist media outlets toward that end. If any information unflattering to Trump creeps in, a loyalty litmus test is imposed to pressure right-wing voters into disregarding that information. If anyone fails that litmus test, an example is made of him to show other doubters the price they’ll pay for stepping out of line.

It’s a consensus machine. And so if the machine tells you, as a right-winger, that Joe Biden is senile, then Joe Biden is senile no matter how he performs at the debate two weeks from now. A good two hours can always be explained away as needed as a product of amphetamines or sleeping all day before the event or some “deep state” magic potion given to induce temporary lucidity in Alzheimer’s patients that the rest of us aren’t privy to.

That being so, it’s impossible in 2024 for Republican leaders to set expectations of Biden’s mental fitness too low among right-wing voters, as most of those voters have been trained to accept whatever reality the party has created for them. The president could have the debate of his life on June 27 and Trump will call him a disaster—and the right will agree and will believe it.

But what about undecided voters, who aren’t part of the right and who could go either way in November? Surely the GOP’s lowering of expectations about Biden’s mental health has set them up to be impressed by his debate performance, no?

I’m skeptical.

It’s comforting to believe that Trump’s propaganda machine works only on right-wingers, people who are inclined to support him anyway. But I don’t think it’s true. It works on people outside his coalition, too—just in a different way.

That machine can’t create consensus among independents, perhaps, but it can create doubt. And doubt is hugely valuable to Trump and his movement.

When he says with utter assurance that the 2020 election was rigged, over and over and over again, an undecided voter who doesn’t follow politics closely will hear it and … wonder. Given how insistent Trump is about it and the passion with which Republicans believe it, the average Joe might reasonably conclude that there must be something to it.

No one would lie so brazenly for so long about something so important, right?

Through sheer will and shamelessness, Trump and his machine can influence even unaligned voters to consider that what they assumed was reality—Biden won fair and square—might not be. It’s basic human psychology to doubt your own perception when a large enough group is telling you that you’re wrong.

That’s what Republicans calling Biden a vegetable is about, I think. Left to his own devices, an undecided voter might agree with Jonah that the president has slowed down and is prone to some cringy “bad moments” …

… but would be hesitant to assume full-blown senility absent more evidence. When, on the other hand, an entire political party has assured that same voter that Biden’s “bad moments” are evidence of severe mental incapacity, he’ll inevitably find himself scrutinizing them more closely and wondering if he might be overlooking something. 

And with those doubts having been planted in his mind, the next time there’s a “bad moment” he’ll be more prone to interpret it as evidence of incapacity than as an 81-year-old maybe having not gotten enough sleep the night before. Has the president gotten a lot worse lately? It seems like he’s gotten a lot worse lately.

Calling Biden demented is less a matter of Republicans foolishly priming undecideds to be impressed when the president seems sharp, then, than shrewdly priming them when he isn’t to consider that there’s more to his aging condition than meets the eye. That doubt could cause those undecideds to lend more weight to a “bad moment” Biden has at the debate than to his performance overall if he does well otherwise, which would neutralize his attempt to reassure them that he’s still up to the job. And that would be of enormous political benefit to Trump.

Especially right now, as more casual voters are beginning to pay attention to the campaign.

It’s received wisdom in some hopeful Never Trump circles that the race is tight at the moment because undecideds who don’t follow the news still haven’t reckoned yet with the fact that Trump might be president again. Once that hits them, they’ll tilt Democratic. But that logic works both ways: If those voters are only now starting to pay attention to the race, Trump’s chances at victory depend on convincing them that he’s actually the less unfit of the two options before them.

“Biden is senile” is the obvious play. Republicans don’t need to prove it; doubt is enough.

Planting doubt is frankly Donald Trump’s “one neat trick” as a politician. Sometimes he does it through surrogates, such as by seeding smears about enemies in tabloids, and sometimes he does the dirty work himself on camera or via social media. But he’ll always greet a personal or political setback by raising doubt about the character of the person responsible for it. To cross him is invariably to be impugned as politically biased, financially corrupt, or mental.

In 2024, it’s a good “one neat trick” to have. In a world where every adversary’s fitness is placed in doubt, his own glaring unfitness doesn’t seem as disqualifying. 

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.