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There’s No Spinning Joe Biden’s Very Bad Night
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There’s No Spinning Joe Biden’s Very Bad Night

Plus: Democratic insiders come to grips with their party’s political crisis.

Happy Friday! We’re still nursing our collective presidential debate hangover. Let’s get right into it. 

Up to Speed

  • Donald Trump and Joe Biden met in Atlanta for their first presidential debate on CNN Thursday night, and things went about as poorly as they could have for the incumbent president. Mumbling answers and conspicuously losing his train of thought in at least one moment, Biden failed at his most vital task, which was to reassure the American people that, despite his age, he was up to the challenge of a second term as leader of the free world. Biden’s performance was a boon for Trump and his allies, who, in the leadup to the debate, had for the most part set expectations quite low for Biden. Yet the president performed about as poorly as his opponents had predicted.
  • Biden’s worst moment came early, when he could not complete his answer on reducing the national debt. “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, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the—with—with—with the COVID. Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with—look, if—we finally beat Medicare,” Biden said before his time was up, and CNN co-moderator Jake Tapper cut him off. Given the chance to address his age later in the debate, Biden leaned on his record since inauguration. “This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent,” he said of Trump. “I think that just look at the record. Look what I’ve done. Look how I’ve turned around the horrible situation he left me.”
  • Trump delivered perhaps his most effective line of the night after Biden gave a rambling answer in response to a question about the border security and immigration crisis: “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 also had to answer for parts of his record on which he is vulnerable. The former president repeated his recent proclamation that abortion law should be left to the states and that he supports exceptions to abortion restrictions in the cases of “rape, incest, and the life of the mother.” He also endorsed a recent Supreme Court decision that found a group of pro-life medical professionals did not have standing to sue the FDA over its loosening of regulations on abortion pills. “First of all, the Supreme Court just approved the abortion pill. And I agree with their decision to have done that, and I will not block it,” he said.
  • But Trump also initially dodged a question about his actions on January 6, 2021, giving what appeared to be a rehearsed answer. “And let me tell you about January 6. On January 6, we had a great border, nobody coming through, very few. On January 6, we were energy independent. On January 6, we had the lowest taxes ever. We had the lowest regulations ever. On January 6, we were respected all over the world. All over the world, we were respected. And then he comes in and we’re now laughed at,” he said. After some prodding, Trump also said he would “absolutely” accept the results of this fall’s election, but only “if it’s a fair and legal and good election.”
  • Biden’s closing statement deviated from his campaign’s core strategy, failing to hit Trump on abortion and the preservation of democracy. He instead talked about economic and quality-of-life issues such as taxes, inflation, and replacing lead pipes. Trump, who had the last word, both touted his record in his term and slammed Biden’s running of the country. “We’re in a failing nation, but it’s not going to be failing anymore. We’re going to make it great again,” Trump concluded.
  • Meanwhile, independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made a unique attempt to participate in the debate despite not meeting CNN’s polling and ballot access criteria. In an X livestream running alongside the debate, Kennedy spoke at a podium in front of a live audience where he answered questions—similar to ones posed to Trump and Biden—from libertarian journalist John Stossel. Kennedy’s comments were spliced in with footage of Trump and Biden’s responses from CNN’s debate feed. Kennedy later joined NewsNation’s post-debate coverage, describing the Trump-Biden matchup as a “depressing exhibition.” Kennedy’s campaign—which has undergone recent struggles in fundraising, voter enthusiasm, and state ballot approval—characterized his inability to appear on stage next to the two presidents as censorship. 

Inside the Spin Room After Biden’s Debate Debacle

President Joe Biden walks off with first lady Jill Biden following the presidential debate at the CNN studios on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden walks off with first lady Jill Biden following the presidential debate at the CNN studios on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA—Nearly 30 minutes after President Joe Biden’s Hindenburg of a debate performance concluded Thursday evening, long after several surrogates for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump had fanned out across the spin room, a few campaign aides and prominent boosters for the 81-year-old incumbent Democrat finally showed up.

Clustered together at one end of what is actually the floor of Georgia Tech’s cavernous basketball arena, Team Biden was besieged with questions from reporters—mostly about whether the president could continue with his reelection bid after such a disastrous showing. They lasted just 15 minutes, ceding the red-carpeted spin room back to the swarm of Trump campaign aides and VIP supporters who were growing practically dizzy from victory laps. 

Only Rep. Robert Garcia, a California Democrat, stuck around to defend Biden and do his best to make lemonade out of dried-up lemons.

“We’re being very honest and very clear. Joe Biden is our nominee; he’s a good man. We trust him, we’re behind him,” Garcia insisted to reporters, responding to a question from Dispatch Politics. “The focus needs to be on the contrast of tonight. The truth is, we had somebody in Donald Trump, that all he did was lie every single time. He lied and lied and lied.”

For Trump’s folks, it was an easier night than even they might have imagined, and their comments reflected as much. The toughest queries they dealt with were not about the former president, but the current one, and the possibility that he might be swapped out for a more viable standard bearer. “He is the Democratic nominee, he will be on the ballot, and we are going to defeat him this November,” Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 4 ranking House Republican, said.

It’s hard to blame the Biden campaign, or the president’s loyalists, for their glaring absence from the spin room.

Biden and Trump met for the unusually early first debate of the 2024 general election campaign after jointly agreeing to face off in a CNN television studio with no audience. Under the rules, each candidate’s microphone was muted when the other was speaking, an effort to avoid interruptions and facilitate an orderly back and forth. But it did nothing to keep Biden from looking confused, befuddled, and every bit his age while Trump, 78, looked measured, reserved, and vigorous.

That put aides and surrogates for Biden, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, directly in the line of fire of impossible-to-answer questions about whether Biden was mentally and physically fit enough to continue as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Spinning how the president might bounce back from one bad debate is one thing. There was no spinning this, although they tried—sort of.

“What I saw tonight, with Donald Trump, was weakness masquerading as strength,” said Newsom, who himself was peppered with questions regarding his readiness to replace Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket ahead of the party’s late August convention in Chicago.

The contrast with Team Trump, in a post-debate spin room—which exuded the former president’s campaign rally vibes and was crawling with his surrogates—was palpable. There were senior campaign advisers, including Chris LaCivita and Jason Miller. There were informal advisers David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski. There was Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Whatley and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.

And there were the Republicans auditioning to win a spot on the GOP ticket as Trump’s running mate: Stefanik and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida; Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and J.D. Vance of Ohio; and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and wealthy biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, both of whom ran against the 45th president for the 2024 nomination. 

They were jubilant. The debate ended just after 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, and many were still taking questions at midnight.

“Donald Trump clearly won. I don’t think there’s going to be a person in America who won’t see it that way. Literally, I think it was the greatest win in political history,” LaCivita said. “What happened tonight: Donald Trump fired Joe Biden. That’s what happened.”

‘Only He Can Change It’

There was no denying Joe Biden’s abysmal performance in Thursday’s debate—a reality even the president’s own team tacitly acknowledged.

Dispatch Politics has learned that the Biden campaign sent a clear message to some of its prominent Democratic allies as they prepared to go out into the world: Feel free to be honest about the president’s performance.

Democrats heard the message loud and clear. Former Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020 and was among the first that cycle to suggest Biden was too old, was blunt about how the debate went for his party’s presumptive nominee.

“Tonight was completely predictable,” Castro wrote. “Biden had a very low bar going into the debate and failed to clear even that bar. He seemed unprepared, lost, and not strong enough to parry effectively with Trump, who lies constantly.”

Former Biden White House communications director Kate Bedingfield didn’t hold back during the post-debate panel on CNN. “Look, it was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden. I don’t think there’s any other way to slice it,” Bedingfield said. “His biggest issue that he had to prove to the American people was that he had the energy, the stamina—and he didn’t do that.”

Former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC she had an obligation to be “really honest” in her assessment. “Joe Biden had one thing he had to do tonight, and he didn’t do it,” she said. “He had one thing he had to accomplish, and that was: reassure America that he was up to the job at his age. And he failed at that tonight.”

Even Vice President Kamala Harris was forced to admit in her otherwise glowing defense of her running mate that he had a “slow start” in the debate.

But outside of social media posts and cable news hits there was even more honesty. Conversations behind the scenes among Democrats suggest party officials and operatives are speaking more openly about the fundamental, unchangeable problems of Biden’s bid for reelection—and even thinking about how the party could nominate someone else at its August convention in Chicago.

Indeed, as McCaskill also said in her MSNBC interview, that conversation is happening throughout the higher echelons of the Democratic Party.

“Does that mean that my phone blowing up with senators and campaign operatives and donors, big donors, from all over the country—does that mean that Joe Biden is not going to be the candidate? I don’t know that,” she said. “I think we’ll know a lot more in a few weeks how this plays out, how the polling plays out.”

One veteran Democratic operative based in Washington, when asked by Dispatch Politics to react to the debate, said simply: “Terrifying.” Whether Biden could be convinced or even forced to step aside is unclear, but this operative said it’s an active discussion: “No one has any idea if there is a way he might actually drop off but nearly every person in Dem politics I know would love him to.”

A second Democratic strategist who spoke to Dispatch Politics said the choice is no one’s but Biden’s. “It’s completely up to him,” this strategist said. “Voters made him the nominee. Only he can change it.”

For now, the Biden campaign claims it’s staying the course. And David Axelrod, the veteran Democratic strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, noted how unlikely that is. “This is a guy with a lot of pride who believes in himself,” Axelrod said Thursday night on CNN. “And the idea that he’s going to say, ‘You know, I had a bad debate, I think I’m going to walk away from this.’ I find it hard to believe.”

Notable and Quotable

“That’s the biggest lie, that he’s a six handicap, of all … I’ve seen your swing. I know your swing.”

—Former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden at Thursday night’s debate when the two began arguing over who was the better golfer, June 27, 2024

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.

Charles Hilu is a reporter for The Dispatch based in Virginia. Before joining the company in 2024, he was the Collegiate Network Fellow at the Washington Free Beacon and interned at both National Review and the Washington Examiner. When he is not writing and reporting, he is probably listening to show tunes or following the premier sports teams of the University of Michigan and city of Detroit.

Grant Lefelar is an intern at The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company for the 2024 summer, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote for a student magazine, Carolina Review, and covered North Carolina state politics and news for Carolina Journal. When Grant is not reporting or helping with newsletters, he is probably rooting for his beloved Tar Heels, watching whatever’s on Turner Classic Movies, or wildly dancing alone to any song by Prefab Sprout.