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Biden’s Dismal Debate Performance Sends Democrats Into Panic
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The Morning Dispatch

Biden’s Dismal Debate Performance Sends Democrats Into Panic

Both candidates obfuscated their records and evaded the moderators’ questions, but the president’s stumbles loomed large.

First Lady Jill Biden joins her husband, President Joe Biden, on stage at the end of the first presidential debate of the 2024 election at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Friday! It’s moments like last night’s debate when it’s a particular shame that your Morning Dispatchers don’t all live in the same city. Because we would have paid good money to see the expression on Grayson’s face when Donald Trump and Joe Biden started arguing about their golf handicap.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • In a 5-4 ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “good neighbor policy,” delaying implementation of the Biden administration’s new interstate air pollution rule intended to reduce smokestack emissions pending a resolution in the lower courts. Energy companies and three states—Ohio, West Virginia, and Indiana—challenged the rule after the EPA rejected their plans to lower airborne emissions. Justice Neil Gorsuch penned the majority opinion, pausing the rule’s implementation because, he said, the challengers were likely to succeed in their requests.
  • Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Congress violated the 7th Amendment when it gave the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) the authority to conduct internal tribunals for civil securities fraud cases, holding that defendants in these cases are entitled to a jury trial. A defendant has “the right to be tried by a jury of his peers before a neutral adjudicator,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Rather than recognize that right, the dissent would permit Congress to concentrate the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury in the hands of the Executive Branch.”
  • The high court on Thursday also blocked—in a 5-4 ruling—a bankruptcy plan that would have shielded the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, from future liability for damages caused by their company’s opioid painkiller, OxyContin. The majority opinion, penned by Justice Neil Gorsuch, held that the U.S. bankruptcy law did not have the power to block all future lawsuits from claimants who did not consent to the terms of the bankruptcy agreement. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court officially handed down its opinion in a case that was unofficially posted online yesterday before quickly being taken down, ruling in an unsigned order that the writs of certiorari in the cases were “improvidently granted”—which in effect means that Idaho cannot bar doctors from performing abortions in instances in which it is necessary to “prevent serious harms to a woman’s health.” 
  • NASA announced Wednesday it had awarded a contract—worth up to $843 million—to Elon Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX, to help dismantle the International Space Station (ISS) when the orbiting research lab’s operational life ends in 2030. SpaceX will design and construct a deorbit vehicle—a spacecraft capable of dismantling certain ISS components safely—and transfer its ownership to NASA once completed.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced on Thursday it was imposing penalties on aerospace company Boeing after the company preemptively disclosed information earlier this week about the federal agency’s investigation into a January incident that saw the door panel of a commercial Boeing airplane torn away mid-flight. The NTSB said the aircraft company “blatantly violated” federal regulations by sharing non-public information regarding an ongoing inquiry, and that it misrepresented the NTSB’s efforts. Boeing will consequently lose the ability to access investigation information, in addition to other penalties.
  • Internal watchdogs for the Defense Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)* announced Thursday they are investigating the federal agencies’ roles in delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza, with a focus on the effectiveness of shipments via a U.S.-built pier off the coast of the Strip. The delivery of food and other supplies using the floating pier—which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct—has been paused three times since it became operable last month, including after the ramp broke apart in late May amid high winds and heavy seas.
  • Police in France have concluded that a Russian-Ukrainian man arrested on June 3 for making explosives in a hotel room near Charles De Gaulle Airport was a part of an aborted Russian sabotage operation, according to a Le Monde report published Thursday. The suspect—originally from eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region—was arrested while at the hospital for burns he suffered while making the device. According to the report, the suspect wished to detonate the device at a hardware store just north of Paris as part of a Russian campaign that also targeted other European capitals.
  • A Uvalde County grand jury on Thursday indicted Peter Arredondo, former police chief of the district where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in 2022, on charges of child endangerment. The indictment, which reportedly lays out serious flaws in the police response that day, marks the first time a law enforcement officer has faced criminal charges related to the shooting. County police arrested Arredondo on Thursday before he was released on $10,000 bail later that night. 

Debate? More Like Debacle

When it comes to the ramifications of presidential debates, the tone and tenor of the partisan, post-debate spin can often matter as much as a candidate’s debate performance itself. So how did last night’s contest go for President Joe Biden?

“That was painful,” said one cable news pundit. “He didn’t do well at all.” 

“Joe Biden had one thing he had to do tonight and he didn’t do it,” a former U.S. senator added. “He had one thing he had to accomplish, and that was [to] reassure America that he was up to the job at his age, and he failed at that tonight.” 

“It was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden,” a former White House communications director argued. “I don’t think there’s any other way to slice it. I think the biggest issue that he had to prove to the American people was that he had the energy, that he had the stamina, and he didn’t do that.”

“I watched the Biden-Trump debate alone in a Lisbon hotel room, and it made me weep,” a prominent newspaper columnist wrote. “Joe Biden … has no business running for re-election.”

The cable news pundit? Devoted Democrat Van Jones. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, seemed genuinely bereft at her preferred candidate’s performance. Kate Bedingfield, who spent more than two years spinning for the White House as Biden’s communications director, came right out and said—live on cable news—that her former boss had failed to communicate his most important message. And Thomas Friedman, whom Biden is said to read religiously, declared in the most widely read paper in the United States that his friend “must bow out of the race.”

Even Biden’s own running mate didn’t have it in her to look CNN host Anderson Cooper in the eye and say everything was fine. “It was a slow start, that’s obvious to everyone,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “I’m not going to debate that point.”

From the moment the 81-year-old Biden opened his mouth to speak at the top of last night’s debate, it seemed obvious that weeks, months, and, indeed, years of concern about his age and mental acuity were not just well-founded, but perhaps even undersold. Biden frequently lost his train of thought, confused names and facts, and at times froze up entirely—leaving former President Donald Trump almost entirely unchallenged as he promised retribution for his political rivals in a second term and dodged questions about his role in the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Before the first commercial break, Democrats across the country had been sent into a blind panic about their party’s chances come November.

Democrats’ theory of victory has long been that, despite months of polling showing Trump in the lead, voters would come home to Biden once they realized the election is not a referendum on the incumbent, but rather a choice between the incumbent and his predecessor. Scheduling a debate so early in the general election was seen as a way to jumpstart that process, putting Trump—a reliably loose cannon—back in front of the public and offering voters the stark choice between the two candidates.

There wasn’t much margin for error in that theory: Just this week, both a New York Times/Siena poll and a survey from Quinnipiac showed Biden running 4 points behind Trump nationally—even after the former president was found guilty of 34 felony charges in New York last month.

But it did seem possible that Biden—who was fairly energized and cogent during the State of the Union in early March—could exceed the incredibly low expectations Trump and his allies had created for him.

Pro-Trump Republicans and media personalities have consistently hammered Biden’s age in recent weeks, portraying him as an aging grandparent who is not up to the job at best, and a barely functioning puppet of the deep state at worst. Trump’s own statements compounded the issue. “[Biden] can’t talk, he can’t walk, can’t find his way off a stage,” the former president said in a speech at a rally in Minnesota last month. “Can’t put two sentences together.”

But as the debate approached, Republicans seemed to recognize their potential error and turned to the same deus ex machina on which they relied before and after the State of the Union: drugs. In an effort to preempt a competent Biden performance, GOP lawmakers, operatives, and right-wing media alike claimed that Biden would be “jacked up” on some substance—be it cocaine or Adderall. Trump joined in on the course correction. “He beat Paul Ryan pretty badly,” the former president said of Biden’s performance as a vice presidential candidate in 2012 in an interview with the All-In Podcast last week. “And I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater. I would say I don’t want to underestimate him.”

But the doping conspiracies mattered little after it became clear that Biden—who spent the last week away from Washington doing intensive debate prep—was struggling to meet, let alone exceed, the bare minimum expectations.

Neither candidate spent time breaking new ground on policy—though CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash did their best to ask substantive questions about foreign policy, immigration, abortion, and the opioid crisis. The candidates frequently went far afield of the topic at hand, causing the moderators to cut in to remind them what the question was in the first place—only for the candidates to continue their tangents and leave a trail of inaccurate statements in their wake.

Trump seemed relaxed and ready to go on offense from the jump, constantly capping his answers by alleging that Biden is “destroying the country.” So at ease did Trump appear, he disarmingly shrugged and nodded in acknowledgment when Biden pointed out he was a convicted felon—a fact that came up shockingly little during Thursday’s 90-minute exercise. When Biden pointed out that Trump was facing millions in civil penalties after being found liable for sexual abuse and noted that Trump had an affair with a porn star shortly after his wife gave birth—that Trump had “the morals of an alley cat”—Trump seemed to smirk.

“I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump responded, before moving swiftly on.

Trump also dodged a question about his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, delivering a seemingly well-rehearsed answer about how the country was much better off on January 6 under his administration’s policies than under those of his successor. Trump also reiterated his pat denials of wrongdoing that led up to that day and said the members of the House Select Committee on January 6 should be in jail rather than many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol. “What they’ve done to some people that are so innocent,” Trump said, seemingly referring to the rioters. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, what you have done, how you’ve destroyed the lives of so many people.”

Biden tried to highlight his own policy wins, but he often failed to articulate his point, instead teeing up attacks from his opponent. When the president attempted to argue the revenue from his tax plans for higher earners would enable the government to expand social spending programs, he lost his train of thought and ran out of time: “We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do—child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our healthcare 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.”

The moderators cut Biden off and Trump didn’t miss the opportunity for a zinger. “Well, he’s right,” he quipped. “He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.” 

What limited back-and-forth there was on anything of substance was almost entirely obscured by the shocking display of frailty from Biden. After a week of prep, his answers suggested a brain stuffed with facts and figures and entirely incapable of getting them out coherently. During an exchange on immigration, Biden stumbled. “What I’ve done, since I’ve changed the law, what’s happened?” he said, seeming to refer to his executive order—not a law—limiting asylum claims. “I’ve changed it in a way that now, you’re in a situation where there are 40 percent fewer people coming across the border. That’s better than when [Trump] left office.” 

Then things went off the rails. “And I’m going to continue to move until we get the total ban on—the total initiative relative to what we can do with more border patrol and more asylum officers.” 

Trump called out Biden’s flub in a way that seemed almost restrained, even as it was deeply cutting for its obvious truth. “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” he said. “I don’t think he knows either.”

Even if it wasn’t always clear what Biden was saying, it was abundantly clear to Democrats what the president’s performance meant: They have a big problem on their hands. After an abortive effort earlier this year by the Democratic commentariat to get Biden to end his candidacy, replacing him at the top of the ticket once again emerged as a consideration last night. And this time with more oomph. “There are going to be discussions about whether he should continue,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama who was among those suggesting Biden step aside earlier this year.

There are seemingly endless obstacles to making the “Replace Biden” pipe dream a reality. For one thing, there’s the problem of who exactly would take his place on the ballot. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was looking like the cat that ate the canary in the spin room last night, even as he told reporters he’d be voting for Biden in the fall. Democratic-aligned operatives have also floated Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker as potential replacements. The most obvious alternative is Harris, of course—though she’s also deeply unpopular and almost as prone to embarrassing gaffes as her running mate.

In order for the party to even be in a place to pick an alternative, Biden would almost certainly have to choose to decline his party’s nomination, freeing up his delegates to vote for someone else at the party’s convention in Chicago later this summer. That would set up a chaotic open convention, with thousands of delegates trying to settle on just one of the hyper-ambitious potential contenders who will all surely be lobbying to get their name at the top of the ticket.

But would Biden willingly give up a shot at a second term? The 81-year-old politician has long had a reputation for stubbornness and his circle of trusted confidantes is tight. First Lady Jill Biden was reportedly crucial in convincing him to run for reelection, and so would also presumably be one of the only people—perhaps along with his sister, Valerie—who could get him to reverse course. If they wanted to, that is.

When the debate ended last night, the two candidates stood awkwardly behind their podiums. Neither moved to shake the other’s hand.

Former First Lady Melania Trump wasn’t in attendance, leaving Trump to amble off the stage on his own. But Jill Biden walked out to greet her husband, and they moved toward the moderators’ table. With the cameras still rolling and CNN’s anchors teeing up the panel to discuss just how enfeebled Biden seemed, the first lady helped her husband navigate a single step down off the stage. 

Worth Your Time

  • “A good many sports enthusiasts have groused about how sports has become too political, but the converse is perhaps more true: Politics has now become our sport,” Christian Schneider wrote in National Review. “It is adorable how some political pundits still believe elections are won or lost based on one issue or another. Instead, America has simply become two teams, with fans of each willing to defend dishonorable behavior in order to see their favored side win. ‘Issues’ are now simply set by random musings of presidential candidates, forcing their acolytes to adopt a new set of principles to fit those of their leader. … The difference between baseball and politics, of course, is that baseball’s administration holds its cheats accountable. Oddly, we demand higher standards in baseball, which keeps the biggest liars, frauds, and cheats out of the Hall of Fame. In politics, we elect them to the presidency.”
  • Is there a massive crime wave happening in the U.S.? The data suggest otherwise, Noah Smith argued in his substack, Noahpinion. “One of the MAGA side’s narratives is that America has become a violent, chaotic, and ungovernable place under Biden, and that Trump will restore order,” he wrote. “It’s natural for the MAGA folks to want to re-up this golden oldie. Their story of a world in chaos (thanks, of course, to weak and hapless Democrats) encompasses border security, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and, most importantly, spiraling crime rates. But there’s at least one big problem for this narrative: Crime is falling fast in America. … We actually have a bunch of data sources on crime—especially on murder and other violent offenses. And although there are slight disagreements about how much crime has fallen over the past two and a half years, there’s broad agreement on the direction of the trends. … In any case, the overwhelming message from the various data sources remains the same—crime has fallen a lot since 2021. The MAGA narrative of rising crime under Biden is not based on facts; it is based on willful fantasy.”

Presented Without Comment

Politico: Panicked Dems Start Looking for Alternatives to Biden

One adviser to major Democratic Party donors said they were texting from a meeting of donors in Atlanta on Thursday night, some writing “wtf.”

“Our only hope is that he bows out, we have a brokered convention, or dies,” the donor adviser said. “Otherwise we are [f—ing] dead.”

Also Presented Without Comment

Forbes: [International Space Station] Astronauts Take Shelter After Russian Spacecraft Breaks Up In Orbit

Also Also Presented Without Comment

The Telegraph: Hong Kong Schools Criticised for Singing Chinese Anthem ‘Too Softly’

In the Zeitgeist

Mel Brooks turns 98 today and is ready for his next gig. Spaceballs 2, a sequel to Brooks’ 1987 space-opera spoof of Star Wars, is reportedly in development with Amazon MGM Studios, produced by Brooks and Josh Gad. 

The original movie hinted at the possibility of a sequel. “God willing, we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money,” the wise sage, Yogurt—portrayed by Mel Brooks—said in the original film. 

Toeing the Company Line

  • Was the election just decided? Can Biden remain the Democratic nominee? If not, who takes his place? Mike was joined by an all-star lineup—including Sarah, Steve, Jonah, Kevin, Declan, and Alex—to discuss all that and more on a special post-debate edition of Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • In the newsletters: Will dove into how the Biden administration bungled broadband expansion and Nick previewed last night’s debate and MAGA Republicans’ preemptive claim that Biden was going to be on drugs.
  • On the site today: Kevin reflects on the danger journalism poses to authoritarian regimes as Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s sham trial begins in Russia. Plus: Anna Kriebel, one of The Dispatch’s new summer interns, reports on the European Union’s data privacy regulations and how they restrict the use of AI.

Let Us Know

Did you watch the debate? What were your takeaways? Do you think the Democratic Party will find a way to replace Biden?

Correction, June 28, 2024: Updated a typo in the name of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.

Aayush Goodapaty is an intern at The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company for the 2024 summer, he worked as an intern with Illinois Policy Institute and Public Opinion Strategies. He’s an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where he is majoring in economics and history. When Aayush is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably watching football, brushing up on trivia, or attempting to find his way to the nearest historical landmark.