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Updated Jun 27, 2024, 10:39pm EDT
politics

The debate Democrats feared

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The News

ATLANTA, Ga. — President Biden and Donald Trump put each other’s records on trial in front of the nation at their first debate and argued over abortion, inflation, foreign policy, and veteran care. But a raspy, seemingly sick Biden quickly overshadowed the substance, generating a fresh panic among Democrats about his age and health at the worst possible time.

Text threads lit up across Washington between Democrats within the first fifteen minutes of the debate, gauging the damage.

“It’s awful,” one veteran of two major Democratic campaigns said.

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“It’s bad,” one Democrat close to the administration said.

“My non-political friends who just began tracking the election are concerned about Biden after watching this,” one senior Democratic aide said.

“If it gets Biden not to run, then it was very good,” one former Obama campaign aide darkly texted. “Otherwise it’s bad.”

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An early low point came thirteen minutes in, as the candidates finished discussing COVID and Medicare, and Biden bobbled the terms.

“We finally beat Medicare,” said the president, seemingly losing his train of thought right as his mic was cut due to the debate rules.

Trump instantly exploited the slip-up. “He beat it to death,” said the former president. What he said next was factually mangled — that asylum-seekers, who pay into Medicare and Social Security but can’t receive it, would overload the system — and paired with zingers on Biden’s performance.

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“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence and I don’t think he did, either,” Trump said after another one of Biden’s remarks.

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David’s view

Biden picked up some steam as the debate went on, clearing his throat less and getting in tougher hits on Trump’s character and values, an issue that’s animated him like no other throughout the race. But the damage was done. Even with the benefit of low expectations, aided by Trump’s relentless attacks on his health before the debate, Biden left his party dreading the aftermath.

Heading into the debate, Democrats assured each other, and skeptical reporters, that Biden would silence questions about his acuity once he took the stage, just as he did at his State of the Union earlier this year. The theories that ping-ponged across conservative media — that Vice President Harris would have to tag in, that he’d be replaced at the convention by someone like California Gov. Gavin Newsom — were treated like QAnon drops. Before the debate, when Semafor asked Newsom if Biden could finish off the rumor-mongering, he scoffed.

“One hundred percent,” said Newsom. “Enough. I mean, honestly — enough!”

Instead, the debate ended with host network CNN’s panel — starting with anchor John King and Democratic strategist David Axelrod — immediately bringing up questions about whether Biden would face pressure from his party to step aside. Democratic contributor Van Jones suggested Biden should “consider taking a different course now” and added that “there is time for this party to figure out a different way forward if he will allow us to do that.”

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Know More

Substantively, Biden’s top goal during the debate seemed to be combating “Trumpstalgia,” the retrospective sense that the world was a simpler, safer, more prosperous place under his predecessor, even if the voters who ousted him in 2020 didn’t treat it that way at the time.

He reminded voters that unemployment soared during COVID while Trump talked about injecting bleach. He took credit for withdrawing from Afghanistan, while Trump kept US troops in the country throughout his four years in office. And he attacked Trump for his role in Jan. 6, his notorious “very fine people on both sides” remark after Charlottesville, and even his recent conviction — directly accusing him of cheating on his wife with a porn star.

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden said.

Trump — less wild than in his first 2020 debate, as his aides had hoped — also tried to focus on his record. He denied any and all accusations against him, from calling fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers” to sleeping with Stormy Daniels, and pivoted away from questions about his character and attacks on democratic elections to boasts about his administration. His answer to a question on Jan. 6 was representative.

“Let me tell you about January 6,” he said. “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.”

The former president also answered questions on abortion, a topic his party has struggled with since the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Weighing in on a new policy development, Trump said he supports the recent Supreme Court ruling to allow abortion pill access, adding that he “will not block it.” The Biden campaign has honed in on abortion access as a key talking point throughout this presidential cycle, after seeing the subject benefit Democrats over the last few years.

Late in the debate, both candidates were asked point blank about one of the biggest concerns in this election — their age. Biden told moderators that voters should “look at the record” and reminded them of their relatively similar birthdates.

“This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent,” Biden said.

Trump started his response by saying Biden would struggle through a cognitive test, before pivoting to a somewhat rambling answer about golf — “I just won two club championships!” — which in turn resulted in a confusing back-and-forth about both of their handicaps.

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The View From The Spin Room

The spin room at the Atlanta venue told the story of the night with an all-star cast. Trump campaign surrogates spilled out quickly to talk to the press, while reporters waited for Democrats to emerge.

“They’ve obviously got their challenges on trying to swap out,” said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. “They’re in a real pickle.”

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told reporters that Democratic friends in the House had been texting him, “concerned that they might lose 20 or 30 seats.” RNC committeeman David Bossie, who’d led the effort to pull his party out of the Commission on Presidential Debates and seek new media partners, said that it was too late for a Democratic plan B.

“They’re in a panic,” said Bossie. “As a technician in the business, it’s incredibly difficult to remove a nominee. Number one, he would have to voluntarily step away, and he’s never doing that. Number two, Kamala Harris would have to voluntarily step away — and she’s never doing that.”

Moments later, Newsom arrived with Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, and was peppered with questions about whether Biden should be replaced at the convention — no longer the realm of Republican concern trolling, but the leading question from traditional news outlets. “Absolutely not,” he told reporters.

Few Democrats joined Newsom and Warnock in the spin room, and cameramen shouted questions at the California governor as he left it — “what about the president’s performance made you proud.” California Rep. Robert Garcia, the last Biden surrogate on the floor, found himself repeatedly telling Fox News that the Biden-Harris ticket wasn’t changing.

“We’re gonna win,” said Garcia. “He’s not going to step down. Let’s be really clear: He’s not stepping down. He’s going to be our nominee.”

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The View From Joe Biden

A seemingly more energetic post-debate Biden told a crowd of supporters in Atlanta that “we’re going to beat this guy” and suggested Trump’s performance would fare worse with scrutiny.

“Look folks, what’s going to happen over the next couple of days is they’re going to be out there fact checking all the things he said,” Biden said. “I can’t think of one thing he said that was true.”

His campaign put out a statement contrasting Biden’s “positive and winning message for the future of America” with Trump’s “dark and backwards window” into America under a second Trump presidency, noting his refusal during the debate to agree to accept the results of the election.

On CNN, Vice President Kamala Harris offered a hedged defense of his performance as Jake Tapper, the debate’s moderator, and Anderson Cooper repeatedly pressed her on the building Democratic panic.

“Yes, there was a slow start, but there was a strong finish,” she said. She said the “substance” of the debate favored Biden, including Trump’s answers on Jan. 6 and his refusal during the debate to agree to accept the results of the election.

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Room for Disagreement

A Biden campaign source said that Trump tanked in their tracking when he made personal insults. They’d expected the Republican nominee to be more disciplined, and not repeat the manic performance of the first 2020 debate. When he got more aggressive, they saw him alienating swing voters; when the president responded on abortion and Ukraine, they saw him winning the rounds.

Kadia Goba, Ben Smith, and Benjy Sarlin contributed to this story.

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