Biden Should Never Have Debated Trump — And CNN Did Him No Favors

Should things go the way they seem to be going, the events of Thursday night may go down as the greatest unforced error in presidential electoral politics since Richard Nixon, fatigued and unshaven, went on-camera against John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Joe Biden ran up against two sets of limitations in the June 27 CNN-hosted debate. One was that of the format — one to which his campaign, like Trump’s, had agreed: The commitment by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash to simply pose questions and to allow the candidates, rather than the moderators themselves, to do the fact-checking, put him on his back foot before the event began. It takes a great debater to push back against Trump’s particular say-anything shamelessness. And this brings us to the second set of limitations: If Biden was ever a great debater, he is not in 2024.

The questions Tapper and Bash posed were rudimentary, thought-starters about various issues in the news. (Were the stakes not so high, I’d say that they recalled the Mike Myers “Saturday Night Live” character Linda Richman tossing out a notion and then saying “Talk amongst yourselves.”) Tapper and Bash’s questions were unshapely, inelegant, not intended to draw out anything more than conflict. But then, mere conflict was the point. We’re not in the era where the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates organized events that were, while broadcast on television, structured without any one network’s interests in mind, built toward revelations but not fireworks. This was a debate on and of CNN — the network that, in recent years, has distinguished itself with endless panel conversations in which talking heads talk past one another, ungoverned by any guiding insight beyond keeping a spirited, structureless conversation going.

Toward the end of the debate, Bash held Trump to answer the question of whether he’d accept the results of the 2024 election even as he dodged it. But, though she posed it as a yes-or-no question, she accepted his answer that he’d accept it if it were, by his standards, fair — which could mean anything. But, by the late moment in this debate this question was posed, it seemed as though Trump’s answer hardly mattered: On the basis of this debate, Trump would, of course, accept the results of the election, because he is winning, and will win.

It’s worth reiterating: Bash’s and Tapper’s moderation presented Biden a challenge: Debating Trump, a slippery proposition in the best of times, came this time with the obligation to check his misstatements in real time, which Tapper and Bash weren’t going to do. But a President faces challenges — including having to do the job of addressing untruths without journalists’ help — and Biden did not rise to this one.

Some of it was bad luck, or poorly structured preparation and poorly structured rest: Biden’s image as having aged out of the job was not aided by his painfully hoarse voice (a temporary condition, it seems) and his odd, gaping expression in split-screen as Trump spoke (one to which the viewing public had not been consistently exposed). Biden seemed not merely weary but unpracticed: He chose to bring up his decision to rapidly withdraw military forces from Afghanistan, one of his administration’s most notably unpopular decisions, and strangely bobbled a description of what he views as the “three trimesters” underpinning Roe v. Wade — botching an opportunity to elucidate what is currently one of the Democratic Party’s strongest issues.

This represents, or ought to represent, a sobering moment for the Democrats — the incumbent President who refused to step aside is plainly botching a winnable election. His mistakes are his fumbling misstatements and his inability to control his gape on-camera and his willingness to stoop to Trump’s level (late in the debate mocking Trump’s weight), a strategy that has not once worked. His campaign’s mistakes include signing on to this debate. Both sides seemed to have learned a lesson after the catastrophic first 2020 debate, in which Trump shouted Biden down at every turn and Biden was unable to control his train of thought or his temper; both sides seemed uninterested in restaging such a scene, until, suddenly, they were.

And Trump has learned from his previous mistakes: While always, irreducibly, himself, he adhered pretty strictly to the time limits (with a TV junkie’s understanding, perhaps, that with his mic cut when his time was up, he’d look like a fool shouting into silence) and kept his tenor something less than strident. Whatever lessons Biden has learned since 2020 have been outrun by the passage of time. And inasmuch as CNN’s debate was a spectacle, it was a “King Lear”-like tragedy: The story of a man unable to accept that his moment has passed.

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