Biden Gets Up After His Debate Meltdown

A little more than twelve hours after Joe Biden’s first debate of the 2src24 campaign, he was due to speak at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina. In Washington, Democrats were in doomsday mode—full of dread and trading recriminations. For some, there was the grim satisfaction of seeing their prophecy fulfilled: Biden is too old

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A little more than twelve hours after Joe Biden’s first debate of the 2src24 campaign, he was due to speak at an event in Raleigh, North Carolina. In Washington, Democrats were in doomsday mode—full of dread and trading recriminations. For some, there was the grim satisfaction of seeing their prophecy fulfilled: Biden is too old, they had warned. And so, it seemed, he was. That morning, CNN had summed up the mood in a large chyron: DEMOCRATIC SOURCE: “WE ARE F***ED.” To his critics, he had made reckless choices—running for reëlection after calling himself a “transition candidate,” facing off against Donald Trump despite dismal polls—and now the questions were many and dire. Would an honorable life of public service end in a humiliating defeat? Who, in his tight clan of family and friends, had the clout to tell him it was time to go?

But, at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds on Friday afternoon, Biden would address a different kind of crowd—the public and the faithful, or, for the purposes of the moment, the willing. North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, preceded him, and, in a bit of a tell, he started out talking about the other guy. “Do we want to be Donald Trump’s America?” Cooper asked. “No!” the crowd answered. After a long windup, he got to Biden’s achievements, with all the majesty of checking a grocery list. “Joe Biden made a bipartisan infrastructure bill happen,” he said, ticking off the first of a series of policy points.

Biden, in an open collar and dark suit, came to the stage accompanied by Jill, the First Lady. She embarked on a familiar story about how he had to propose five times before she said yes—but then a pro-Palestinian heckler interrupted one of her lines, and she flashed the grit that is core to their family’s identity. “I’m going to repeat that line,” she said, with a clenched smile, “because I think it’s the most important. I loved him from the start.” Of her husband, she went on, “His hope is undeterred,” a line that seemed to carry new meaning on a day when so many in his party were bemoaning that fact.

For nearly two years, Democrats have engaged in a long-running debate about whether, and how, Biden might find his way to stepping aside in favor of newer blood. Jill’s role in that decision has been assumed to be central and largely unknowable. At its core, the population of Bidenworld is small and circumspect: there is his sister Valerie Biden Owens (who ran his first successful campaign for the Senate, fifty-two years ago), his children Hunter and Ashley, and some advisers who have been there for decades—Mike Donilon, Ted Kaufman, Ron Klain. At the center is Jill, whose display of devotion during the brutal reaction to the debate called to mind Nancy Reagan’s unwavering protection of Ronald Reagan, as he campaigned for a second term. Their husbands, as they aged in office, had good days and bad. But, over time, the bad days kept cropping up. Things fall apart.

On the stage in North Carolina, Jill revealed no hint of doubt: “What you saw last night on the debate stage was Joe Biden—a President with integrity and character, who told the truth and Donald Trump told lie after lie.” That was the central message from Biden’s campaign on the first full day of what could either prove to be its rebound or unravelling. In the hours after the debate, Biden’s defenders had cycled through deflections; he had a cold, they said. And, more to the point, why was Trump not under even greater pressure to step aside for his litany of brazen lies, including denying the reality of the insurrection on January 6, 2src21? But, after Biden took to the lectern, he acknowledged the unavoidable: “I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious.” The crowd tittered and built to applause. “Folks, I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong, and I know how to do this job.” And, then, signalling perhaps, most clearly, how he was absorbing the avalanche of criticism, he said, with a clenched fist, “And I know, like millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

In his usage, the phrase meant more than it might appear. Biden’s political life has always been governed by two, sometimes contradictory, instincts: One, a form of self-mythology about resilience. He once wrote about his father’s frequent admonition to “Get up!” According to Biden, “That was his phrase, and it has echoed through my life.” Over the decades, through tragedies and professional embarrassments, Biden repeated it so often that he elevated a flinty bromide into an affirming and reflexive life strategy. The other instinct is less inspiring, but no less important to understanding his decision-making: read the audience. Every politician has some level of fingertip feel for the mood of the public and the political élite, but Biden venerates it more than most. In 1987, after a plagiarism scandal rocked Biden’s first campaign for President, his friend and adviser Ted Kaufman was blunt: “There’s only one way to stop the sharks,” Kaufman told him at the time, according to a recent article in the Times, “and that’s pull out.” Biden dropped out of the race.

Even before the conclusion of Thursday’s debate, and into the next day, Democrats were swapping names of candidates who might replace him—the governors Gretchen Whitmer, of Michigan, Gavin Newsom, of California, Andy Beshear, of Kentucky, or members of the Biden Administration such as Vice-President Kamala Harris or Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Some of the most notable calls to withdraw came from commentators who are close to him politically or personally. Tom Friedman, the Times columnist who has conferred with Biden on the Middle East, concluded that he had “no business running for re-election.” If he withdraws, he added, “Americans will hail Joe Biden for doing what Donald Trump would never do: put the country before himself.” On Friday, the Times editorial board called on Biden to quit the race, arguing it was “the best chance to protect the soul of the nation.” The effort could backfire; those who know Biden’s sensitivity to slights suspect he could be less receptive to a public pressure campaign than to private, high-minded appeals to history. In 1952, Harry Truman, for whom Biden has long had admiration, heeded signs of heavy opposition and chose not to run for reëlection; in 1968, Lyndon Johnson stepped aside and saw his approval ratings flip from fifty-seven per cent negative to fifty-seven per cent positive. But no historical comparison makes the decision straightforward. In both cases, the Democratic candidates who succeeded them at the top of the ticket struggled to unify a divided party and went on to lose the election.

The more dispositive constituency could be, in the indelicate phrase, “the money.” Will donors and bundlers flee? The Biden campaign quickly announced that it had raised fourteen million dollars on the day of the debate, including in the first hour afterward, which it described as the “single best hour of fundraising since the campaign’s launch in April 2src23.” It will take some time for the contours of Biden’s new political reality to come into focus. Early polls made it plain that the public saw Trump as the winner of the debate, but it was less certain if Biden’s disastrous performance will irrevocably alter the state of the race. A 538/Ipsos poll found that Biden’s support dropped 1.6 per cent, to 46.7 per cent. In a summary of the results, the pollsters also noted, “Trump’s support, meanwhile, barely budged, perhaps a reflection of the fact that, while Biden performed poorly on Thursday night, voters weren’t especially impressed with Trump’s performance either.”

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