CNN's debate was no fair fight

Joe Biden's terrible performance has caused panic among Democrats

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 28, 2024 9:53AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

There's no sugarcoating it: The best you can say about that debate last night is that it was a missed opportunity for Joe Biden to put to rest the questions about his age and focus on Donald Trump's extremist agenda and his criminality. The worst you can say is that he gave a disastrous performance that should lead to his resignation and an open convention in August to choose a successor. There are plenty of Democrats pushing for that right now and it's always possible they'll succeed in getting Biden to drop out and turn the Chicago gathering into a disaster not seen since 1968. Maybe that's the kind of spectacle that will finally bring the Democratic Party down to the level of the Trump Show. Maybe that's what the American people really want. 

If there was ever a time to keep calm and carry on it's now. 

I don't know what was wrong with Joe Biden. It's hard to imagine that they ever would have asked for a debate if this was the way he is normally. We've seen him recently holding press conferences and giving speeches and he seemed to be fine. They said he had a cold so maybe he really was on drugs — Nyquil or Mucinex or something that made him seem so shaky and frail. Whatever it was, it was a terrible debate for him and if he does stay in the race (which is almost certain in my opinion) the campaign is going to have a lot of work to do to dig out of the hole that was dug last night. The media smells blood and they are circling like a bunch of starved piranhas. If this goes as these things often do, the public may have a very different take than the insiders today. Still, the media narrative could change public consensus over the course of the next few days. 

With all of that being said, it must be noted, however, that as much as Biden blew the debate and missed his opportunity to dispel the concerns about his age, Donald Trump blew it too. He may have appeared more vigorous but he couldn't control himself and behaved once again like the undisciplined, lying, vulgarian who half the country already hates. If Biden was on Nyquil, Trump must have guzzled a case of diet Coke before he came on stage. He spewed a torrent of lies, was rude and insulting and delivered what was probably the most memorable line in any presidential debate in history:

That's the least of his various crimes and sexual misbehavior but it's the one he felt compelled to deny. 

For some odd reason, moderator Jake Tapper told Trump in the beginning that he didn't need to answer the questions and that he could use the time however he wanted. Trump ran with that, essentially giving a rally speech whenever he had the floor and was unresponsive to the vast majority of the questions. He made faces and insulted Biden to his face, at one point calling him a criminal and a Manchurian candidate. If anyone had said 10 years ago that this would happen at a presidential debate they would have been laughed out of the room. 

After the debate when most of the country had turned off cable news or gone to bed, CNN aired its fact check. And it's a doozy:

It sure would have been good if even some of that epic litany of lies could have been checked while people were still watching. The decision to have the moderators sit like a couple of potted plants woodenly asking questions about child care while Trump responded with irrelevant lies was inexplicable. Why did they even bother to ask questions at all? They could have just run the timer and let the candidates talk for two minutes each about anything they wanted. It probably would have been more enlightening. 

According to former CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, CNN is very happy with how it went. He wrote, "A CNN exec in the control room texts me: "We are very proud of Jake and Dana. Our job was to make sure candidates were heard so voters can make informed decisions and we are pleased we were able to do that." Actually, CNN inadvertently became one of the greatest disseminators of disinformation in American political history. Millions of people heard Donald Trump's lies and since they were met with silence from the journalists on the stage upon whom people depend to tell them the facts, many of them probably came away believing he must have been telling the truth. 

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Even had Joe Biden been at the top of his game, he would not have been able to parry all those lies and he shouldn't have been put in the role of being Donald Trump's fact checker. His choice was to either ignore the lies and let them stand so he could use his time to make his own case or spend the entire debate correcting the record. It was not a fair fight.

It will take a few days for the results of the debate to shake out. Biden's poor performance may tank his poll numbers or it's possible that the whole thing didn't change any minds at all. According to CNN's instant poll of debate viewers in Michigan, it was pretty much a wash with half saying Biden won and half saying it was Trump. And a Univision focus group of Hispanic voters said that Biden won. So who knows? 

In the last election cycle, we saw Pennsylvania senate candidate John Fetterman, who had recently suffered a stroke, have a debate at which he was clearly having trouble communicating. He was written off by all the pundits and the assumption was that the Democratic Senate majority was lost. He ended up winning. Not that this will necessarily go the same way but I bring it up only to illustrate that these things do happen. A lot depends on who else is on the ballot.

It's obvious that Biden's terrible performance has caused panic among Democrats and liberal pundits and analysts. The calls for him to withdraw are loud and meaningful and it's going to be a very rough period in this campaign whatever happens. For me, this isn't really a question. As long as Donald Trump is on the ballot, I will vote for the Democratic nominee. If it's Biden or someone else, the calculation remains the same. Nothing is worse than another Trump administration and I suspect that at the end of the day Democratic voters will agree with that. So it's still a matter of those undecided voters in swing states, just like it was on Thursday morning.

Biden has been a successful president in my book and I have every expectation that his administration will continue on that path in a second term. But if he becomes convinced that this debate has ruined his chances and he decides to drop out, I just hope that the party can resist the temptation to devolve into a bloodletting free-for-all that empowers Trump even more. If there was ever a time to keep calm and carry on it's now. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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