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Joe Biden's 90 minute senior moment

It was a first — a debate between a president and a former president. And it was likely watched as much out of morbid curiosity as interest in the election, which is also a first.

The questions going in were whether Donald Trump could control himself, and whether Joe Biden could hold it together for 90 minutes. The answer to the first question was “yes.” To the second? “Not so much.”

President Biden’s performance was shockingly bad. All that can be said is he got through the debate alive. Confused, lost, stumbling, mumbling and very angry, but he was still there and breathing when it ended.

It was shocking.

Inflation was the first topic, and Biden seemed to speed-talk through his nonsense answer, which was full of random attacks against Trump on everything from COVID to prescription drugs. It was disjointed, to say the least. He was confused and seemed to be scrambling for information that he hadn’t memorized quite well enough.

Trump, in contrast, was refreshingly un-Trumpian. If you were a Democrat hoping to see him lose his mind or at least his cool, this was not your night.

This was the strategy Team Trump had telegraphed — to avoid getting frazzled by Biden’s jabs and obvious attempted provocations. It worked brilliantly.

By remaining presidential, if I even dare say that, Trump did what most viewers of CNN and MSNBC had been told he couldn’t: He controlled himself. 

This may not seem like a big deal — an adult controlling himself in a professional setting — but the narrative constructed about Trump is one of an unstable madman ready to destroy the country for his own glory and revenge. Anything short of a frothing-mouthed lunatic swearing to burn down Heaven and Earth to smite his enemies is a win for him in terms of personal comportment.

When not talking, Biden looked confused, even lost. When speaking, he got lost several times. He said there were a thousand trillionaires, then corrected to billionaires. He downplayed the rape and murder of young American women by illegal immigrants by saying women are raped and murdered by Americans too. It was bizarre and, honestly, sad.

The lack of audience made the debate odd. It was like watching a band play a concert in an empty room, it did not affect the energy of the event as much as I expected it to. The mutual hatred between the two men more than made up for it.

Trump feeds off a crowd, and can play to one too. But without that element, he actually turned out to be more focused. The snark was there, yes, but it didn’t overwhelm or take the focus off the substance as eruptions of applause might have. People forget that Trump did all those seasons of “The Apprentice” on a soundstage (at least the boardroom scenes). Being on camera without an audience is not something with which he is unfamiliar. 

Joe Biden, even though he’s had 50 years’ experience debating in politics, didn’t do those debates in a cone of silence. His practices at Camp David involved more people in the rehearsal hangar than were on the stage at the debate. That showed. He struggled to find talking points that had apparently been drilled into his head, and he came off confused in the process. It was a disaster.

It’s personal between these men. The accusations of infidelity, corruption and everything short of murder were tossed around. Trump did exactly what he needed to do, Biden, aside from not falling down, didn’t even come close. It was shocking.

It was honest. It was true. Everyone watching the debate could tell Biden was at sea. And Trump’s coup de grace was cold blooded. That one moment captured the 90 minutes of torture America and its voters were put through Thursday night. We watched an incumbent president who was what special counsel Robert Hur said he was, an elderly man with a poor memory. He was incapable of serious participation on the biggest stage in politics.

Trump was far from perfect. He delivered nonsensical answers on deficits and entitlements and needlessly attacked Biden’s son Hunter. He is a flawed candidate. Voters deserve better choices than these two men. But for all Trump’s faults, he was clearly the more competent man onstage and it wasn’t even close. Not that Biden set a high bar.

Biden was a frail old man coughing and getting almost everything wrong. He claimed he is the “only president of the 20th century” who had no American troops die on his watch. This must have shocked the families of the 13 American service members killed during Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and of the three service members killed in Jordan just this January.

Biden was incoherent on abortion, an issue Democrats feel they can use to beat Trump. The one issue on which he tried, repeatedly, to fact-check Trump was extremely poorly chosen. He repeated the false claim that Trump called white supremacists “very fine people,” which had just been exposed yet again by fact checkers only days before the debate. Biden’s answers on fiscal deficits and entitlements were as evasive as Trump’s. He even botched his closing statement, pausing, mumbling, and stumbling through the last two minutes.

I honestly have no idea how Biden recovers from this. 

It’s unclear whether Biden did well enough to survive to the Democratic convention. The coming weeks will be filled with meetings of Democratic mega-donors and party elites, including Barack Obama and the Clintons, discussing whether they can have a “come to Jesus” meeting with him or whether it will do more damage to their chances. They will focus-group the pros and cons of replacing him, and with whom. 

The performance was massively worse than Democrats could have feared, and it exposed as a pack of lies all those statements that Biden is sharp as a tack and on top of the issues. The Democratic Party now faces a moment of truth and an appalling prospect. It has a nominee chosen by popular primary votes all over the country who has been exposed on prime-time television as utterly unfit for the job. They are panicking and scrambling to decide what to do. They fear Biden will drag them to a huge defeat all down the ballot.

They will have to decide whether to press Biden insistently to step aside. It is very late in the election to do that. While they are deciding how to proceed, they should reflect on all of the untruths they have told about their figurehead for the past year or more. They have misled their country, and pulled their party into a trap.

Many Democrats are calling for Biden to step aside. Andrew Yang, who shared a debate stage with Biden in 2020, is one of them, New York Times and cable pundits are following suit.

If Biden is convinced to bow out, it would mean a painful convention this August in Chicago.

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