Analysis: Biden's debate performance stokes worry among Democrats

  • by Lisa Keen
  • Friday June 28, 2024
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Former President Donald Trump, left, debated President Joe Biden June 27 in CNN's Atlanta studios. Photo: Screengrab via CNN
Former President Donald Trump, left, debated President Joe Biden June 27 in CNN's Atlanta studios. Photo: Screengrab via CNN

It is hard to imagine that LGBTQ voters tuned into the presidential debate Thursday night because they need more information before deciding whom to vote for in November. But now, it is hard to imagine that anyone — LGBTQ or straight — expected the post-debate chatter would be dominated by deep concern that Democratic President Joe Biden might be too physically and cognitively frail to tackle the hardest job in the world for another four years.

The June 27 debate between Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, showed a stark difference between the men, not only on the issues, but also in physical stamina.

LGBTQ voters hoping for some discussion on their issues were disappointed. CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash did not ask any LGBTQ-related questions during the roughly 90-minute debate.

Biden walked onto the CNN debate stage in Atlanta in his usual slow, stiff gait, as if an invisible escort was holding his elbow and guiding him to the podium. From the beginning, his face seemed frozen in a painful grimace. When he spoke, Biden's voice sounded weak and hoarse (reportedly due to a cold), and his answers trailed off topic.

"Watching this was excruciating. It was Biden's worst performance yet," said Lorri Jean, a lesbian and former CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Even some LGBTQ Republicans were caught off guard.

"It was painful watching this debate and embarrassing for our country," said gay Republican activist Rich Tafel, former head of the Log Cabin Republicans group.

But one group of LGBTQ Republicans was pleased.

"Tonight's debate made it abundantly clear that President Trump has the bold, America-first vision, and the physical stamina, to lead America back into economic prosperity and restore peace around the world," stated Charles Moran, current president of Log Cabin.

"After tonight, it's settled: a second Trump term is in the best interest of our country and the LGBT community," Moran added, "and we look forward to the next five months of campaign season to bring President Trump's positive message to LGBT voters in every corner of the country."

Gay Congressmember Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach) was in Atlanta as a surrogate for Biden. He called out Trump for his misstatements about the COVID pandemic. (Trump said that more people died after Biden became president, which the Washington Post fact-checker wrote lacks context.)

"Of the 1.2 million Americans who died of COVID, about 60% died under Biden compared to 40% for Trump," the Post's Glenn Kessler wrote. "But Trump was president during the pandemic for a much shorter time — about 10 months, compared with more than three years under Biden. So the monthly death toll under Trump is higher. A vaccine was created in record time, but it was left to the Biden administration to distribute it in an efficient manner."

Garcia wrote on X, "Listening to Donald Trump lie about the pandemic which killed two of my parents is fucking insane. Over a million Americans died while he was telling people to drink bleach and attacking vaccines. Totally crazy."

'He failed'

Various political commentators said Biden was unsuccessful in doing the one thing he needed to do at the debate: assure the American people that he will be strong enough, at age 82 in November, to serve another four-year term. Former U.S. senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), a commentator for MSNBC, put it bluntly: "He failed."

Several other commentators said they were hearing from Democratic Party notables and operatives a sense of "panic" over Biden's performance and appearance Thursday night — to the point where many were contemplating whether the August convention in Chicago should try to put up another nominee.

"The universal reaction from campaign people, operatives," said MSNBC regular Joy Reid, "was approaching panic." She said they were "very concerned." Commentator Nicole Wallace said she was hearing much the same thing; so did Jen Psaki, former campaign chief for President Barack Obama and Biden's first press secretary who now appears on MSNBC.

Lesbian MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow agreed Biden was weak at the start. But she said she thought he "became stronger, peaking near the end of debate."

Maddow said she thought Trump, 78, had some "coherence" and "started strong" but then became "less coherent and visibly flustered."

Though Biden often tripped through his sentences, he generally answered the questions put to him. But the debate moderators — Tapper and Bash — had to re-ask questions to Trump repeatedly as he tried to avoid answering many of them. When asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin's terms for ending the war in Ukraine — withdraw troops from land Russia claims to have annexed and no attempt for Ukraine to gain NATO membership — were acceptable to him, Trump suggested that if he had been president, Putin never would have invaded Ukraine. When Bash pressed Trump to answer the question — were Putin's terms acceptable — Trump said, "No, they're not acceptable."

Later, Bash asked Trump if he would pledge that political violence was "unacceptable" and that he would accept the results of the election regardless of who wins. Trump said violence is "totally unacceptable." When Bash pressed Trump again to say whether he would accept the results of the election, Trump jumped back to Putin, saying, "He's not going to play games with me." Bash pressed again.

"President Trump, the question was, will you accept the results of the election regardless of who wins? Yes or no, please?" Bash said.

"If it's a fair and legal and good election — absolutely," said Trump.

Columnist and historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote that she was surprised by the focus on Biden's weak performance, given Trump's own showing. Like Maddow, she said, "Trump came out strong but faded and became less coherent over time."

"His entire performance was either lies or rambling non-sequiturs," wrote Richardson in her daily essay.

"He lied so incessantly throughout the evening that it took CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale almost three minutes, speaking quickly, to get through the list," wrote Richardson. But that fact-checking was not done during the debate itself, and neither Tapper nor Bash called out Trump's lies on-air.

At one point, the candidates were asked about the national debt and whether Trump's tax cuts for the very wealthy should be approved again next year. Trump said his tax cuts helped pay down the debt and "spurred the greatest economy that we've ever seen."

Biden, who appeared frequently to be staring into space, said that, if the nation's wealthiest paid even a modest amount of taxes, "We'd be able to wipe out his debt."

"We'd be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do — child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we're able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I've been able to do with the — with — with — with the COVID ...," Biden said.

It seemed obvious, even to Biden, that he had lost his train of thought.

"Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do, with — look, if — we finally beat Medicare."

At a post-debate appearance at a Waffle Shop, someone in the restaurant asked Biden how he felt he did at the debate.

Biden's reply: "It's hard to debate a liar."

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