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Biden Trump debate

Biden had a terrible debate. Trump made things up. 2024 reality sets in

We watched what you watched.

Presidential debates are about optics as much as substance. If you’re a Democrat running in a tight down-ballot race or a donor spending millions of dollars to defeat former President Donald Trump, you have to be very alarmed by President Joe Biden’s Thursday night debate performance.

It was bad. Biden’s answers were rambling, his voice was raspy and he committed repeated verbal flubs that will be clipped thousands of times between now and Election Day. Democrats wanted Biden to show voters that he’s capable of serving another term. Many Democrats now fear they got the exact opposite.

Biden started off poorly and he ended poorly. He had some good moments in between, but nowhere near enough. The debacle of Biden’s opening 20 minutes — and the uproar it caused on social media — may be all anyone remembers. It doesn’t matter if you believe Biden was right on the issues if he was unable to express his views in a consistently coherent way.

In the post-debate analysis on CNN — the network that aired the debate and likely drew tens of millions of viewers — veteran anchor John King expressed alarm at the performance and said some senior Democrats were wondering whether Biden should step aside as the party’s nominee.

Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s former communications director, called her old boss’ performance “disappointing” on CNN. Bedingfield said Biden’s “biggest issue was to prove to the American people that he had the energy, the stamina — and he didn’t do that.”

Vice President Kamala Harris later told CNN that Biden had a “slow start but strong finish.” Biden campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu had the same spin.

Yet you could tell the Biden camp thought the president was doing poorly when word leaked out about 30 minutes in that he was suffering from a cold. That’s a tell if there ever was one.

It wasn’t that Trump was great, either. Many of his answers were rambling, wildly unfocused and filled with falsehoods. Trump wouldn’t say whether he’d accept the results of the election. Trump simply ignored the final year of his presidency — when the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the country and hundreds of thousands of Americans were sick and dying — as if it never happened.

Trump tried to blame former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, portraying himself as a bystander instead of the driving force behind the insurrection.

The problem was that Biden was often unable to exploit Trump’s false statements or distortions. The opening was there, but unlike during their 2020 debates, Biden couldn’t take advantage of it.

Biden repeatedly pushed Trump on the former president’s alleged quote that Americans who died fighting overseas were “losers” and “suckers.” Trump has vehemently denied saying this, although former Marine Gen. John Kelly — who served as Trump’s White House chief of staff — confirmed it to CNN in 2023.

“My son was not a loser, was not a sucker,” Biden said of the late Beau Biden, an Iraq war veteran who died of brain cancer in 2015. “You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.”

But Trump was able to get off many of his key lines and seized on Biden’s mishaps.

“This is the worst presidency ever,” Trump said at one point. He slammed Biden for inflation and the economic distress that a huge majority of Americans feel right now.

“We shouldn’t be having a debate about it,” Trump said. “There’s nothing to debate.”

This is the crux of Trump’s campaign message. Things were much better when I was president — if you just ignore 2020, Jan. 6, all the lies and the myriad legal problems.

Biden’s age and health — always major liabilities for his reelection — are now the focus of this race coming out of Thursday night.

Biden’s campaign and his Democratic allies on the Hill hate this narrative more than anything. Especially since it’s questionable that Biden and Trump will ever meet on a debate stage again, which would potentially give the incumbent a chance for a rebound.

Here’s a perfect example: Biden said, “We finally beat Medicare.” Biden presumably meant to say that he beat PhRMA in his quest to lower prescription drug prices for Medicare enrollees, a major legislative achievement.

Trump immediately retorted that Biden was “right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death. And he’s destroying Medicare.”

After another Biden gaffe, Trump countered “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

There were some wildly inane moments too. Trump noted he “won the club championship” when asked about his own age. Then Biden said he could outdrive Trump. Trump responded, “I’ve seen your swing.”

But the reality is this: No matter what Democrats say on the record today, they’re privately alarmed and many will want Biden out. They’re worried he will drag them down with him on Nov. 5.

“To call it a disaster is too kind,” a House Democrat said to us after the 90-minute session ended in Atlanta.

Shortly before midnight, another House Democrat weighed in with this text: “It’s over.”

— Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan and Andrew Desiderio

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.