Politics / June 28, 2024

Trump Was Terrible. But Biden Was Worse.

Trump’s lies and unhinged ranting went unchallenged because Biden was incoherent and lost.

Jeet Heer
Joe Biden and Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

If Donald Trump had faced a halfway plausible and competent adversary, tonight’s debate would have marked the death of the former president’s hopes for returning to the White House. Simply put, Trump gave the second-worst debate performance of any major candidate for president, but… He repeatedly made outrageous and offensive lies, such as his claim that overturning Roe v. Wade was “something everybody wanted.” (In point of fact, polls show 65 percent of Americans opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.)

Despite repeated questions on this point from moderator Dana Bash, Trump refused to say he would accept the results of the election if he lost (which only served to remind Americans that he had refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and instead had egged on a mob to attack to the Capitol). He angrily refused to address many of the questions he was asked directly and instead kept harping on his pet issue that undocumented migrants were destroying America. Even as most Americans have started to oppose Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, Trump made the horrifying promise that he would let Israel “finish the job.” He made gaffes like referring to migrants taking away “Black jobs.” And, as fact-checkers such as CNN’s Daniel Dale documented, Trump repeatedly lied about many things great and small. As one example, Dale notes:

Trump’s claim that some Dem states allow people to execute babies after birth is fiction. No state allows this. He’s said the state he’s talking about is New York, which doesn’t allow this, though false social media memes have said it does.

Unfortunately, Dale’s fact-checking was confined to Twitter and the CNN webpage, as well as post-debate commentary. On stage, no one challenged Trump’s absurdities and fictions. Moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash let them go unchallenged. Joe Biden did note that Trump was lying, but Biden’s rebuttals were so fuzzy and incoherent that they lacked any ability to convince.

Biden repeatedly stumbled through questions as if he were trying to dredge up a half-remembered script. He often rambled into strange and hard-to-understand directions. In a stomach-turning moment, he derailed a discussion about one of his strongest issues (abortion) by bringing up immigration, the very topic Trump wants the election to be about. It was a completely unforced error on Biden’s part.

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At one point Biden gave a rambling and hard-to-follow talk about taxes that ended with the bizarre statement, “We finally beat Medicare.” Trump naturally jumped on this gaffe. Biden likely was trying to say, “We finally beat the rising cost of Medicare,” or some similar, and accurate, statement. But he was too lost in his own words to make the case.

As the writer Eyal Press noted, “An alert, articulate Democrat would be hammering Trump. Biden is hanging on the ropes.”

Months of debates over Biden’s age should now be over. He’s clearly not up to the job of fending off the disaster of a Trump presidency.

The question now is: Do Democrats have a Plan B?

The only plausible scenario is for the party’s ranking members of Congress and party elders such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton to converge on the White House to tell Biden to withdraw his nomination for the good of the party and the country (not to say the world). Kamala Harris would then become the party’s nominee and she could select a vice-presidential pick from among the party’s wide range of talent.

Those who still harbor fantasies of a brokered convention clearly haven’t been paying attention. The Democratic National Committee just moved the presidential nomination roll call up to August 7 so that Biden can get on the ballot in Ohio. Biden already has a total lock on pledged delegates, and even if he could be persuaded to release them, there is no process for adjudicating a successor.

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Indeed, since at this point Harris is the only plausible alternative Democratic nominee, there is an argument that Biden should resign not just his candidacy but the presidency—a far more demanding job than merely running for the office. That would give Harris the chance to demonstrate her competency—and to implicitly begin to take the country in an even slightly different direction, e.g., on Israel/Gaza. And with Biden’s delegates already behind her, the convention would become a rally, rather than a bloodbath—allowing Harris to nominate a VP candidate with an eye toward unifying the party.

Although Harris has some political liabilities, none of them are as bad as the problem of Biden’s age, which is dragging his reelection bid down to disastrous defeat. Tonight’s debate only underscores the problem—and indeed makes it unsolvable.

Harris would have been a much better debater than Biden in 2024 and a much better candidate than Biden. It’s likely she would’ve made mincemeat of Trump. Unlike Biden, she could still be an eager and energetic candidate.

The office of the vice presidency exists for a reason: to take over the job when the president isn’t up for it. Now is the time for Harris to save her party and America.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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