How To Process Biden’s Debate Disaster

INSIDE: Donald Trump ... Teddy White ... Don Draper
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 27: U.S. President Joe Biden participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. President Biden and Republican presidential candidate, former ... ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 27: U.S. President Joe Biden participates in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. President Biden and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump are facing off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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A special edition of Morning Memo focused exclusively on last night’s presidential debate. Sign up for the email version.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe

I loathe theater criticism-style debate coverage, but by any standard it was a disastrous performance by President Biden. But for all the mumbled answers, muffed one-liners, and inability to seize control of the tempo, volume, and direction of the debate, his physical presentation was more damaging than anything he said or failed to say.

All of the signs of aging were there: the stiff-legged gait, the blank stares into the middle distance, the frozen expression on his face, and the slow reaction times.

Biden’s right-wing foes have been spinning out cheap fakes for weeks, selectively editing videos to cast him in the most decrepit, senile light possible. Last night, Biden embodied those videos, breathing life into them in a way that confirmed the worst attacks of his detractors and left his supporters in something approaching shock.

A Strategic Blunder

What makes this probably the worst presidential debate performance ever wasn’t the presentation itself, it was that Biden sought this debate, forced it on Trump, agreed to its terms, and then fell on his face. It was a strategic move to try to change the course of the campaign, put to rest the concerns about his age and vitality, and put Trump — fresh off his criminal conviction — back on his heels. This is what it looks like to swing for the fences and miss. You can’t blame the man for being old, but you can blame him for failing to seize the opportunity that he went out of his way to create for himself.

Original caption: Photo shows Republican Vice-President, Richard Nixon Speaking during the Presidential debate with John Kennedy (Not shown). Nixon is shown in this close -up during their first meeting in the nationally televised series of “Great Debates.” (Getty Images)

You can carp about CNN’s debate moderators abdicating any fact-checking responsibilities. You can bemoan Trump’s fountain of lies or the difficulty of debating a narcissistic sociopath on live TV. But Biden asked for this. He agreed to the rules. He set the agenda. And none of what happened was unforeseeable. Not only was it predictable, it was in fact predicted.

Which Audience Are You Talking About?

I’ve already made my disdain for presidential debates known, and I won’t belabor the point here. Instead, let’s try to untangle some of the conflicting and contradictory analyses that bedevil not just the coverage of debates but how people absorb and react to them. The problem writ large overwhelmingly comes down to conflating which debate audience you’re taking about. Let’s hit the three biggies:

The Partisans

You don’t need to convince the candidate’s base of support of anything. They’ve already decided. But you want to energize them, give voice to their hopes and concerns, turn them into legions of folk using your language, spreading your message and reinforcing your campaign.

For their part, many partisans tend to observe debates and campaigns like sports fans, rooting for outcomes over which they have little or no control. I don’t recommend that approach for your mental health, but it also sucks up an enormous amount of human and emotional capital, like spending all day on the sofa watching sports on TV instead of getting out and exercising yourself. The partisan-as-sports-fan risks becoming more deeply invested in their preferred outcomes and the roller coaster of emotions along the way than in the underlying cause.

But of course the partisan audience also includes the campaign’s volunteers, donors, and the people who do the hard work on the ground, too. In short, you as the candidate want to lead them all in a highly demonstrable way.

Biden left his partisans dismayed at best; many descended into panic.

The Media

Most people, even partisans, don’t watch the debates, getting much of their information about what happened through media coverage and the general buzz associated with the event and the after-action analysis. So the campaign wants to exert as much influence as it can over the media coverage. That starts with pre-debate expectation-setting, extends through the candidate’s performance itself, and immediately shifts into spin and image-crafting after the candidate leaves the stage.

In an ideal world, you cement a conventional wisdom favorable to your candidate and maybe if you’re lucky elevate their performance into the zeitgeist. The worst case scenario is that a bad performance becomes part of the zeitgeist, which is what happened last night.

While the efforts to influence the media coverage are partly about influencing members of the media themselves, a huge part of the effort is intended to try to shape the coverage so that those who consume it get a particular version of events that is favorable from the campaign’s point of view. It’s a very difficult bank shot to pull off.

Complicating the effort further is the media’s own sense of itself. So much of what passes for political news — grading the candidates on how good they are at performing for the media, reporters on the campaign trail talking to “real” people, media-sponsored public opinion surveys and the thousands of polling stories they generate — is the media positioning itself as gatekeeper between candidate and public. The media has its own notion of what “real” voters, “common folk,” and the people out there in the “heartland” are all about it. It’s a pose, a posture, and a positioning driven by a host of factors that would take a separate essay to unpack. But the campaign’s bank shot attempt must pass through this distorted media prism before it reaches the intended audience.

Critiques of the media tend to confuse all this further. Partisans have their own notions of what they want the media coverage to look like in order to influence people other than themselves. Rarely is anyone shouting at the media because they feel let down by the quality of information they themselves are getting. They’re exercised about what they perceive other people to be getting from the media coverage and how those other people will or won’t react. It becomes a hall of mirrors very quickly.

Low-Information Voters

Low-information voters exist in a world completely different from the one partisans inhabit. I have no real idea where they get their information. It’s not remotely like how you and I get information.

You’ve probably noticed by now that much of the public discourse in the mass media era (let’s peg it as starting with the 1960 election) is focused on these persuadables. Partisan minds change, too, over time, but slowly and in herd-like ways. The persuadables are more up for grabs more often, especially as partisan allegiances have become more fixed, and so the focus naturally turns to them. But this is where things start to get more opaque.

Political campaigns in the modern era have fallen back on the techniques developed for mass marketing consumer products. It’s a totally different world than Schoolhouse Rock, high school civics class, or academic political science. It’s not a Lincoln-Douglas debate. It’s Coke v. Pepsi. Ford v. Chevy. McDonalds v. Burger King. Apple v. Microsoft. Google v. Meta.

Political reporting has never quite caught up. It’s still predicated on old-fashioned notions that emerged before the mass media era, what I think of as the all-politics-is-local conceit. It’s quaint and even has residual charm to paint a picture of yard signs and door-to-door campaigning and stump speeches, a candidate amongst the people, precinct by precinct breakdowns, and all the other hyperfixations that persist decades after politics was nationalized, regional differences were flattened, and the vast majority of campaign spending was shifted to mass media advertising.

There’s another strong current in the political coverage that I blame on Teddy White, even though that’s what I was weaned on, too. It’s the hyperfocus on the candidate as a world-historic figure, a great man (usually) fixation. In this coverage, the currencies are psychology and inner turmoil on the one hand and petty jousting among campaign personalities on the other. This is the coverage that later came to elevate political consultants into nationally known gurus.

Original caption: American politician US Senator Henry M Jackson (1912 – 1983) (left) laughs at a comment by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right) during an unspecified event, mid 1970s. Visible between them is journalist Theodore H White (1915 – 1986). (Photo by Diana Walker/Getty Images)

When you talk about these forms of coverage in isolation you sort of get the idea, but when you consider that these are stand-ins for billions of dollars in political spending, you start to see the real limitations of these coverage conceits. They’re pernicious but they’re not intentionally deceptive or misguided. It’s a grasping effort to make sense of exceedingly difficult things to cover. Imagine covering a Pepsi v. Coke advertising campaign. It would suck!

Are You Still With Me?

If you’re still following along, you probably see where this goes next. The modern political campaign has reduced partisans and the media to trying to guess, predict, and pseudo-analyze whether the mass marketing campaign underway out there is effectively reaching the low-information voter. Much of the backbiting against candidates and their campaigns involves would-be Don Drapers armchair-quarterbacking over mass marketing techniques.

Another chunk of the discourse comes down to would-be media critics arguing not over the substance of politics but over the coverage and how it will be perceived by people who may never see it and who we don’t understand very well in the first place.

Brace Yourself

I broke this all down into some of its constituent parts — simplifying it somewhat — because we’re going to be in a whirlwind of emotional outbursts, severe backbiting, and unsolicited campaign advice from everyone and their mother over the next few days given how last night’s debate went. Most of it will be misdirected in the ways I’ve outlined here.

In particular, there’s a subset of media and partisans that I’ll call the “Do Something!” caucus. It’s a cost-free position to take. Do something! Anything! It demands action as an emotional release valve. It doesn’t matter what the action is, so long as it’s not inaction.

Demanding that Biden step down and Democrats come up with a new nominee without a plan for how or for who replaces him is a patented “Do Something!” caucus move. The “Do Something!” caucus loves pretending that politics is chess and that chess is winnable with clever moves. The “Do Something!” caucus obsesses over messaging strategies.

Biden gave the “Do Something!” caucus a lot to work with last night.

What’s Next?

I do not know.

I repeat: I do not know.

That’s part of what draws me to politics. It is not predictable. It surprises you. Making predictions robs me of the joy of the unexpected, though in truth much of the unexpected in politics over the past 8 years has brought little joy.

For my part, the emotional edge to last night’s debate came from the knowledge that tens of thousands of Americans are working night and day to shore up the foundations of democracy and to protect them from another assault by Donald Trump. It is the calling of our time.

On balance, Joe Biden has been a remarkably effective leader of that effort. More so than I would have imagined. But he fell down on the job last night, and that let a lot of people down.

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Notable Replies

  1. Congratulations to RFK Jr. for last night’s debate.

  2. I couldn’t stay in the live blog last night due to this pathetic forum software. So the only thing I’m going to say instead of a long rant about how Biden should have bowed out long ago, is that I hope to FSM that there will be enough “negative partisanship” in November for Biden to win with voters who want to stop Trump.

  3. Meandering Biden, Pathological Trump: The Worst Possible Presidential Debate Was a Sad Night for America - U.S. News -

    The Worst Possible Presidential Debate Was a Sad Night for America

    Last night, Biden lost. Trump lost. American democracy lost. And although televised presidential debates rarely change the trajectory of an election, for Democrats, the spectacle on CNN was the sum of all their fears
    Anyone who thought before Thursday’s televised U.S. presidential debate that despite a very good record as president, a meandering and unfocused Joe Biden should not run for reelection and needs to allow another Democrat to be the candidate must feel vindicated now.

    Anyone who thought before the debate that Donald Trump, a twice-impeached and 34-counts convicted ignoramus and pathological liar, is patently unfit to be president and is a clear and present danger to American democracy must feel doubly vindicated now.

    Anyone who thought that both assertions were valid, however qualitatively different, wins the vindication sweepstakes.

    If you’re a Biden voter, you cringed. If you’re a Trump voter, you didn’t cringe because you don’t know how to. If you’re the world, now’s the time to cringe

    This was a sad night for America: Biden lost. Trump lost. Hosting news channel CNN lost. And American democracy lost.

    The Founding Fathers of the American Republic never in their wildest fears – all of which are expressed in the Federalist Papers – could have imagined that a twice-impeached president, a felon convicted on 34 counts and awaiting sentencing, would actively seek the presidency again.

    They also never envisaged that a man who tried to overturn election results through a violent insurrection would four years later run again on the same platform, pledge not to necessarily accept the election results and be supported, cult-like, by 45 to 50 percent of America.

    Abortion, immigration, the economy, perceptions of inflation and foreign policy issues all came up during Thursday’s debate. But whether Americans are fully aware of it or not, this election, much like 2020, is about the future and resilience of American democracy.

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