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Biden gave debate performance Democrats feared, but Trump did not win new votes

‘I don't know if things can be done to fix this,’ ex-Sen. McCaskill says

Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden on stage for their first debate of the 2024 election in Atlanta on Thursday.
Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden on stage for their first debate of the 2024 election in Atlanta on Thursday. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Thursday night’s presidential debate left the sense that swing voters have a choice between a candidate unlikely to accept unfavorable election results and a candidate who might not have the stamina for four more years.

President Joe Biden came out of the gate flat and lethargic, speaking so softly it was occasionally hard to hear him — he later said he had a sore throat. Former president Donald Trump was full of energy — even as much of what he was saying was untrue.

“They’re going to be out there fact-checking,” Biden told supporters at a watch party in Atlanta after the debate. “I can’t think of one thing that he said was true.”

From afar, Biden seemed to have more vigor in that setting and at a later stop at an Atlanta Waffle House before he headed to North Carolina for a campaign event Friday. The key post-debate moment of the day may not come until Friday evening, however, when the president is due to participate in a campaign reception in New York City.

The debate moderators asked the candidates about policy, but on some questions, such as what they would do to lower the cost of child care, there were few answers. And Trump at one point said he was the president who lowered the out-of-pocket cost of insulin for senior citizens, when that was the result of legislation passed by a Democratic Congress through budget reconciliation and signed into law by Biden.

[Debate transcript from Factba.se]

Trump also repeated falsehoods about his actions during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, arguing that the riot was the fault of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for not having enough security around the Capitol. He also suggested that former Republican Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam B. Kinzinger of Illinois and the Democratic members of the select committee that investigated the insurrection “should go to jail” for “deleting” information.

But while Trump seemingly did nothing to appeal to undecided voters, Biden’s performance caused a four-alarm fire among Democrats and discussions about whether a change could be made before the party’s convention in Chicago in August.

David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said on MSNBC after the debate that Biden’s performance was a “DEFCON 1 moment” for Democrats. But he added that how actual undecided voters viewed the debate might not be known for a few days.

“I have deep suspicion that Donald Trump with swing voters bombed as well,” Plouffe said.

Style and substance

Ahead of the debate, the Trump team released an ad they planned to run after the event arguing that a vote for Biden is really a vote for Vice President Kamala Harris, seemingly predicting Biden’s performance.

“You know who’s waiting behind him, right?” the ad’s narrator said.

“Listen, people can debate on style points, but ultimately this election and who is the president of the United States has to be about substance, and the contrast is clear,” Harris said on CNN after the debate, trying to turn the focus to Trump. “He would not disavow what happened on Jan. 6. He would not give a clear answer on whether he would stand by the election results this November.”

Harris also referenced the Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices helping to overturn Roe v. Wade — but Trump himself seemed to waffle on a particular position on abortion, arguing repeatedly that the issue was in the hands of states now and falsely saying it was a universal goal he’d delivered.

[Fact-checking the Biden-Trump debate]

“Everybody wanted to get it back to the states,” Trump said. “Everybody without exception — Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives — everybody wanted it back.”

Biden landed jabs, repeatedly arguing that Trump was not telling the truth, that historians had voted Trump the worst president in history, and calling him a “whiner” who could not accept his loss in 2020 and would refuse to do so again this year.

“The idea if you lose again, you accepting anything — you can’t stand the loss,” Biden said. “Something snapped in you when you lost the last time.”

There was also this historic exchange, after Trump called Biden “a criminal” for demanding Ukraine replace a corrupt prosecutor:

“The idea that I did anything wrong relative to what you’re talking about is outrageous. It’s simply a lie, No. 1,” Biden said. “No. 2, the idea that you have a right to seek retribution against any American just because you’re president is wrong. It’s simply wrong. No president has ever spoken like that before. No president in our history has spoken like that before. No. 3, the crimes you are still charged with. And think of all the civil penalties you have. How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties? Or for molesting a woman in public, for doing a whole range of things, of having sex with a porn star on the night while your wife was pregnant. I mean, what what what are you talking about? You have the morals of an alley cat.”

“I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump replied, accusing Biden of using the Justice Department to go after him — even though Trump was convicted by the Manhattan district attorney in New York City. “Because he thought it was going to damage me. But when the public found out about these cases, because they understand it better than he does, he has no idea what these cases are. But when he — when they found out about these cases, you know what they did? My poll numbers went up. Way up.”

But Biden also appeared to freeze at one point in an answer before saying, “We finally beat Medicare.” And in one answer about Ukraine, Biden used Trump’s name when he appeared to be referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Afterward, his allies focused statements largely on policy, and some did not even try to sugarcoat Biden’s performance.

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said on MSNBC that she wished she were in the role of debate surrogate so she could look to the positive, but in the role of network commentator she spoke directly about how poorly she thought Biden had performed.

“My job now is to be really honest. Joe Biden had one thing he had to do tonight, and he didn’t do it. He had one thing he had to accomplish, and that was to reassure America that he was up to the job at his age,” McCaskill said. “And he failed at that tonight.”

McCaskill said she was hearing from elected officials, including those in offices where “you might know where they serve.”

“I don’t know if things can be done to fix this,” she said, noting that Harris and California Gov. Gavin Newsom were effective surrogates Thursday night.

“Those two people are signaling to a whole lot of Americans that are paying attention, how come they’re not running? How come the Democratic Party doesn’t have them at the top of the ticket instead of using them to shore up what have become after tonight some pretty glaring weaknesses … in our president,” McCaskill said.

Newsom was in Georgia as one of the top surrogates in the spin room for the Biden-Harris campaign, appearing along with Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.

As with the vice president and Newsom, Warnock and other surrogates speaking on Biden’s behalf argued for the election continuing to be about issues and policies.

“I would be concerned if the president didn’t have a record to run on, but the fact of the matter is that this is a man who has passed historic legislation,” Warnock told reporters after the debate.

Democrats also tried to keep the focus on Trump.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, said Trump “was acting as if he was some used car salesman and could just tell us whatever and pretend as if it was fact.”

The question may be less whether Biden’s showing Thursday will drive voters to Trump, however, or whether it will boost voter apathy, driving them stay home, to cast a ballot for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or — as is possible in Nevada — to vote for none of the candidates whose name appear on the ballot.