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The Trump We Knew, The Biden We Feared

Why Didn't CNN allow fact checking?

· The Lede

Marc Cooper

I don’t know about you, but I had not had more fun watching the presidential debate Thursday since I drove an Isuzu Trooper into a cattle truck on an oil slicked dirt road in the Amazon, destroying both vehicles, breaking an arm and watching a dozen cows fly off the truck and into the bush.

Take your choice. Disastrous? Catastrophic? Cataclysmic? How about all of ‘em?

I think my old friend and former Nation colleague David Corn summed the whole mess up in the headline to his newsletter tonight. “We Got The Trump We Knew. We Got The Biden We Feared.”

I see no reason to use this space to paw through the gory details. You have seen them with your own eyes or you have already ten other political obits like this. So I will restrain myself to just a few comments about the general contours and consequences of this smoking black hole.

No defense of Biden’s abysmal performance, but I think it appropriate to say that presidential debates are always a farce and never reveal any of the attributes needed for the job. Prior to the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debate, 34 prior American presidents were elected without having to ace a TV audition. When Lincoln and Douglas debated they spent hours at a time. Days at a time in exhaustive policy detail, not limited to wisecracks, lies, canned zingers and good haircuts squeezed into 90 second segments.

Some credit must be given to CNN for making this one of the most useless debates among all the other useless ones in history. Not that Jake Tapper and Dana Bush are some duo of journalism bull dogs but preventing them from “fact-checking” was a terrible idea. Of course, checking every lie Trump told would eat up the whole show. But with more leeway from their bosses and more imagination on their part, Bash and Tapper could have loaded up some very tough and legit questions for Trump that would have short circuited at least some of the mendacity. But…no. Instead we got two potted plants with a microphone and a gag.

CNN also prevented the candidates from conferring with staff and advisers during the breaks as if this were some sort of stamina reality show. In real life, presidents are always in the presence of advisors and staff and rely upon them as they well should. What’s the point of the isolation?

I did not expect a sterling performance from Biden but have to admit I was dismayed about how god damn awful he was. The worse moments were the missed opportunities: when Trump crowed about his response to COVID and brushed on abortion, these were golden set up moments for Biden to smash him. Instead he totally whiffed. Biden’s reply about Roe was frightful, descending into an unintelligible and incomplete sentences that merely evaporated.

You already know all the negative stuff. It was right in our face for 90 minutes. Anything good to say? A smidgen.

Trump did a great job of making Biden cower but he did a piss poor job of winning over any moderates or the so called Nikki Voters. Biden standing on stage like a frightened ghost probably distracted many of us from the gross and now standard incoherence in Trump’s rambling falsehoods and lies and distortions. I detected nothing in his replies that would appeal to the moderate suburbanites he needs to win. OTOH Biden no doubt turned off some portion of his already depressed base by his frightful performance. So, polling wise, this might be a wash.

Biden, however, needed a jump start. At best he’s slightly behind in the key swing states and if nothing changes for the better for him he is a long shot to survive. And tonight was a dumpster fire not a running start.

Will Biden now be replaced as the candidate with only 7 weeks to go? Don’t ask me because only Biden can release his delegates to the convention and I believe he believes he is the only Democrat who can beat Trump. That notion, nevertheless, is now already under active discussion by big wig Democrats and big money donors. Far be it from me to say whether or not there is a winning candidate in waiting. It’s easy to ring out names like Whitmer or Newsome it’s quite another to vet them, background them, make them make them household names and gear up appropriate campaign infrastructure.

And, yes, you would need Biden to stand aside. And Kamala as well. And pushing her out could set off a party civil war.

In short, we got fugged tonight. Anyway you cut it, Donald Trump inched closer to a November victory. That’s not set in stone but this debate was a whopping setback for the Dems. I’ve said it many times before and I will say it again. I could not care less about the individual political fate of the Democrats. If they want to go down in flames, be my guest. Just don’t take the rest of us down with you.

Marc Cooper has written for Harper's, The New Yorker, The Nation, and many others. At the University of Southern California he was the founding director of Annenberg Digital News. Read him on Substack at The Coop Scoop.