Biden Cannot Go On Like This

I’m not sure I’d ever watched Donald Trump lie so incessantly, extravagantly and unabashedly, and that’s saying something. On Thursday night he lied about the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He lied about the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. He lied about his relationship with the military, about his concern for the environment — about pretty much any and every subject that came up. He lied with a smile. He lied with a shrug. He lied with a sneer.

That should have been the main, maybe even the only, story of the debate, and it should have made him easy, pitiable prey for his opponent. But President Biden failed to take advantage of it. He seemed — there’s no getting around this — incapable of doing so. And that’s its own big story, one that will only grow over the hours and days ahead.

Biden, 81, came into his face-off with Trump knowing that many voters were concerned about his age and had doubts about his sharpness. His aides knew that, too. And he and they spent much of the past week devoted to preparation, preparation, preparation, pausing occasionally to assure nervous Democrats that Biden had this thing under control.

But from the moment the debate began, he seemed unsteady. Off. His expression was often frozen. His voice was often flat. He garbled words. He corrected himself midsentence, over and over again. He’d clearly memorized key talking points — key phrases — but he repeatedly used them without providing adequate context, swerved from one to another without any transition, halted sentences before they reached their destination, started sentences without giving them any bearings.

Ten minutes in, I had a knot in my stomach. Twenty minutes in, the knot was so tight, it hurt. “We finally beat Medicare,” he said early on, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

He got somewhat clearer as the night wore on. He found more animation. But the damage was done, and it may be significant. I shudder to type that, but there’s no sense in pretending. That’s perhaps what too many of his advisers have been doing up until now — ignoring or wishing away the obvious.

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