Biden’s shaky debate performance doesn’t mean he’s dropping out

Four years ago, after the first debate of the 2020 election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, CNN political correspondent Dana Bash famously called the event a “s— show.”

Those words were a more accurate description of what took place Thursday night in Atlanta. Neither candidate brought his A game. Heck, it’s hard to say either brought his D or F game. 

Biden had perhaps the worst night of his political career. At the beginning of the debate, his voice was raspy, he struggled to make coherent arguments and his eyes had a vacant, faraway look that made him appear even older than his 81 years. While the president was far better in the second half of the debate, the first impression he gave voters was of a candidate who is simply too old and too enfeebled to handle his job as president. And as we all know, first impressions tend to endure.

On the flip side, Trump didn’t have a good night either.

Worst of all, Biden missed tremendous chances to hit Trump — both for his felony conviction and his actions on Jan. 6. On abortion, he failed to aggressively go after Trump and make the election a referendum on an issue that strongly favors the incumbent. His closing statement, which dealt with taxes and had a weird tangent about lead pipes, was maybe his biggest missed opportunity to frame the election in terms that favor his reelection.

On the flip side, Trump didn’t have a good night, either. Unlike Biden he started off strong, but as the night wore on, he looked and sounded more unhinged. Pretty much every answer he gave had at least one big lie, and he refused to say he would accept the results of the 2024 election. He was mean, abrasive and unremittingly negative. Trump may truly believe that the U.S. today is a dumpster fire, but I’m not sure it benefits him or his party to keep dragging down the country. 

There’s little question that Trump had a better night than Biden, but it’s not necessarily clear that he moved many voters to his camp. If anything, he may have reminded them why they don’t like him. So even if Biden lost the debate, I’m not sure that one can say Trump won it.

So where does that leave the presidential race?

To listen to bed-wetting Democrats, Biden needs to drop out of the race and let a new nominee emerge at the party’s convention in August.

Let’s be very clear: This isn’t going to happen. Biden won’t drop out of the race because of a lousy debate performance. And if he’s not dropping out, there is simply no mechanism to replace him at the Democratic convention. (If, by some outside chance, he does withdraw, Vice President Kamala Harris will be the Democratic nominee in November.)

By running to reporters with suggestions that he drop out, Democrats are making a bad debate performance much, much worse.

Democrats can engage in all sorts of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” about what Biden should have done — and maybe they’re right that Biden shouldn’t have run for re-election. But at this point, the die is cast, and Democrats have little choice but to dance with the candidate who brung them. Quite frankly, by running to reporters with suggestions that he drop out, Democrats are making a bad debate performance much, much worse.

If there is any solace for Biden (and solace right now is in short supply for the president), it’s that it’s still June. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, presidents usually do poorly in their first debates when they’re running for re-election. Biden still has months to right the ship. If this debate had taken place in October, there’s a real question as to whether he could recover.

But one thing is clear: The question of the president’s age and fitness with us for the rest of this campaign. Biden could have dispelled these questions Thursday, and he failed. Quite simply, this was a golden opportunity for Biden, and he missed it. There’s still time to fix things by November. But if he doesn’t, there’s a good chance he ends up a one-term president.