Even factchecking Trump’s constant lies probably wouldn’t have rescued Biden | Margaret Sullivan

From the moment the candidates walked out on to the stage in Atlanta, it was obvious that this debate was a big mistake for Joe Biden. By the end, it was a train wreck for his campaign.

The incumbent president, who desperately needed to show vitality, looked from the start like an old man. His gait was stiff and his voice tentative. His energy was markedly different from his triumphant State of the Union address just a few months ago.

Donald Trump had a thuggish look, but he seemed vigorous and energetic. He seemed … the same.

Then the barrage of lies started, as they always do with Trump.

Among them: Democrats favor post-birth executions. The former president never slept with a porn star. The 2020 election was riddled with fraud. Trump never called prisoners of war losers and suckers. Biden would quadruple people’s taxes.

On and on and on, in nearly every Trump sentence. Biden had occasional moments, too, of exaggeration or misstatement. But there is no comparison.

No comparison – and no fact-checking by the moderators.

That was the policy going in. CNN’s political director, David Chalian, made that clear a few days ago when he said that debate moderators shouldn’t make themselves into participants but remain mere facilitators. There would be no live factchecks during the debate.

And so, Trump rolled over Biden, landing punch after punch. Not with logic. And certainly not with truth. But with force of personality, and sheer chutzpah.

The damage was obvious to everyone, even Biden loyalists who started off upset and ended up in a panic.

Biden “had a test to meet tonight … and he failed to do that”, said CNN’s Van Jones, a former Obama administration adviser, after sadly attesting that he loves Biden and thinks he’s a great person.

How much of it was a result of the lack of factchecks and early questions that seemed to play to Trump’s strengths?

Plenty, but not everything.

“You don’t let a proven propagandist on stage without stopping him when he lies. Instant refutation is key,” observed Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who studies authoritarian “strongmen” and their techniques to gain power.

Biden, for the most part, tried to counter with facts. But he often delivered them tepidly or hesitantly. At times, he seemed to lose his train of thought.

When he did get fired up, some of his lines came off like rehearsed insults. True as it might be, Biden’s diss that Trump has “the morals of an alleycat” was not dreamed up spontaneously.

I can’t imagine that most people lasted more than about 30 minutes in front of their screens. (Thirty minutes, by the way, in which there was little mention of Trump’s 34 felony convictions or of Trump trying to overturn the 2020 election.)

It was that painful.

One progressive friend texted me early on that she couldn’t take the punishment any more, and would need to turn off the TV to protect her wellbeing. “I’m out. My body was making it painfully clear, in every sense, that I can’t handle this.”

Before the debate started, the news outlet Axios – which specializes in brevity – summed up what needed to happen for each candidate to win this debate.

Biden would need to “cast his [Republican] rival as a fundamental threat to the nation, who as president would bring instability and chaos”. Trump would need to argue that “the country has gotten more expensive and dangerous under Biden”.

But the more fundamental test was this: would Biden seem vigorous enough to lead for four more years? Would Trump seem truly unhinged?

Biden did not seem vigorous enough. And Trump? He seemed in control of himself, not deranged as he sometimes appears in his rallies. There were no flights of fancy about sharks and electrocution.

I thought this debate might go badly for Biden. I didn’t think I’d be hearing immediate calls for him to step aside – even coming from those who have been stalwartly supporting him.

Would Biden have benefited if CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash had been encouraged to challenge and refute Trump’s lies, and did so immediately?

Yes, but it’s hard to say how much. It might have slowed Trump’s juggernaut. I don’t think it would have made Biden look any more potent.

As for where the Democrats go from here, it’s hard to say. If Biden truly wants to continue his campaign, and it seems he does, they’ll just stumble on.

If so, it’s going to take many weeks – and maybe a miracle – to recover from this disastrous night.

The Guardian