The Biden Excuse Machine Kicks Into Gear

There is a massive PR effort afoot to convince us to stay aboard a sinking ship.

My God, are they actually going to stick with him? After Joe Biden performed catastrophically at the first presidential debate last week, even some of the most hard core Biden supporters in the press (Thomas Friedman, the New York Times editorial board, Joe Scarborough, Van Jones, the Pod Save America guys) accepted what this magazine has said for well over a year: Joe Biden is a very bad candidate to run against Donald Trump in 2024. A staggering 86 percent of voters thought Biden was too old for a second term before the debate, and he had the lowest approval rating that any postwar president has had at this point in his presidency. He had already been on track to lose the election. Now the whole country has seen that those around Biden have been concealing the full extent of his decline, which had already been clear to those who interacted with him. No honest person can say he seems like he’s fit to serve four more years.

Biden should be retiring gracefully. He had a chance to turn the race around at this debate. He failed and made it worse. Instead, it seems like Biden is doubling down, pretending the debate was some kind of blip, and unleashing “a massive political, PR and personal campaign” to get people to doubt or forget what they saw with their own eyes. Senator John Fetterman has instructed people to “chill the fuck out” and the Biden administration has characterized Democratic naysayers as part of a “bedwetting brigade.” Rather than accept the obvious fact that Biden is simply no longer capable of performing at the level required of a president, pro-Biden partisans are coming up with every conceivable excuse, including that “he was over-prepared, that CNN moderators didn’t adequately fact-check Donald Trump and that his most senior aides and advisers are responsible for his weak showing.” My favorite of these is “over-prepared.” If there was one thing Biden was most assuredly not, it was over-prepared.

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This is the time when Biden’s family should be having a difficult conversation with him, the kind you have with an aging relative who shouldn’t be driving anymore but can’t accept their limitations, and needs to have their keys taken away. (That’s how Franklin Foer, who wrote a highly sympathetic biography of Biden, recently put it.) Instead, New York Times White House reporter Katie Rogers says there is “real anger within the Biden family and among close allies about how the president was staffed and prepared ahead of the debate.” First Lady Jill Biden appears to be fully on board with Joe pressing forward. When the family met recently, they encouraged him to stay in the race rather than helping him accept that it was time to quit. Apparently “one of the strongest voices imploring Mr. Biden to resist pressure to drop out was his son Hunter Biden, whom the president has long leaned on for advice.” Now, I’ve got to say, to me Hunter Biden doesn’t seem like someone who has particularly reliable judgment. It’s concerning that in a high-stakes election, the opinion of Hunter Biden as to whether or not the Democrats should run a manifestly incapable candidate might carry the day.

The excuses being made for Biden are spectacularly unpersuasive. One typical defense of Biden, written by the Lincoln Project’s Stuart Stevens in the New York Times, essentially just repeated all of the ways in which Donald Trump is a menace, which only makes it more worrying that the Democrats are running such a weak candidate against him. The standard line is that Biden had “one bad night,” with defenders pointing to other recent instances in which Biden appeared lucid in public. The problem here is that people suffering from age-related decline often have “good days and bad days,” and Biden is reportedly only “dependably engaged” from 10am to 4pm, meaning that most of the time, the U.S. is without a president who can be counted on to respond to crises.

Even if the debate had been a fluke—and the fact that Biden avoids high-risk public appearances strongly suggests that it was not—the debate disaster is going to define the public’s image of Biden throughout critical months of the election, because there isn’t another debate until September. The CNN debate was the test of whether he could assuage people’s worries about his age. He couldn’t do it, and now Biden’s family are apparently taking the distasteful course of blaming the staff for what is obviously completely on Joe Biden.

Some of the arguments in defense of Biden veer into Democratic versions of QAnon. One popular social media post blamed the lighting and camera angles at the debate, saying that they failed to flatter Joe Biden. (Okay, but did they make him keep his mouth hanging open and mumble inaudibly?) One theory from an ex-KGB agent even suggested Biden had been targeted with an “energy beam” during the debate that had weakened him, explaining that “an energy beam could be precisely directed toward a person's brain from a significant distance, and calibrated to cause the kind of milder symptoms, relatively speaking, exhibited by Biden during the debate.” (Frankly, Biden could have used an “energy beam.”)

The only good argument I’ve seen for why Joe Biden shouldn’t drop out is that if he did, Kamala Harris would likely replace him, and Kamala Harris at her best might be even less electable than Joe Biden at his most addled and confused. Notably, an article in the New Yorker making the case that Biden should stay in the race did not even attempt to defend his debate performance, with the author “stunned by Biden’s incoherence and his inability to put together sentences.” That article also compared Biden with a relative who shouldn’t be driving anymore, but the author made the “TINA” case: There Is No Alternative. Practically speaking, it’s Biden or chaos, and the chaos you don’t know is riskier than the candidate you do know. That argument might be compelling, but it’s notable what it admits: Democratic incompetence has brought us to the point where there is no hope for beating Donald Trump other than trying to push someone over the finish line who Americans almost all agree is unqualified to hold the office for another four years. 

One argument I will not accept is what Axios calls the “biggest argument” Democrats are making, which is that “Biden won the Democratic primaries overwhelmingly, and that result is final.” A “source close to Biden” told Axios that the critics “don’t get to decide,” because “we don’t have smoke-filled rooms” and “live in a democracy.” Biden won the primary fair and square, and so even if people voted based on a misunderstanding of Biden’s condition, “democracy” requires sticking with Biden.


donateThis argument is sickeningly unprincipled. Biden’s people did everything possible to make sure there wasn’t a real primary. They refused to hold debates. They rigged the calendar of elections to be maximally favorable to Biden. They put intense pressure on would-be competitors to stay out of the race. Even as voters were overwhelmingly indicating they wanted someone other than Biden, party elites were busy making sure they had no other viable option. And now they have the absolute audacity to say that democracy means we have to respect their deceitful coronation of an incompetent candidate. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser recently asked: “Where were all these [critics of Biden] when Biden’s decision to run again could have been headed off?” Well, I know where I was: pleading with Democrats to acknowledge that voters did not want Biden to run again. Those of us who said this were told we were helping Donald Trump by undermining the president. It turned out that the opposite was true: those who propped up Biden and stifled dissent were ensuring Trump would have a weak opponent. Is it any surprise that the CEO of the Make America Great Again Super PAC is in the Wall Street Journal today, telling Democrats they absolutely have to stick with Biden? I’m sure Trump would love nothing more than to face an opponent in November who most Americans think can’t do the job, and who has shown himself incapable of forcefully rebutting Trump’s lies.

I agree with those who think a Trump victory would be an absolute disaster. Just look at the terrifying Steve Bannon interview in the New York Times today. “We’re not reasonable,” he declares, announcing that the aim of a movement like his is to “totally and completely destroy your opponent.” The Supreme Court is clearing the way for a totally lawless authoritarian presidency, in which Trump would shred every environmental and labor regulation, stifle political opposition, and unleash an unprecedented attack on immigrants. It’s scary stuff, and President Biden is increasingly reminding me of Paul von Hindenburg, an aging liberal who is incapable of resisting fascism, and whose last act in political life was to hand power over to the fascists. If Biden sticks around and loses to Donald Trump, the American people should be deeply, deeply angry at the irresponsible group of Democratic insiders who worked to bring about such a calamity. 

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