A day before Thursday’s presidential debate, the New York Times ran a front-page story in its print edition railing against the posting of unflattering videos of Joe Biden. Among the president’s many “adversaries,” observed the Times, was the “distorted, online version of himself, a product of often misleading videos that play into and reinforce voters’ longstanding concerns about his age and abilities.”

Such voter concerns were misguided, according to the Times and its sources. Former Illinois representative Adam Kinzinger told the paper: “If you see those [videos] and that’s all you see, you’re going to walk away thinking there’s something wrong, like something’s going on.”

The public was simply too credulous, according to the Times. A pollster complained that “people that already are concerned about his age are quick to accept what they see in the video, and not question whether that’s selectively edited.”

The Times ended its story on an upbeat note. “People are going to see actual footage [during the debate] that contradicts that [cognitive decline narrative],” said the digital director for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. “They’re going to be pleasantly surprised and constantly be reminded that the president is in a lot hardier shape than they’ve been told.”

Oops. It turns out that nothing prepared viewers for the debacle that was Biden’s debate performance. The mainstream media cannot blame selective editing for the impression that Biden lacks the mental acuity to function another four years in the White House. That impression was generated from 90 minutes of live broadcast.

And now the Times and other media outlets have revised their history. It turns out they had their doubts all along! In an editorial calling for Biden to withdraw from the presidential race, the Times admits that the president’s catastrophic performance on Thursday night “affirmed concerns that have been mounting for months or even years.” Biden understood, according to the Times, that “he needed to address longstanding public concerns about his mental acuity and that he needed to do so as soon as possible.” Now they tell us!

On June 11, the Washington Post had attacked Republicans for posting “misleading” videos that seemed to show the president as “infirm, addled or out of his depth.” Such baseless impressions were just part of the right-wing “politics of misinformation and conspiracy theories,” the Post wrote. Now it, too, is acknowledging that “questions about whether [Biden is] up for another four years in the world’s toughest job” are “legitimate.”

To the crisis afflicting the Democratic Party after Thursday’s debate, add a crisis of media legitimacy. For months, the mainstream press attacked anyone who claimed that Biden was cognitively infirm. In particular, Robert Hur, the special counsel who investigated Biden for retaining classified documents, should demand an apology. When Hur declined to prosecute Biden in February 2024 because he had “diminished faculties in advancing age,” the press portrayed Hur as a Republican stooge.

Would that Biden were unfit only for trial. The issue before the country now is whether he can fulfill his duties even through November, since every month will bring further cognitive decline.

The effort to dismiss that decline recalls the leadership insecurities of totalitarian regimes. Fittingly, the Democratic administration and its media allies also arrogate to themselves the power to declare large swathes of scientific thinking and dissent from liberal orthodoxies “disinformation” that may rightly be suppressed. But Americans got an uncensored look at the president on Thursday and can now make up their own minds about Biden’s capacity to serve another four years.

If Biden refuses to call off his campaign, the press will face its own set of challenges: How to cover him? Does it revert to the status quo ante—pretending that everything is fine in the Oval Office and that only Donald Trump poses a danger to the republic? Will it allow Biden to stay in seclusion, or will it, as it should, demand to hear from the president unaided by a teleprompter? Will the press create a Biden cognitive-faculties beat?

The stay-the-course narrative has already emerged:

Biden just had a bad night.

In fact, it wasn’t even that bad. (Biden’s delivery merely lacked “vigor and combativeness.”)

Other candidates have recovered from rocky debate performances.

A ninety-minute debate is less important than three and a half years of governing.

The main problem was that Biden had a raspy voice and spoke softly.

Debates rarely influence elections.

But what the public saw was not a bad night, consisting of missed opportunities or miscalculated emotional affect. What the public saw was not a lack of “vigor.” What the public saw were the all-too-familiar symptoms of senility—which only gets worse, never better. The question is not what the last three and a half years of the Biden presidency were like but what another four would bring. Being softspoken is not disqualifying. The inability to form words or to avoid cognitive cul-de-sacs is. Biden’s incapacity with numbers was especially concerning. He inflated or deflated them a thousandfold: his administration created “15,000 new jobs;” we have a “thousand trillionaires” in America; raising taxes on the wealthy would raise “$500 million”; "400,000 people” would allegedly not have health coverage without the Affordable Care Act.

Yes, Americans’ collective memory is itself weak. If, during the next four months, the press once again swaddles the president in a protective layer of invisibility, it is conceivable that the debate will be out of sight, out of mind by November. But if the most excruciating moments of Biden’s cognitive breakdown are kept before the public, it is hard to imagine the country choosing to put its future, especially regarding questions of war and peace, at such risk. The Trump campaign ads write themselves—no fancy media consultants required.

Against such an opponent, Trump needed only retire his wearying obsessions (“rigged” elections, the size of his rallies) and his embarrassing nicknames. On Thursday, he largely avoided those self-made traps. But he was also lucid, quick on his feet, and disciplined in staying on his tripartite message of immigration, inflation, and crime. His vocabulary was more varied than usual. This was a Trump that has rarely, if ever, been glimpsed. He brought information into the debate that would not have otherwise entered it, such as Biden’s ill-planned retreat from Afghanistan or the recent murders by illegal aliens of three females, including a 12-year-old. (At least one victim was also raped.)  Trump combined topics cogently, laying out a sweeping indictment of how Biden’s policies have hurt blacks, for example. Naturally, his claim that the surge of low-skilled illegal immigration has taken away “black jobs” has been denounced as racist. This, from the same people who set aside professorships, research grants, board positions, partnership slots, scholarship awards, and medical, law, and engineering school seats for blacks. Biden himself bragged during the debate about creating mortgage assistance for black homebuyers. Trump put in a solid defense of supply-side tax cuts and regulatory relief. He parried a question about his pulling out of the Paris climate accords by noting the folly of saddling the U.S. with crippling limits on its energy production, when India, China, and other top emitters of greenhouse gases continue to burn coal promiscuously.

To be sure, Trump was also hyperbolic, especially as the evening progressed. His supporters brush off such rhetorical extravagances as innocuous showmanship; his critics furiously fact check every patently unliteral exercise of rhetorical license as a dangerous threat to truth. Tolerance for such exaggeration is as partisan as everything else in our world today. Conservatives get just as exercised about Democratic claims of the police routinely gunning down blacks (a favorite Biden conceit).

To his enemies, Trump’s most infuriating exchange with the moderators was undoubtedly his parrying of the election outcome question. “Will you pledge tonight that once all legal challenges have been exhausted that you will accept the results of this election regardless of who wins and you will say right now that political violence in any form is unacceptable?” CNN’s Dana Bash asked him.

Trump took umbrage: “Well, I shouldn’t have to say that, but of course I believe that. It’s totally unacceptable.” But on the election results question, he was more qualified. “The answer is, if the election is fair, free.” A second and then a third time, Bash asked: “President Trump, the question was, will you accept the results of the election regardless of who wins? Yes or no, please.” Again, a qualification: “If it’s a fair and legal and good election—absolutely.”

This response is either sensible to the point of being tautological—one should only accept a fair election—or suspiciously slippery, depending on your prior assumptions. Sadly, deciding whether an election has been fair and legal has also become deeply political. Skeptics of the “rigged election” claim will see future malfeasance in Trump’s qualification and truth in Biden’s less than elegant retort: “I doubt whether you’ll accept [a lost election], because you’re such a whiner.”

The press’s recent genre of “fact-checking” is mostly a means of policing the narrative. What counts as a fact needing confirmation rests almost entirely on the political orientation of the checker and the checked. A trio of Wall Street Journal reporters devoted an entire article to Trump’s alleged “falsehoods,” while overlooking almost all of Biden’s. The reporters claimed to have caught Trump out on a lie about the post-Roe v. Wade world: “Trump characterized the 2022 ruling [overturning Roe v. Wade] as ushering in a harmonious era where each state could find its own equilibrium regarding abortion regulation, from outright bans to leaving decisions over pregnancy to women and their doctors.” The reporters apparently know better, however: “In fact, the fall of Roe has created a patchwork of laws and sowed uncertainty over reproductive healthcare.” But what the Journal calls a “patchwork of laws,” in alleged refutation of Trump’s claims about the anti-Roe Dobbs decision, merely restates what Trump had originally said about that decision: that it returned decision-making to the states, in a reinforcement of federalism. (Trump’s claim that “every legal scholar, throughout the world,” wanted Roe overturned was preposterously exaggerated, however.)

The press is being willfully and moronically literalistic when it lambastes Trump—in what the New York Times calls a “wild misrepresentation of facts”—for claiming “falsely” that Biden “encouraged” Russia to attack Ukraine. To the contrary, reports the Times primly, Biden has “consistently tried to rally support for Ukraine and his administration took active steps to warn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia not to invade.” It is obvious that Trump’s claim of encouragement refers to Biden’s alleged foreign policy weakness. “When Putin saw [the Afghanistan withdrawal], he said, you know what? I think we’re going to go in,” Trump said.

Meantime, Biden’s whoppers, such as his claim that Trump caused inflation by his handling of Covid, go undisturbed. In fact, the U.S. economy was rebounding when Biden took office, as a Wall Street Journal editorial notes. It was Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package in March 2021 that flooded the economy with unneeded money, resulting in 9.1 percent inflation year over year in June 2022.

It is grimly amusing to go back and read the Biden hagiographies the media kept pouring out just hours before the debate. On Thursday, the Times’s premiere Trump basher, Peter Baker, marveled on the front page that Biden “still has the instincts of a backslapping cloakroom pol, eager to make deals and work across the aisle where possible at a time when that rarely seems rewarded anymore.” Those bipartisan instincts will mark Biden in the “history books as one of the most prolific legislative masters since Lyndon B. Johnson,” Baker wrote. Now he’s blaming Biden’s inner circle, not himself or his paper, for brushing off the “obvious question” about Biden’s mental capacities. We are to believe that Baker had his doubts all along. Now the “days of denial at the White House are over. No longer can the president’s confidants simply wave away concerns about his capacity,” notes Baker.

At least there is poetic justice in the mess in which the Democratic Party (including most of the media) now finds itself. Had there been more honesty about Biden earlier on, the Democrats might not face the impossible choices now before them as the clock ticks down to the convention in August and the election in November. With their understanding of hubris, the ancient philosophers and tragedians would not be surprised by the Democrats’ dilemmas. It was Biden’s hubris that birthed Thursday’s debate. His camp insisted on the unexpectedly Trump-taming debate rules. And it may again be Biden’s hubris that overrides an honest assessment of how damaged his electoral chances have become. Trump’s best chance to retake the White House is if Biden stays in the race; almost any other contender would have a better hope of beating Trump than Biden. And it was Biden’s fealty to identity politics that led him to select an unappealing black female as running mate. Now that black female is the biggest obstacle to elevating a stronger contender (Gavin Newsom would be the strongest). The day after the debate, Biden insisted that he was not pulling out of the race. Was this assertion just a face-saving strategy to buy some time for the party to come up with alternatives? Perhaps. But an Aeschylus or Sophocles, unblinkered about human folly, would likely take Biden at his word.

Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images


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