A Presidential Debate Sets Off Democratic Panic | Analysis

CNN’s experiment with a more ordered and civilized debate imploded in real time on Thursday.

While the Presidential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump featured muted mics so the candidates couldn’t interrupt, it did little to salvage one of the worst debates in recent memory, resulting in a cascade of criticism of the event — Biden as unfocused and lost, Trump as a bully and a liar, the moderators for not intervening to require clarity — and the network for letting it all happen.

Biden suffered from a scratchy throat that made him inarticulate and often inaudible (aides attributed it to a cold). His answers trailed off at times, and his visual and audible presence made the case that he was too old for the job. Trump assumed an attack-dog posture, lying boldly and repeatedly — with no fact-checking whatsoever from moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper.

(In a statement to TheWrap, a CNN spokesperson said, “We are very proud of Jake and Dana. Our job was to make sure candidates were heard so voters can make informed decisions and we are pleased we were able to do that.”)

The CNN moderators asked the candidates about Roe vs. Wade, stubbornly high inflation, the border issue, the Ukraine war and Israel’s actions following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. But the 90-minute debate devolved numerous times into each candidate calling the other a liar — and the worst president in history.

The debate over the future of the country descended into the trivial. In one exchange about their health and ages, they quibbled over who had the longer golf drive — sparking a burst of laughter in the media room.

“I just won two club championships,” Trump said. “To do that, you have to be quite smart and be able to hit the ball a long way and I do it. He doesn’t do it, he can’t hit a ball 50 yards.”

Biden responded by mocking Trump’s claims about his height and weight. “I would be happy to have a driving contest with him,” Biden said. “And by the way, I told you before, I am happy to play golf if you carry your own bag. Do you think you can do it?”

“Hard to watch”

The net result was a withering reaction on social media and from beleaguered analysts on the major cable networks, including CNN.

“It was hard to watch,” said Alyssa Farrah Griffin, a former Trump official who comments on CNN. “I don’t know anyone who watched this and says they have confidence in this person for the next four years.”

“Trump spoke plainly but he lied all the time,” said Van Jones, a Democrat, also on CNN. Of Biden, Jones said: “He looked terrible…Neither of these people are inspiring the confidence that they can do the job.”

Billionaire Bill Ackman, a staunch Trump supporter, poured salt on the wound. “How can anyone in their right mind believe @POTUS Biden can serve another term?” Ackman said on X. “It is not even clear he can finish this term. What is his family thinking? Where are his closest friends when he needs their counsel most?”

Following the debate, analysts expressed skepticism that the Biden camp would agree to a follow-up debate, after pushing for Thursday’s contest to happen more than four months before the election — the earliest debate in a presidential cycle in recorded history. And post-debate a panic quickly set in, and potential replacements were floated for Biden.

MSNBC’s Alex Wagner asked California Gov. Gavin Newsom if he would accept the Democratic nomination at the convention. “We’ve gotta have the back of this president,” Newsom said in the spin room. “You don’t turn your back because of one performance. What kind of party does that?”

Biden, Newsom declared, “won the debate,” adding that “I wrote down all the lies of Donald Trump and I ran out of paper.”

On CNN, anchor John King said that “right now as we speak there is a deep, a wide, and a very aggressive panic in the Democratic party. It started moments into the debate and it continues right now. It involves strategists, party officials and fundraisers, and they are having conversations about the president’s performance, which they think was dismal.”

King added that “some of those conversations involve should we go to the White House and ask the president to step aside. Others are about should prominent Democrats go public with that call, because this debate was so terrible.”

On MSNBC, anchors also said that Democratic operatives were weighing their options.

“There is a conversation happening inside Biden’s circle, and certainly a much more frank conversation happening inside the Democratic coalition,” Nicole Wallace said.

“What are those conversations?” Rachel Maddow asked.

“The conversations range from whether he should be in this race tomorrow morning to what was wrong with him,” Wallace replied.

Joy Reid added that she had gotten on the phone with “Obama-world people, with Democrats… and the universal reaction was somewhere approaching panic.”

The debate came a day after one poll, from Nate Silver’s Silver Bulletin, predicted that Trump would beat Biden in the electoral college – despite losing the popular vote. (Silver has been wrong at least as often as he’s been right.)

As TheWrap reported earlier this week, the decision to bypass the Commission on Presidential Debates allowed the CNN debate, the first head-to-head of the party’s presumptive nominees, to happen 89 days earlier than in any previous election year.

The candidates agreed to strict new rules imposed by the cable network — there was no live audience and candidates’ microphones were turned off by default — as well as commercial breaks. Campaign staff also were not permitted to interact with the candidates, and props or pre-written notes were prohibited.

The two debates that Trump and Biden agreed to — first on CNN and then on ABC News in September — were supposed to give the power back to the networks by taking out the middleman.

Harris defends Biden

Shortly after Thursday’s debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper challenged Vice President Kamala Harris to explain the surreal and “disappointing” performance by Biden.

“Listen, people can debate on style points but ultimately this election and who is going to be the president of the United States is about substance,” she said before noting a number of Trump’s lies.

“I’m not gonna spend all night with you talking about the last 90 minutes when I’ve been watching the last three and a half years of performance.”

When Cooper asked if she could defend Biden’s performance, an exasperated Harris responded: “It was a slow start, that’s obvious to everyone. I’m not gonna debate that point. I’m talking about the choice in November.”

Additional reporting from Natalie Korach, Tess Patton, Emily Smith and Adam Chitwood

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