July 2, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Can it happen again?

Confidence rests on one question.

Via screenshot.
Via screenshot.

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In the last edition, I said the biggest issue facing the president in the aftermath of last week’s no good, very bad, all right terrible debate is a crisis of confidence among elected Democrats and his base. That’s the case today. It will probably be the case for the next few days. What is Joe Biden doing to comfort his own people?

This is not to say he’s lost anyone. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t yet. No elected Democrat has called on him to step aside. Everyone from House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has voiced their continued support. Post-debate polling seems mixed. There are some small signs that some undecided voters are moving toward him. His campaign has raised a lot of money. It could be, though we won’t know for a while, that the debate will fall into partisan camps as quickly as Donald Trump’s conviction did.

But that doesn’t mean Biden can avoid the responsibilities of party leadership. No matter how we choose to interpret that debate – generously, as I did last week, or not – the president owes his own people an explanation. I don’t mean an explanation as to why he gave voters reasons to believe the lies that Trump and the Republicans tell about him. Liberals and Democrats seem to be eager to forgive and forget. I mean an explanation as to why it won’t happen again. 

Before we talk about the alternatives, however, we have to be honest with ourselves, which is why I’m talking to you directly. 

That’s what’s on my mind today. We can disagree about what happened, how it happened and why. But we must agree, because we can’t afford to disagree, on the fact that it can’t happen again. The press and pundit corps have established conditions in which being an old man is worse than being a criminal. (Trump also happens to be an old man). Elite opinion may be lost, as the Tom Friedmans of the world are now invested in being right about demanding that the president drop out. I hope swing voters may still be up for grabs, but if he loses even a fraction of his own people, it’s time to talk about the alternatives.

Before we talk about the alternatives, however, we have to be honest with ourselves, which is why I’m talking to you directly. If you’re like me, you walked away from that debate with doubts. I thought about it. I’m satisfied with the reasons I came up with to explain what I saw. (You can read about those here.) His appearance at a rally after the debate was encouraging. So was the next day’s event in North Carolina. So was Monday’s denunciation of a US Supreme Court ruling that puts president’s above the law. All these things combined give the impression that the debate was a fluke, and that’s what I’d like it to be – a one-time thing all of us can forgive and forget, as we work toward stopping the most dangerous threat to democracy in our lifetimes. 

But all that depends on it not happening again.

Some people don’t need assurances, obviously, but even they know that by “it can’t happen again,” I don’t mean just another debate debacle. (He could cancel the second one in September to avoid that.) I mean any “senior moment,” which is to say, anything that can be interpreted as such. The press corps is already using the word “denial” – as in, the Democrats are in denial – as if it were a description of reality, not a judgment. That means Biden will have to perform immaculately, no mistakes, not even little ones that would otherwise be dismissed. Are people who don’t need his reassurances confident that he can?

There’s also the question of what counts as reassurance. The conventional wisdom is that Biden should hold town halls, sit down for interviews with CNN, the Times and maybe Howard Stern, again, and otherwise get in front of the public in scripted or unscripted events. That conventional wisdom seems to assume that doing such things will restore faith in the base, but I’m not sure why we should assume that. As I said, the press and pundit corps have created conditions in which being an old man is worse than being a criminal. Virtually anything – even a pause while responding to a question – can and probably will be interpreted in such a way as to defeat the purpose of the exercise. 

There’s a lot of pressure on the president to decide whether to stay or go. (He says he’s staying.) But I think the liberals and Democrats who make up his coalition ought to think things through, too. You know what you saw. You know how you felt when you saw it. Was it a fluke? Can it happen again? Can you tolerate it if it does? What could the president do to restore your faith or ease your mind? I’m just as torn as many are. Really. I don’t know what the right answers are. I can’t imagine anyone except Biden on the ticket. Before we start talking about the alternatives, however, we should be honest with ourselves.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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