The Lie Democrats Are Telling Themselves

Since President Joe Biden’s debate debacle on Thursday, I’ve learned two things for sure: first, that Republicans are not the only party being led by a geriatric egotist who puts himself before the country. And second, that Republicans are not the only party whose putative leaders have a toxic lemming mindset and are willing to lead American democracy off a cliff.

I know, I know: Calm down, bed wetter. And how dare you “both sides” this predicament. Republicans and Democrats do not pose equal threats to democracy at this moment, for obvious reasons. Donald Trump’s reelection would be a catastrophe, also for obvious reasons. Biden’s reelection would be something different, but it starts with the only descriptor that matters right now: “unlikely.”

Still, it’s been distressing to watch the response from so many prominent Democrats and others in the anti-Trump coalition—all of whom know better—to Biden’s 90-minute senior moment in Atlanta. Soon after the debate, a deluge of media nuisances (like me) called for Biden to quit the race. But the word quickly went out to Biden surrogates that they were being enlisted, indefinitely, to put a brave face on the president’s face-plant.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” former President Barack Obama wrote on X on Friday. Indeed they do, except no one attributed Obama’s bad debate night against Mitt Romney in 2012 to his age or mental decline, and Obama, then 51, went on to achieve a relatively easy victory over Romney.

“Chill the fuck out,” Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, railed on X, calling out the “Democratic vultures” who were panicking about Biden’s reelection prospects. Fetterman noted that he’d had his own disastrous debate performance during his 2022 Senate race and, like Obama, ended up winning. Left unsaid: Fetterman was recovering from the effects of a stroke. Not a perfect comparison, in other words. (“He has age-related issues,” The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote of Biden on Sunday, “and those go in only one direction.”)

“Everybody, get your head on straight,” Vice President Kamala Harris said during remarks to about 100 donors at the home of Rob and Michele Reiner in Brentwood, California, on Saturday.

This was at a fundraiser attended by a friend of mine who was kind enough to tap some notes into his phone. Guests sipped Aperol spritzes and spicy margaritas. They chewed on sliders, s’mores, churros, and dark scenarios of November. The various hosts and headliners tried to keep spirits raised. Billy Crystal was there, and so was Idina Menzel, who sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from Funny Girl.

The vice president herself remained fully on-script, sheltering her parade of patrons under an umbrella of platitudes. “If we put aside the style points,” the president did fine, Harris said, as if Biden’s performance was just a matter of the suit he wore. “None of that has changed because of one day in June,” she said.

In 2022, I published a book, Thank You for Your Servitude, about how the Republican Party transformed itself during the Trump years into a cult of slavish devotion, working in service to the power and protection of one man. I hesitate to make this analogy because it is imperfect, and because it involves such a tragically unique event, but here goes: Consider how Republicans responded in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. There was an initial wave of shock and horror, pretty much across the board. A few hours later, though, a big portion of the Republican palace guard was already snapping back into line, led by the 147 GOP senators and representatives who voted against the certification of President-elect Biden’s victory. Republicans trotted out their Big Lie speeches about voter fraud, as if the calamity had never happened.

Again, January 6 and Biden’s debate performance are two extremely different circumstances. But both involve politicians falling quickly into line, ignoring plain realities before them; both show the potent impulse to place tribal loyalty ahead of basic truth. In this case, Democrats are vulnerable to an added note of hypocrisy, because they fashion themselves as the only honest alternative to MAGA. They supposedly are not susceptible to Big Lies of their own.

The debate aftermath has been all the more frustrating because scores of people who are terrified of Trump returning to the White House have for months been urging Biden not to run again, or else pleading with people who hold sway with the 81-year-old president. In recent days, the cries of “do something” have become less of a drumbeat than a jackhammer.

It’s true that many of these cries have come from pundits, podcasters, and so-called bed wetters, as Biden’s palace protectors like to dismiss their doubters and detractors. “I’ll leave the debate rating to the pundits,” former President Bill Clinton wrote on X on Friday. As if majorities of Americans haven’t been saying for years that Biden has no business running for reelection at his age. As if any number of people who have spent time around Biden haven’t been noting signs of decline in the president for months. Fun fact: A lot of these people are the same elected officials, White House aides, and Biden surrogates who have recently been trying to defend the president in front of microphones and cameras.

Today exposed a few cracks in this united Democratic front: Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first Democrat in Congress to call for Biden to withdraw. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on MSNBC, “I think it’s a legitimate question to say: Is this an episode or is this a condition?” Pelosi said she had heard “mixed” views on the subject. Senator Peter Welch of Vermont blasted the “dismissive attitude” from Biden’s team in response to questions about the president’s fitness. “That’s the discussion we have to have,” Welch said.

For the most part, though, the top Democrats who might influence Biden’s thinking—Obama, Senator Chuck Schumer, Representative Hakeem Jeffries—have held steady, at least publicly. “Calm down, people” has remained the prevailing message from Biden’s fortified corps of loyalists.

Of all the false comfort that Biden world has been spewing in recent days, perhaps the most absurd came from Representative James Clyburn, the venerable South Carolina Democrat, whose endorsement in 2020 swept Biden to victory in that state and arguably resurrected Biden’s campaign after a disastrous start. Yes, Clyburn allowed, Biden suffered through a “poor performance” in the debate last week. But it was merely “strike one,” he attempted to reassure, adding that “if this were a ball game, he’s got two more swings.”

Of course, by the time Biden’s next big at bats roll around—his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention next month in Chicago; the next debate, scheduled for September—it will be long past time to do anything about it.

And no one’s going to feel better on Election Night if Biden manages to nail his concession speech.

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