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Bill White: Biden was bad at the debate. What does that matter?

John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz shake hands before their October 2022 debate in the U.S. Senate campaign. Fetterman, still recovering from a stroke, struggled badly in the debate, but went on to win election. Greg Nash/The Hill/Nexstar
Greg Nash/Greg Nash/The Hill/Nexstar
John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz shake hands before their October 2022 debate in the U.S. Senate campaign. Fetterman, still recovering from a stroke, struggled badly in the debate, but went on to win election. Greg Nash/The Hill/Nexstar
Bill White

Watching last week’s horrible presidential debate brought to mind another bad debate from two years ago, between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz.

Fetterman, still recovering from a stroke, clearly was not up to the job of answering rapid-fire questions. Luckily for him, the much more polished Oz came off as slick and insincere, which played well into the Fetterman narrative that Oz was an inauthentic carpetbagger.

Fetterman’s disastrous performance notwithstanding, he defeated Oz handily a couple of weeks later.

The stakes for Joe Biden leading up to last week’s debate had some parallels with Fetterman’s. The president isn’t recovering from a stroke, but he’s already the oldest president ever, and he sometimes looks it, which has raised legitimate concerns about whether he’s up to four more years in this incredibly taxing job.

Pundits felt he needed to demonstrate the same kind of energy and lucidity that he radiated in his State of the Union speech this year.

Trump is old, too, and his rally performances have become so bizarre, even by his standards, that observers have speculated about his deteriorating mental state. So he needed to at least tone down the crazy and demonstrate that his second term wouldn’t be an even worse chaotic horror show than his first. If he could stifle the firehose of ludicrous lies and produce at least a few claims that were true, all the better.

Neither candidate came close to accomplishing his goals. Biden stumbled so Fettermanesquely, particularly early in the debate, that I cringed throughout. The patented Biden grin didn’t surface until late in the going, replaced instead with slack-jawed expressions, closed eyes, throat-clearing and other painfully unflattering optics that would have left any debate coach weeping.

MAGA politicians and their media machine at Fox had tried to write off Biden’s State of the Union performance — and the possibility of a similarly successful debate — by suggesting he was an octogenarian Barry Bonds, hopped up on imaginary dementia-suppressing drugs. If so, someone switched downers into his pill bottle.

With no CNN provision for even basic fact-checking Trump’s flood of preposterous claims — most everyone wanted Roe vs. Wade overturned? — I recognize the challenge for a candidate who wants to put forth his own vision instead of spending the entire debate identifying lies. But Biden couldn’t even put his best foot forward when Trump and the moderators teed up easy opportunities up for him.

Trump railed endlessly about immigration and the border. How could Biden go an entire debate without pointing out that Trump killed the bipartisan congressional deal to address those problems — because Trump didn’t want to lose his best campaign issue?

Biden knew he had a two-minute closing statement. How could it not mention infrastructure, Roe vs. Wade, felony indictments, a corrupt and far-right activist Supreme Court and the prospect of more Trump appointments? Awful.

But here’s the thing. If you already were reluctant to vote for Trump, he gave you no reason to change your mind. Yes, he radiated more focus and energy, but it was all directed toward saying things that either were untrue or wildly exaggerated. He refused to answer questions about climate change, child care and other important subjects, preferring to ignore them in favor of repeating his claims that our country is a collapsing hellhole of murderous immigrants.

He has no vision for our future beyond taking office again so he can kill his criminal cases, crush his opponents and reward the same kinds of corrupt and/or incompetent cronies he filled his Cabinet with the first time. His own vice president and his most respected former Cabinet members have made it clear they think he’s unfit for another term.

And now, thanks to the Supreme Court, he has immunity to do pretty much whatever he wants, even if it’s illegal, as long as he can argue it’s an “official act.”  It’s terrifying to think how he’ll behave without guardrails.

Do I wish Biden hadn’t sought a second term? Absolutely. I have the same kinds of reservations many of you have been feeling, particularly after this debate. But elections aren’t about perfection. They’re about choices.

On one side, we have an old man who has spent the last 3 ½ years advocating for real solutions to our many problems and has occasionally been successful in finding them. He has preached compassion, unity, improving the lives of ordinary people as opposed to the most wealthy and powerful, and has supported our worldwide alliances as a bulwark against military aggression by Russia and in the Middle East. He has surrounded himself with intelligent people who seem to be genuinely dedicated to public service.

On the other side, we have an old man who is a convicted felon, who tried to overturn our election, who fomented an insurrection that threatened the lives of law enforcement officers and even his vice president. A jury found him liable for sexual assault, and a judge concluded he committed fraud. More serious charges await trial, if pro-Trump judges ever stop stalling justice.

He has attacked all our democracy’s basic institutions and made it clear that he has no respect for the rule of law. He has embraced dictators and denigrated our allies. His ignorance and incompetence cost the lives of, at the very least, tens of thousands of Americans during the COVID crisis. He has promoted division and hate at every turn. And he’s getting crazier by the day.

I could go on with this, and I probably will in some future column. But for now, if you’re still undecided in the wake of that dismal debate, consider whether your legitimate concerns about Joe Biden’s health and staying power outweigh the prospect of four more years of chaos and corruption by a hateful, traitorous con man.

They shouldn’t. Character matters, now more than ever.

Bill White can be reached at whitebil1974@gmail.com. His X handle is whitebil.

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