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That’s a wrap (LIVEBLOG below)

The presidential debate this evening was surely one of the dumbest public spectacles this nation has ever seen in the age of mass media. It is perhaps fitting that it took place in the era of the algorithmic feed. Just as we scroll through ever grosser and stupider bits of video on the social media apps, Joe Biden and Donald Trump offered us a steady stream of civic garbage. Eventually, they got into an argument about golf, which honestly seemed like the only moment when both men were truly engaged.

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Biden has visibly slowed and declined with age. I doubt that matters much in his actual role as president given the massive institutional support of the office. In terms of basic functioning of the executive branch, I’m sure he’s fine. But this particular activity — a televised debate — is not something he is remotely capable of doing well. When he doddered out, it was hard not to shudder at his frailty. His first few answers were catastrophically bad. He seemed confused, got mixed up with his words and sentences, meandered. He had a cough, seemed dangerously dehydrated, ended answers early, and let his mouth hang open after completing responses. His worst moment, which came with one of his very first responses, ended with confusing COVID and the deficit (I think?) and flatly saying, “We finally beat Medicare.” Jake Tapper then said, “Time’s up.” Oh no!

He got better. He is always going to seem old, because he is old. But he sounded more and more in range of a standard politician as the night wore on, and he got some good jibes in against Trump. But he was never nimble, never forceful, never crisp. And I fear that the early performance is what will stick. More people watch the beginning than the end, and the short clips of his worst moments are going to look very bad. Media pundits typically get bored early and focus on the beginning, and Biden crapping the bed is a juicy story, even if his last hour or more cleared the (low) bar. Replacing him at the convention is a juicier story still, and that will surely be floated once again.

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Trump started off solid and reserved, if wildly dishonest and incoherent. But he quickly soured. He wasn’t funny or boorishly charming in the way he can be at his best. He was peevish, bitchy, self-obsessed, and confused. He spoke quickly, but his words made no sense and often had no connection to each other. His lies got weirder. He could not talk about policy without descending into gibberish (on climate change: “We had H20.”) He seemed to run out of gas and focus more and more on his own tedious grievances. Trump fans will always be Trump fans, but people on the fence about him would not be inspired by this performance. He was like a free-associating toddler with a victim complex. His amphetamine dosage seemed untuned.

Against just about any other opponent, Trump’s performance would have been catastrophic. But Biden didn’t have the juice to take advantage, and re-opened the concerns about his age with his shaky performance.

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They both lost. But I think Biden lost in a particularly painful way — he reinforced the fear about him that’s probably most resonant with the few voters who are on the fence. I worry there’s a kind of negative momentum around this that will spiral. The news cycles in the coming weeks are going to be dominated by talk of his age. Unlike some pundits, I think Biden got the better of Trump in the second half, or at least was less bad. And Trump was lying in outlandishly obvious ways the whole time. But Biden’s top goal was surely to assuage worries about his age, as many observers argued he did at his State of the Union. On that front, the worst moments count more than the best ones, and tonight was a bust.

If there’s hope for Biden, it’s that Trump had a mission, too. He wanted to seem presidential and reasonable. If Biden’s not up for the job, Trump’s strategy should be to present himself as a solid alternative. Is that how he came across to swing voters? He seemed loopy, vengeful and solipsistic — and often seemed like he might have a marble shortage of his own. He said nothing to soothe people’s fears about him challenging election results if he lost or just erratic behavior generally.

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While I think Biden would have won on the policy questions if it was even possible to follow the discussion, I fear his points — definite political winners on several key issues — were muddled in the mess and mayhem of the blabbering debate. And on the theatre and style points, the best you can say for Biden is that the whole thing was painful to watch and no one looked good.

This may not be fair, but fair’s got nothing to do with it: Voters just tuning for the first time may feel like they are forced to choose between the nursing home and the madhouse.

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Below is our liveblog with my reactions in real time. Enjoyed following along with y’all. Well, “enjoyed” is not the right word. But we were in it together.

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LIVEBLOG (all timestamps Eastern)

8:45 — Introduction

A funny thing about democracy in the era of mass media and late capitalism is the rituals we use to determine who should be the president of the United States of America, one of the most powerful positions in the world. One of these rituals is a “debate,” a baroque public performance that has nothing to do with the job. It would be like hiring a CEO via a televised synchronized swimming competition. But here we are: Joe Biden and Donald Trump will stand on a stage and take questions, which will go unanswered; they will combine canned lines with occasional impromptu stammering; they will spit out zingers written by lanyard-wearing operatives with a passing interest in standup comedy; they will make faces of astonishment when the other speaks. And so on.

This all seems like a shabby and misguided tryout for the job at hand. Indeed, it’s not clear that it’s a meaningful test for any job at all. But we feel it must be done, even if we’ve forgotten why, like fraternities that insist new recruits prove their merits with exotic experiments in the nether regions. To ask why is to miss the point. To observe the spectacle is to participate in our grand American project together. We sit alone as rugged individuals in the soft blue light of television or laptop screens and out of many, we are one. We, the much aggrandized people, are here to do our civic duty. If our rituals have grown absurd, they are still our rituals. Our country has no king. Let this circus be our inheritance. The show must go on.

Tonight, incumbent President Joe Biden, first elected to the Senate 52 years ago, will try to prove he still has the vigor to hold off felonious challenger Donald Trump, who fell to Biden four years ago. Trump is a blustery buffoon, but the former reality tv star can work the cameras. Trump seems increasingly unhinged with age; Biden has slowed and physically declined. They are locked in a battle for undecided or wobbly voters — by and large people who don’t pay all that much attention to politics. If Trump can seem in range of normal, that helps; if Biden can seem energetic and cogent, that’s points for the incumbent.

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I will be updating this post frequently with real-time responses and analysis. Refresh your browser to follow along. I’ll put the most recent entries up top. Please join the conversation in the comments!

Via CNN here are the rules:

No in-person audience: In a departure from debate tradition, there will be no studio audience — a demand Joe Biden’s advisers felt could strip Donald Trump of a major advantage and prevent a rowdy crowd of supporters from overtaking the event.

Two commercial breaks: Biden and Trump will get two commercial breaks to refresh, but they cannot confer with their campaign staff during this time.

Mics can get cut: The moderators will also have the ability to mute the candidates’ mics to avoid cross-talk and interruptions between turns, which plagued Biden and Trump’s first debate showdown in 2020.

Two-minute answers, one-minute rebuttals: There will be no opening statements; candidates will dive straight into the moderators’ questions. Biden and Trump will have two minutes each for answers, one minute for rebuttals and one minute for responses to the rebuttals.

No props, no prepared notes: Candidates will be provided with a pen, pad of paper and water bottle. Props or pre-written notes will be prohibited on stage.

Trump gets the last word: Biden’s campaign won the coin toss to decide either the order of the candidates’ closing statements or their podium position. The president selected the right podium, placing Trump to the left of viewers’ screens. Trump’s campaign opted to take the last word of the night, positioning Biden to deliver his closing statement first.

9:00 Biden ambles in very slowly. Trump’s orange hue is muted, perhaps a midwestern sky at the first sign of sunset. Biden’s first answer, on inflation, transitions quickly into an attack on Trump’s own floundering in office during the pandemic. He’s cogent but there’s just no getting around the fact that he is an old man who sounds like…an old man. Trump rambles, speaking rapidly, repeating the word COVID. Biden has a very bad cough. Relatable.

9:05 Trump is asked about the fact that his actual economic policy — a massive new slate of tariffs — would massively hike prices for American consumers. This is incontrovertibly true. Trump just denies and it starts babbling about how Biden made everything bad. This is the hard part — Trump knows absolutely nothing about policy and everyone knows it, so he doesn’t have to defend his terrible policy ideas. Biden’s answers are fine but his cough is rough. His responses would sound better in written form. A transcript of Trump, who sounds lively at least, would be pure gibberish.

9:10 Trump lies and says he was getting us out of Afghanistan. In fact, he totally caved to the foreign policy establishment. It was Biden who had the guts to finally end the forever war.

9:13 Biden just had a disastrous answer, I’m afraid. He lost his train of thought talking about the deficit, got confused and started talking about COVID, stared blankly and clearly had an extended brain fart. More than a fart. A shart. “We finally beat Medicare,” he said at the end, nonsensically. Then the time ended.

9:18 These two guys are both total bumblers. Trump’s answer on abortion is a hodge-podge of random talking points. It’s up to the states. He supports “exceptions.” 

“You have to get elected.” Trump says, explaining why he supports abortion exceptions for life of the mother, rape, and incest. “You have to get elected.” Terrible answer in any other circumstance, but it’s just Trump blustering through. 

Unfortunately Biden can’t really take advantage of Trump’s weakness here. Bizarrely he meanders to illegal border crossings. Why? This is not a good issue for him! Abortion is a very good issue for him! He begins listing all the different family members that could commit rape or incest. Very strange. 

Trump lies and says Biden or the restoration of Roe would mean ripping live babies out of the bellies of women at nine months pregnant. But Biden responds meekly. Points out the law but without much force. This is depressing to watch.

9:23 “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump says after Biden’s answer on the border. “I don’t think he does either.”

Whatever. But Biden is just staring blankly back at him. He seems dehydrated. He keeps leaving his mouth open after finishing a response. I’m not saying this is fair, but it just doesn’t make for good television.

9:28 “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump says after Biden’s answer on the border. “I don’t think he does either.”

Whatever. But Biden is just staring blankly back at him. He seems dehydrated. He keeps leaving his mouth open after finishing a response. I’m not saying this is fair, but it just doesn’t make for good television.

9:30 Biden says everything out of Trump’s mouth is a lie. It’s true! Trump is lying constantly and sometimes saying things that are too incoherent to have any relationship with the question of truth. I just fear that Biden’s vibe is a distraction; it’s hard to prosecute the case when…I mean…you look like you’re about to fall asleep watching “Jeopardy.”

Biden also attacks Trump for his comments that Americans who died fighting in wars are “losers” and “suckers.” Biden invoked his son who died in combat and said, “You’re the sucker, you’re the loser.”

Trump denies making the comments. He says there are 19 people who can confirm this, whatever that means. He then says soldiers love him. They hate Biden, he says. And so on.

9:33 As much as Biden is struggling, Trump is incoherent and throwing out insults that make no sense and just seems like a drunk man arguing with a child at a bus stop. Biden had a headstart on losing but now Trump is catching up. The longer it goes, the more he sounds like a person who is not well in the head.

9:38 Absolutely substance-free discussion of Gaza, where tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens have been slaughtered. Trump said Israel needs to “finish the job.” There is no doubt that whatever Biden’s failures in this area, Trump wants to escalate yet more violence. He says “Biden is like a Palestinian.” What? This is dumb.

9:41 Trump’s answers about January 6 are meandering and confusing. “We had a great border on January 6,” he says. Okay.

9:46 “You talk about convicted felon, his son is a convicted felon.” Lol. Pathetic. Trump says Biden is a criminal. Not sure what he’s talking about. He’s very weepy about being mistreated, and so on. Biden notes that he was assessed civil penalties after allegations of sexual assault. Biden notes that Trump had an affair with a porn star while his wife was pregnant. Trump says he didn’t have sex with Stormy and then launches into incredibly tedious details about the case, always his weak point. Biden notes that Trump won’t stop whining. I think the Stormy stuff is bad for Trump, everyone knows it’s true, goofy for Trump to lie about it.

9:51 They’re fighting about Charlottesville. Trump says he didn’t say what he said (in front of cameras). He says that was “wiped out.”

At first Biden was losing badly. Now Trump has caught up and they’re both losing. America!

9:53 Earlier my theory was that Biden’s problem regarding perceptions about his age related to how much things have changed. There’s just such a stark difference compared to Biden in his prime. Whereas Trump seemed like the same old nut he’s always been. But this theory needs a revision! Trump is even more incoherent, and seems to be tiring and getting lost. I honestly don’t think he’d be a good reality tv star anymore.

9:57 I thought Biden was toast and might even literally expire on stage after the first ten minutes. But to my shock, he’s managed to come back, mostly via Trump being an incoherent goofball. Biden needs a lot of runway, perhaps; coming back from commercial break, he’s slowing down and mumbling again.

10:00 “His big kill on the Black people is the millions of people he’s allowed to come  the border,” Trump explains. They’re taking the “Black jobs,” he says. Um.

“There’s a lot going on,” Biden says. “He caused the inflation with his malfeasance during the pandemic.”

10:01 Trump, recently accused of using the n-word while filming “The Apprentice,” falsely accuses Biden of calling black criminals “super predators” in the 90s (that was Hillary Clinton). He says that cop unions love him (fact check: true!). This was all in response to a question about climate change. The host asks if he might like to actually comment on climate change.

“I want absolutely immaculate clean water,” Trump responds “We had H2O. We were using all forms of energy. When I was president, we had the top environment ever. Some of my people gave me those statistics right before I walked on the stage.”

Yeah, I mean, Trump is a good bullshitter but sometimes the bullshit tide just gets too high. He just went under. “I have a big heart,” he says.

10:08 Biden slams Trump for unwillingness to raise taxes on the rich and says Trump can’t be trusted to protect Social Security. This is solid ground for him. I wish there was someone a little feistier and sharper to make this case, but you go to war with the senior citizen you have.

10:10 I can’t even remember what question Trump was asked, but he’s on about the general who reported the “loser” and “sucker” quote again, and a riff about all the various people he’s fired. Honestly, Trump in his prime was funny. He was. But he’s become incredibly tedious. He’s obsessed with these peevish hobby horses about his own life.

Trump says Biden is one of the worst presidents and he’s one of the best. He says this debate is a waste of time (fact check: true) because the country is in terrible shape, etc. This is like a toddler arguing with an 81-year-old man.

10:17 Trump says Biden is a Manchurian candidate. He is saying a lot of words, quickly, in a row, with little connection to each other. “You’re destroying our country,” Trump says.

Jake Tapper says he has a 60 seconds left if he wants to answer the actual question, which was about drug addiction. “We were doing very well at addiction before the COVID came along,” Trump says.

“We bought a certain dog, it’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen what these dogs can do,” Trump adds. That’s some aderrall riffing right there.

10:19 On the subject of Botox and Biden, mistakes were made.

10:21 Biden asked directly about his age. He mentioned that he used to be young, and that Trump is not much younger than him. He said other stuff, too, but I forgot immediately.

Trump was asked and said he had aced two cognitive tests, lol. Then he said he’s an awesome golfer, and that takes brains. He said Biden was a weak driver on the golf course.

Biden said Trump lied about his weight, and that he could beat him in golf. He said he got to be a six handicap in golf. Trump laughed heartily. This is their true vibe: A couple of old men arguing about golf. The hosts forced them to move on or they would have kept talking about golf all night.

“Let’s not be childish,” Trump said.

“You are a child,” Biden said.

10:30 Trump was asked if he would accept the election results if he loses. He ignored the question and rambled about Putin, not sure what he was on about. Given another shot to answer the question, he basically said maybe. Depends on if it’s fair or fraudulent, etc.

Biden — possibly in his best moment of the evening — makes the obvious point that of course Trump won’t except the election if he loses. “You’re a whiner,” Biden says — a diss with some sting because Trump has been whining all night.

“Something snapped in you when you lost last time,” Biden says. And CNN goes to commercial. A rare moment when one of the candidates made an observation that cut through the bullshit and seemed to reveal what’s actually going on beneath the surface.

10:35 Closing statements: Biden talks about taxes. A bit boring. The 10% tariff is a real vulnerability for Trump, but it takes a bit to explain and Biden just doesn’t have the chops at this point to do that quickly and cogently. He blabbers a bit about lower drug prices for seniors and childcare. Rhetoric not very tight but good topics. 

“Like so many politicians, this man is just a complainer,” Trump says. “Iran was broke,” Trump says. No idea what he’s talking about. “Ukraine should have never happened,” he said.He says protests for the rights of Palestinians are “like a hundred Charlotesvilles.” He says no one respects Biden and Trump is good for the troops, etc. There’s something about space-age medicine from another country, I think?

10:40 The debate is over, but the camera remains on Trump and Biden. Their mics are off. They are looking straight ahead. They are silent. They seem to be waiting for a cue on what to do next. And for once, they represent all of us — staring into the void of an uncertain future, blank-eyed and with nothing to say but nothing at all.