Abcarian: Yes, Biden looked and sounded awful. But the debate didn't change the stark choice we face

Here’s a terrible thought I could not shake as I watched Thursday’s debate: President Biden looked like a corpse.

Sure, anyone might look pale while standing next to the floridly orange former President Trump, but Biden’s pallor was alarming.

When he was not speaking, Biden’s eyes had a faraway look, and, more distressingly, his mouth was slack. Compared with the overanimated Trump — who scowled, sneered and screwed up his mouth in a pout — Biden’s face looked as if it had been dipped in Botox and frozen.

And his voice! What has happened to our loquacious president’s voice? It was so whispery and phlegmy that I wanted to yell, “Just clear your throat, for God’s sake!”

Biden’s performance Thursday was revelatory, for all the wrong reasons.

For years, Republicans have tried to make us believe Biden is feeble. They’ve deceptively edited videos to make him look clueless, magnified his every small bumble and exploited his lifelong stutter, which old age seems to have exacerbated.

On Thursday, tragically, he did their work for them.

Trump was, of course, Trump: He spewed a volcano of lies, misstatements, exaggerations and fear-mongering. It seemed as if virtually nothing that came out of his mouth was true, especially his insistence that the United States under Biden has become a worldwide laughingstock, that Putin would never have invaded Ukraine on his watch, that Hamas would never have attacked Israel.

I recorded the debate and did not watch it until after it was finished. I refused to look at my phone — which was dinging like crazy — because I did not want to be influenced by anyone else’s opinion of what had gone down. I wanted my impressions to be mine alone, free of whatever conventional wisdom was rapidly congealing in the cybersphere. And on Friday morning, I tried not to look at headlines, though it was obvious that Biden had a terrible, terrible night.

I conducted a thought experiment: If I read the transcript, would I be as alarmed by Biden’s performance as I was while watching it on TV? Would his sepulchral presentation be apparent? Would he seem like a man in command of facts and history? Would he, to put it bluntly,make sense?

The answer is a resounding but bittersweet yes, because his substance will ultimately be less important than his geriatric demeanor.

Take the exchange on abortion, which will be a key issue in November, as it has in every election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade two years ago.

Here is Biden: “The idea that the politicians, that the founders wanted the politicians to be the ones making decisions about women’s health, is ridiculous. That’s the last — no politician should be making that decision. A doctor should be making those decisions. That’s how it should be run. That’s what you’re going to do. And if I’m elected, I’m going to restore Roe v. Wade.”

Trump came back with his crazy spigot on blast: “So that means he can take the life of the baby in the ninth month and even after birth, because some states — Democrat-run — take it after birth. Again, the governor — former governor of Virginia: ‘Put the baby down, then we decide what to do with it.’ So he’s in — he’s willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby. Nobody wants that to happen.”

(For years, Trump has been misrepresenting a 2019 statement by then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and pediatric neurologist, about what happens when a nonviable fetus with severe deformities is delivered.)

Trump’s statements are often ludicrous to the point of being nonsensical, but he speaks with the conviction of a pathological liar. During a back-and-forth on immigration, for instance, he spoke forcefully, but I have no idea what he was talking about:

“He decided to open up our border, open up our country to people that are from prisons, people that are from mental institutions, insane asylum, terrorists,” Trump said. “We have the largest number of terrorists coming into our country right now. … We had the safest border in history. In that final couple of months of my presidency, we had, according to Border Patrol, who is great — and, by the way, who endorsed me for president. But I won’t say that. But they endorsed me for president. Brandon, just speak to him.”

I’m sorry, what?

“I’m not saying no terrorist ever got through,” Biden said of the border. “But the idea they’re emptying their prisons, we’re welcoming these people, that’s simply not true. There’s no data to support what he said. Once again, he’s exaggerating. He’s lying.”

Tell me again, who is confused?

Regarding the economy, the No. 1 issue for most voters, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Biden, “What do you say to voters who feel they are worse off under your presidency than they were under President Trump?”

“We’ve got to take a look at what I was left when I became president, what Mr. Trump left me,” Biden replied. “We had an economy that was in free fall. The pandemic was so badly handled. Many people were dying. All he said was,’It’s not that serious, just inject a little bleach in your arm. You’ll be all right.’ The economy collapsed. There were no jobs. The unemployment rate rose to 15%. It was terrible.

“And so, what we had to do is try to put things back together again. … We created 15,000 new jobs. We brought out in a position where we have 800,000 new manufacturing jobs.” (Biden meant to say a total of 15 million new jobs, which his campaign often boasts about.)

Trump’s response to the question was, again, lies and nonsense:

“We had the greatest economy in the history of our country,” he boasted, wrongly. “We have never done so well. Every — everybody was amazed by it. Other countries were copying us. We got hit with COVID. And when we did, we spent the money necessary so we wouldn’t end up in a Great Depression, the likes of which we had in 1929. By the time we finished — so we did a great job. We got a lot of credit for the economy, a lot of credit for the military, and no wars and so many other things. Everything was rocking good.”

Yes, Thursday’s debate was painful to watch. Biden, who has maintained that his age, 81, is irrelevant, can no longer make that claim. His decline is distressing.

And yet whether he bows out of the race or not, the choice facing voters in November is stark: Do we want democracy, or do we want dictatorship? The answer should be obvious.


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