Column: Biden bumbles, Trump lies and we all lose

There were many firsts attending Thursday night’s mud wrestle between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

It was the earliest presidential debate in history. The first between two candidates of such a ripe age. The only one ever pitting the occupant of the Oval Office against the man he ousted.

But for anyone who’s paid even passing attention to politics over the last four ill-tempered years, the spite-filled session in Atlanta had the familiar, unhappy feel of a nagging injury.

The bombast. The insults. The obvious, abundant contempt between two men who couldn’t even bring themselves to shake hands.

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden told the former president.

“We’re a seriously failing nation,” Trump said of the current president, “and we’re failing because of him.”

There are train wrecks that offer more inspiration and uplift.

It was Biden, sagging in polls and looking to energize his campaign, who threw out the debate challenge, landing the two rivals on an unusually early summer stage.

It may go down as one of the great political miscalculations of modern times.

Though he rallied in the second half of the program, Biden’s performance did nothing to dispel concerns about his fitness at age 81, which poses arguably the greatest threat to his shot at a second term. If anything, the president compounded those doubts.

Biden looked stricken when he didn’t appear vacant or lost. At times, he seemed to grip the lectern as though he might topple if he let go. His complexion was waxy. His papery voice trailed into silence or incoherence.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump said in one gibe. “I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Presidents are often rusty in their first debates, losing their fighting edge after four years cossetted in the White House. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama both stumbled in their initial return to the debate stage.

But neither performed as badly as Biden, whose wan delivery took much of the sting — “I’ve never heard so much foolishness,” “He has no idea what the hell he’s talking about” — out of his attacks.

The facts might have been on Biden’s side. The U.S. economy, inflation aside, is the envy of the world. He’s done more than any president in history to address the crisis posed by climate change. He’s rallied an international coalition to push back on Russia’s dangerous hegemonic designs.

But those were lost in Biden’s curlicue responses and halting verbal shuffle.

Trump, for his part, lied and exaggerated with characteristic abandon.

He blamed former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that he brought on. He claimed to have presided over the greatest economic performance in American history. He claimed that millions of people entering the country illegally are not only being enrolled in the Social Security and Medicare programs, but also living in luxury hotels at government expense.

He wrongly claimed Biden engineered his serial criminal indictments and continued pushing wrongful claims undermining the integrity of the 2020 election he lost — the Big Lie that’s eroding our democracy.

Fact-checkers immediately went into overdrive, but over the years they’ve proved no match for Trump’s rat-a-tat of falsehoods. Give him his due: He may spew never-ending fabrications, but Trump does so unabashedly and with a powerful certitude.

The overwhelming majority of Americans may be locked into their preferences for November, leaving a relatively scant number open to persuasion. That said, those voters could make the difference if the election is close, as polls have been suggesting.

Perhaps they learned something new Thursday night. (Trump never did explain his claim that Biden is a sleeper agent bought and paid for by the Chinese government. That seemed to come from left field.)

For many, the 90-plus minutes probably reaffirmed what they thought at the start of the session at CNN’s Atlanta studio. Biden haters saw an enfeebled geriatric with only fleeting moments of lucidity. (Even some Biden supporters would agree with that assessment.) Trump bashers saw an overbearing, congenitally lying ogre.

Those with little use for either candidate might be wishing even more for a viable alternative not named Robert F. Kennedy Jr., serving up his witch’s brew of conspiracy theories, or some other third-party candidate with absolutely no chance of winning.

It will be at least several days before the impact of Thursday night’s confrontation is known. Snap polls do little more than register gut reactions. Views can change after voters have time to digest the voluminous content, hear post-debate analyses and watch the snippets highlighted on TV and the viral videos ricocheting across social media.

But after Biden’s wretched performance, the nervousness among Democrats turned into full-fledged panic, with renewed talk of replacing the president ahead of Democrats’ August convention.

And given the presidential face-plant, we may have just witnessed the last debate of the 2024 presidential campaign, with Biden strategists finding some excuse to pull out of a scheduled follow-up in September.

After the display put on Thursday night — “Sucker!” “Loser!” — that cancellation might not be such a bad thing.

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