Ali: Democrats have tough choices to make after Biden debate disaster

Where were President Biden’s debate-enhancing drugs Thursday night, and more importantly, can his supporters access them now to dull memories of his weak performance during the 90-minute live telecast?

The most-watched television event behind the Super Bowl was bad for Biden, but more than that, it triggered a seismic wave of concern among Democrats about where to go next.

Biden missed chance after chance to push back against former President Trump’s distortions on immigration, the economy, the opioid crisis and even his own health. The 81-year-old candidate appeared subdued and wooden during the event, often standing with his mouth agape (he reportedly had a cold). He spent a great deal of his allotted talking time in the weeds trying unsuccessfully to spin impenetrable policy specifics into wider talking points. He meandered in his answers, his voice barely audible at points.

It was an underwhelming performance that did nothing to dispel attacks from the right — and concerns on the left — that he’s too old for the job.

More than that, his anemic showing caused many supporters to ask if it was time to replace Biden with a candidate able to stand up to the deception and bullying of Trump and his minions.

Collective anxiety across social media and among pundits reflected the real issue at the heart of the Atlanta debate.

Biden had a bad night, but America had a much worse one because it did not have a strong voice to push back against the danger Trump poses to democracy.

Trump dominated the debate with confidence and showmanship, speaking in generalities that circumvented real policy talk, ringing the MAGA Pavlovian bell about murderous immigrants, taking credit in response to questions about the economy, abortion and war. With little pushback from his opponent, and none from CNN moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, Trump’s lies won the night.

CNN’s rules going into the live broadcast stated that their anchors would not fact check candidates’ answers during the debate, and each contestant’s mic would be muted when it was the other man’s turn to speak. The rules worked in Trump’s favor.

The former president appeared far more civil and controlled than usual because viewers couldn’t hear him interrupt or talk over Biden. He was also allowed to lie unhampered. He claimed that as president he had the “best environmental numbers” and “the greatest economy in the history of the country!” He said that Democrats want abortions up until and after birth. And he suggested that Nancy Pelosi refused his offer to send National Guard troops to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to quell an insurrection he helped foster.

Biden’s ineffectual or totally absent responses also allowed racist remarks from his opponent to go unchallenged. Trump attempted to insult Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war by saying of the incumbent: “He’s become a Palestinian.” As if that were a great insult. The casual racism against Arabs and more specifically, Palestinians, was one of many moments that went unchallenged in a poorly designed debate that allowed for misdirection to stand as truth. Trump also said illegal immigrants were taking “Black jobs.” What exactly is a “Black job?” No one bothered to ask.

Contrast that to a 2008 town hall when GOP presidential nominee John McCain took the microphone from a women who said she couldn’t trust his opponent, Barack Obama, because he was “an Arab.” “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man. A citizen that [I just] happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.” Not a great answer, but enlightened in comparison to today’s GOP.

Colin Powell later said of the right’s attacks that Obama was Muslim: “The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.”

There was no chance during Thursday’s debate that Trump was going to talk policy because he doesn’t have one, or even two. He’s running on grievances and payback, and he proceeded on that track Thursday because there was no one there to call him out.

CNN’s stewardship of the debate broke from decades of tradition that saw the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates facilitate and manage the debate process. The debate broadcast from an audience-free CNN studio in Atlanta is likely to deliver the cable news’ network’s largest audience in its four-decade history.

That is a scary prospect.

Thursday’s debate is going to require some tough decisions by the Democrats. Does the party stick with Biden and risk losing the country, or run someone who has the energy and voice to put up a fight against the bulldozer that is Trump and MAGA?

If Thursday’s debate is any indication, the stakes are too high to leave things as they are.

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