For years, Democratic Party leaders have gaslit the public about Joe Biden’s fitness to lead. After last night’s debate, it’s clear that the costs of keeping up the act are higher than the costs of admitting the truth and correcting course.

Joe Biden at the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN’s studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Since Joe Biden announced his 2020 campaign for president, elite Democrats and parts of America’s media apparatus have been playing a strange, bewildering, and ultimately untenable game. Whatever else you might have thought of him, the then former vice president had often been reasonably quick on his feet: able to hold his own in debates and project basic political confidence — even, as was so often the case with Biden, when he was fibbing or talking nonsense.

The Biden of 2020, however, was a visibly different man: prone not only to strange statements, and rambling, digressive answers but also incessant verbal flubs that suggested something more than the alleged “stutter” commonly invoked to explain them away. Asked during one primary debate about the legacy of slavery in America, Biden began to speak about institutional segregation and then seemed to pivot to the idea that black parents don’t know how to raise their children, bizarrely concluding: “It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night.” In the span of just ten days, he seemed unable to recall Barack Obama’s name, confused then British prime minister Theresa May with Margaret Thatcher, suggested that Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated in the late 1970s, and bungled the timeline of the Parkland school shootings.

Biden had always been a gaffe-generator and, throughout his career, had frequently treated the truth as something to be bent around whatever he found expedient to say in a given moment. Nevertheless, the signs of frailty and mental decline were so ubiquitous and obvious throughout 2019 and early 2020 that they seemed impossible for anyone to deny.

And yet. With just a few exceptions, the Democratic machine and American media apparatus alike assumed a posture of self-imposed blindness when it came to Biden and demanded, for the good of party and country, that everyone else do the same. Elite Democrats and their donors needed to defeat Bernie Sanders by any means necessary and, subsequently, would be able to wield the existential threat of Donald Trump as a cudgel to discipline anyone who raised questions about Biden’s age or fitness for office. Bailed out by the sudden onset of a pandemic that shook the global economy and made traditional campaigning impossible, Biden won the election in a squeaker and was hastily anointed by a nervous liberal commentariat as the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Before it had even begun, the Biden presidency was already a giant house of cards perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse — and last night it finally came crashing down. Having stumbled zombie-like onto the debate stage, Biden immediately gave the impression of someone not up to the task at hand. In a shaky near-whisper, he floundered through every answer, serving up memorized talking points that quickly devolved into labyrinthine streams of consciousness. For example, he offered the following in response to a question about the national debt:

He [Trump] had the largest national debt of any president in a four-year period, number one. Number two, he — that $2 trillion tax cut benefited the very wealthy. I — what I’m going to do is fix the tax system. . . . We’d be able to right wipe out his debt. We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do — childcare, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the — with — with — with the COVID. Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with — look, if — we finally beat Medicare.

The president’s withered delivery was far from his only problem. Whenever he wasn’t speaking, Biden’s face seemed frozen in puzzlement and confusion. Regularly stopping before his allotted time had finished, he frequently needed prompts from moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash to continue.

Faced with an endless barrage of Trumpian falsehoods, Biden achieved the impossible in making his opponent sound coherent and composed by comparison. Offered an obvious opening by Trump to attack on the all-important issue of abortion rights, he bafflingly decided to talk about a woman raped and murdered by an illegal immigrant. Befitting the aura of surreal stupidity that defined the whole evening, the two traded more words about their respective golf handicaps than they did on the US-backed Israeli destruction of Gaza (an issue on which they functionally agree).

From the moment the debate concluded, it was evident that the gears in the consent manufacturing plant that have been so ceaselessly whirring since Biden’s campaign announcement in 2019 had finally ground to a halt. Having kept the charade going for years, rearranged the primary schedule to give Biden an advantage (while effectively ensuring it was a primary in name only), and dismissed every whiff of criticism as borderline treason, even the most credulous cable news pundits and Biden loyalists have, it seems, run out of ways to keep up the illusion.

Notwithstanding the laughably pathetic spin from White House officials that the president’s poor debate performance was the result of “over-preparation,” the possibility there will be a genuine effort to replace Biden at or before the Democratic National Convention in August suddenly feels real.

Whether such a thing could actually happen remains an open question. Behind Biden’s avuncular, aw-shucks persona there has always been a man possessed of volcanic ego and convinced of his own epochal importance. Absolutely nothing in Biden’s conduct to date suggests he would step aside willingly. Then again, that Biden is president at all owes to the constellation of elite power brokers who first intervened to save his flailing campaign in 2020 and have helped maintain the masquerade ever since. From powerful Democrats like Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi to Wall Street donors and obsequious media personalities, the institutions of Liberalism Inc. made the Biden presidency. It’s plausible that they could unmake him just as easily.

Whatever happens, last night’s train wreck is ultimately a searing indictment of a Democratic leadership so deferential to corporate America and so cynically hell-bent on resisting change that it was willing to lie to the entire country about its standard-bearer’s fitness to lead. The facade has finally cracked, and we’re now in for a crackup of epic proportions.


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