Opinion: The real loser in Thursday’s debate

CNN Opinion asked political contributors to weigh in on the first presidential debate of the 2024 race. The views expressed in these commentaries are their own.

Ana Marie Cox: What broke my heart the most about Biden’s performance

With President Joe Biden’s first halting, marble-mouthed words, my heart and my hope that America will dodge a second hit of former President Donald Trump sank — even lower than the minimal expectations most of us had for Biden. It is one thing to joke that all Biden had to do to ease voters’ minds was to stay somewhat alert for the duration of the debate. It is another thing to see him appear to struggle to do so.

Ana Marie Cox - <em>Faith Fonseca</em>Ana Marie Cox - <em>Faith Fonseca</em>

Ana Marie Cox – Faith Fonseca

By the time the debate was over, the best spin Democratic Party operatives had to offer was that they knew how bad it had gone.

Posed and stationary on a sparse stage, and with no audience to either leaven or amplify the mood, the split screen of Trump and Biden gave us one man utterly engaged in the fight of his political career — attacking, parrying, vicious — and another man who at times did not seem to be sure where he was.

If you were at dinner with an older relative who behaved and spoke like Biden did during this debate — mumbling into his soup and such — you would at the very least ask if they needed a nap. If it wasn’t the first time it happened, you might have a quiet conversation with your siblings about what the next steps should be. I imagine that is the conversation the upper echelons of the donor class are having about Biden right now.

It’s fair to say that the debate should be judged on substance. I’d love to be judging the debate on substance, but I’m not sure how. Trump repeated falsehoods and fumed about conspiracies and made preposterous promises and untethered boasts. He was full of hot air — but the air had a shape to it. Trump filled a gigantic lie balloon and Biden just hissed out some words. When I could make out those words, they aligned with my own beliefs … so there’s that.

But it’s my convictions that make me focus on Biden’s doddering performance. I live in Texas, where doctors fear to give women abortions even if the fetus has a fatal abnormality or is no longer viable. Those stories can generate headlines, at least. In the past two years, I have had multiple friends leave the state to obtain abortions in situations that are less graphically disturbing but still incredibly difficult.

They’re the people I thought about when Trump spun up a froth of half-digested soundbites intended to disguise his place as the spearhead for plans to eliminate abortion access nationwide. They’re the people I thought about when Biden’s response to Trump’s allegations about doctors killing babies was to state that he was against “late-term abortions.”

Anti-abortion advocates invented the term so Democrats have to argue about the exact timing of abortion rather than defend whatever a woman and her doctor decide. For Biden to bring that term up, unprompted, in the context of the debate is a more subtle sign of his lack of awareness than all those sentences that seemed to stumble off the edge of a cliff, but it was the one that broke my heart the most.

For me, the choice is still clear. I will vote for Biden if he is on the ticket, because the alternative is worse. That alternative might even be fatal in any number of ways (to democracy, the rule of law, pregnant women). But Biden didn’t make that case, and I fear that his inability to make it — indeed, his inability to make much of a case for himself at all — will mean that the guy who spoke vile nonsense will beat the guy who couldn’t make himself heard.

Ana Marie Cox is a political journalist and writer in Austin.

Shermichael Singleton: Trump passed the most important test — he was the competent candidate

Former President Donald Trump exceeded expectations Thursday night. He was disciplined, calm, confident and stable. It was obvious that the former president recognized how critically important this debate was and how crucial it was for him to come across as stable and judicious in his tone. He demonstrated that he could rise to the occasion.

Shermichael Singleton - Courtesy Shermichael SingletonShermichael Singleton - Courtesy Shermichael Singleton

Shermichael Singleton – Courtesy Shermichael Singleton

From his focus on tackling rising costs, which are hamstringing working-class people and families across America, to his clear pronouncements about wanting to avoid prolonged and expensive foreign conflicts, Trump may have given skeptical Republicans and uncertain swing voters a reason to reconsider supporting him in November. When asked about his past statements on taking retribution against his political opponents if reelected, he responded that his success would be his retribution, which was a tactically smart move to shift the focus from himself to what he would do for the American people.

Trump also smartly pivoted to the impact immigration has had on working-class people and how the influx of immigrants has hampered already limited resources for people living in urban areas. Trump emphasized how inflation has made affordability an insurmountable hurdle for voters and stressed the importance of the next president directly addressing these issues. These are two of the biggest issues distressing voters.

On the other hand, President Joe Biden did not meet expectations and may have increased concerns about his age and ability to lead for another four years. The visual contrast between him and Trump was stark and obvious. Trump, despite his complexities as a candidate, came across as capable, which was the exact opposite for Biden.

Shermichael Singleton is a CNN political commentator, host of a nationally syndicated radio show on SiriusXM and principal of Global Impact Strategies, a political consulting firm. He has worked on three Republican presidential campaigns.

Paul Begala: Time for Democrats to have a serious talk

“Disaster.” “Catastrophe.” “Meltdown.” “He needs to get out.” “Uggh.”

Paul Begala - CNNPaul Begala - CNN

Paul Begala – CNN

These are but a few of the texts I received during the CNN debate from card-carrying, Biden-voting, Trump-loathing Democratic strategists. And that was in the first 15 minutes.

Debates are always more about style than substance, and President Joe Biden’s style was simply awful. You don’t need me to recap it: His voice was shot, some answers meandered and he often stared open-mouthed as former President Donald Trump spoke.

The calls for Biden to step aside began, albeit privately, before the debate was even over. They will crescendo in the days ahead. Most Democrats — and a sizeable number of independents and Republicans — see Trump as a threat to democracy. They need a warrior, not a whisperer.

If Biden thought he had a rough night at the debate, he ain’t seen nothin’ yet. There will be a chorus of calls for him to step aside. Democrats up and down the ballot will begin to wonder if their election prospects are damaged by Biden. Never mind the Republicans — Biden is about to have real problems with his fellow Democrats.

Biden has plenty of time to recover. The question Democrats will ask is, does he have the ability to recover?

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Jeff Yang: Biden’s weakly delivered rational facts were no match for Trump’s forceful lies

The most frequently used buzzword in post-debate spin is “optics.” How did the side-by-side images of the two candidates support the throughline each campaign was attempting to manifest? Did President Joe Biden come off as a leader or a loser? Did former President Donald Trump come off as a messiah or a maniac? And yes, the visuals in this first presidential debate of the cycle were phenomenally important.

Jeff Yang  - CNNJeff Yang  - CNN

Jeff Yang – CNN

Trump’s gruff, surly appearance, combined with his scathing and apocalyptic rhetoric, may have turned off swing voters. Biden’s frail demeanor, the pale flatness of his expression only punctuated by occasional “are you guys hearing this?” spit-takes, did nothing to assuage the fears among his base that he might not have the stamina for a long campaign and gave even more ammunition to those already lobbing ageist volleys into the Oval Office at will.

But this particular debate wasn’t about optics — it was about sonics. In general, this is a battle of weakly delivered rational facts versus forcefully uttered BS, and Americans always love the latter.

For all his wild rhetoric and easily punctured lies, Trump kept his cool, and spoke loudly, forcefully, in simple declaratives, firing off racist assertions — migrants are coming to America to take jobs from Black people! — absurd allegations — Democrats want to rip ninth-month fetuses from women’s wombs and increase everybody’s taxes by four times! — and straight-out slander — Biden is a Manchurian candidate! — with a preacher’s ease and gospel clarity.

It didn’t matter that Trump’s statements couldn’t pass fact checks. They passed the sound check, worming into the heads of undecided voters, propelled by the seductive, lilting cadence he’s practiced at a thousand rallies.

Biden, meanwhile, slowed down by a cold, sounded hoarse and weak, his voice occasionally cracking and trailing off. While he occasionally summoned the energy to land a solid blow, sounding like Fightin’ Joe when he called out with contempt the ludicrousness of “the idea that I have to apologize to [Trump] for anything,” some of his lines were inaudible, and many of the rest felt like they were delivered without conviction.

Video lives on in attack ads and viral clips. Audio lingers in the stems of people’s brains. The bar wasn’t high for Biden in this debate. He just needed to sound anything but weak, weary and old, and his performance did not deliver.

Jeff Yang co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” is co-author of the bestselling book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and author of “The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America.”

Patrick T. Brown: Abortion was supposed to be Biden’s topic. Not this time

Coming into Thursday night’s debate, the conventional wisdom held that abortion would be one of the strongest topics for President Joe Biden, and a relative weakness for former President Donald Trump. But Trump’s willingness to tack to the center, coupled with Biden’s fumbled handling of the topic, means that a subject that has inflamed so much progressive energy and activism in the two years since the Dobbs ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade ended up not helping Biden at all.

Patrick T. Brown - Courtesy Patrick T. BrownPatrick T. Brown - Courtesy Patrick T. Brown

Patrick T. Brown – Courtesy Patrick T. Brown

For his part, Trump committed that he would not block access to abortion-inducing drugs like mifepristone, which will doubtless disappoint some conservative activists. His answer on exceptions in abortion laws in cases of rape, incest and potential danger to the life of the mother, telling people to “follow your heart — but you have to get elected, also,” was the usual word salad that won’t leave most pro-lifers any more satisfied with his stance than they were coming in.

But rather than capitalize on Trump’s political vulnerabilities on the topic, Biden offered an unclear and outdated mental framework. In response to Trump’s abortion answer, Biden voluntarily brought up an unrelated anecdote about an immigrant murdering a woman before adding a somewhat muddled thought that “there’s a lot of young women who are being raped by their in-laws, by their spouses, brothers and sisters.”

When asked by CNN’s Dana Bash whether there should be any restrictions whatsoever placed on abortion, he referred to regulating the procedure under a three trimesters framework that was eliminated by the Supreme Court in 1992. He also said he opposed “late-term abortion — period, period, period,” ignoring that his administration backed a congressional bill that would have supported a federal right to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when it would “pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health” – an approach with more wiggle room than his debate declarations.

On a topic that was supposed to be one of the sharpest tools in the Democrats’ arsenal, the treatment of the topic was essentially a wash. And that, coupled with the general atmosphere throughout the debate, was a disaster for the incumbent president and a dream come true for his challenger.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.

David Mark: Democrats are probably stuck with Biden

President Joe Biden’s debate performance on Thursday, speaking in a raspy, tentative voice, left a lot to be desired. It’s likely to have some Democrats in a panic about their chances on November 5, talking up the need for a replacement candidate.

David Mark - COURTESY David MarkDavid Mark - COURTESY David Mark

David Mark – COURTESY David Mark

But there’s little to nothing they can do about it unless Biden, who is 81, agrees. But he has thus far shown no willingness to even consider stepping out of the race to allow a younger, sprightlier Democratic candidate come forward. Biden has aimed for the presidency his whole adult life, finally nabbing the prize in 2020 after two losing efforts.

Even if Democrats could convince Biden to step aside from the fight against former President Donald Trump, the Republican nominee-in-waiting, there’s the Vice President Kamala Harris problem. Harris has persistently proved unpopular with the public, to the point that she was a rhetorical punching bag in the Republican presidential primaries by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

And if Harris could somehow be prevailed on to take one for the team and not run for president herself, the nomination would be thrown wide open less than two months before the Democratic National Convention. Other technicalities related to ballot access and campaign finance issues only compound the problem.

So, Democrats are effectively stuck with Biden, whose debate performance Thursday was a far cry from his bravura State of the Union address in March. Back then, he energetically engaged in casual squabbles with Republicans over their plans on taxes and immigration.

On Thursday, Biden’s voice was weak and raspy, playing into the Trump narrative that he’s too old for the job. But Biden’s problems went beyond his voice. The president’s inability to make arguments effectively, and seeming to lose his train of thought, was concerning to television viewers.

The whole reason Biden wanted the first debate so early was to show a contrast with Trump and make the race a referendum. Instead, most of the focus is on Biden’s poor performance.

About the best Democrats can hope for now is that pundits were right when they pontificated before the debate that the face-off with Trump wouldn’t change much about the presidential race.

David Mark is a political journalist, author and public speaker. He is the author of “Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning” and co-author of “Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech.”

Geoff Duncan: Americans were right to dread a Trump-Biden rematch

The immediate commentary and quick takeaways from Thursday night’s debate are focused on President Joe Biden’s uneven performance and subsequent Democratic handwringing and teeth-gnashing.

Geoff Duncan - Alex Slitz/APGeoff Duncan - Alex Slitz/AP

Geoff Duncan – Alex Slitz/AP

But unless they force a change at the top of the Democratic ticket, the evening’s events do not change the long-term outlook for the race: The roughly 16% of Americans whose votes are up for grabs will continue shopping for their candidate as the election draws closer.

This was not a great night for Biden. No two ways about it. His voice was low, his answers were rambling, and it was hard to follow his train of thought at times. Even when he was saying the right things on substance, his delivery and style were hard to watch.

Trump, for his part, benefitted from the format, especially with only one microphone being on at a time. He showed a surprising level of discipline not often associated with his three national campaigns or four years as president. But the fact checkers were busy with his falsehoods, especially on the events of January 6, 2021, and little about his performance was inspiring or likely to appeal to independent voters.

So while it wasn’t a good night for Biden, it’s unclear whether Trump gained support from tonight’s debate, leaving the dynamics of the race potentially unchanged and as close as the polls suggest.

CNN’s debate provided a service to the voters by creating a stage for a productive back and forth without interruptions. Now, one thing is clear: The majority of voters who have been dreading the Trump-Biden rematch are feeling vindicated after tonight’s debate.

A CNN contributor, Geoff Duncan served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor from 2019-2023.

Peter Bergen: Trump’s bogus claim on terrorism

The topic of terrorism played an unusually large role in this presidential debate, with former President Donald Trump making inaccurate or misleading claims.

Peter Bergen - CNNPeter Bergen - CNN

Peter Bergen – CNN

Early on, Trump attacked Biden on immigration by claiming that the US is currently seeing the largest number of terrorists coming into the country — a misleading claim that also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the “encounters” by US Border Patrol agents with people on the terrorism watch list in 2023 took place at the northern border with Canada.

Later on, Trump did correctly point out that as president, he authorized the operations that killed the founder and leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani.

But Trump then went on to make a bogus claim (one he has made before) that there was “no terror” during his administration. This one is a real whopper. There were several people charged with terrorism during his presidency. Notably, in October 2017, an Uzbek man carried out a terrorist attack in Manhattan by using a rented truck to fatally strike eight people on a bike path.

It’s also worth pointing out that Trump seems to have a major blind spot when it comes to right-wing domestic terrorism that took place on his watch. In 2019, a 21-year-old White man touted xenophobic and White supremacist beliefs online just minutes before he targeted Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He killed 23 people in what was the most lethal right-wing terrorist attack in decades, according to the research institution New America.

And, of course, the most spectacular act of domestic terrorism in decades took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Some 140 police officers were assaulted while Trump failed to put a stop to it for hours while it unfolded. If elected, Trump has promised to pardon a “large portion” of the rioters — a point that Biden also reminded viewers of during the debate.

Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the podcast “In the Room.”

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano: Latino voters should have heard more

As a Latina, what I wanted to hear on Thursday night from President Joe Biden about immigration was a balance between the need for border security and humane policies on the treatment of immigrants who are already in the United States.

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano - Frank MoyaSusanne Ramirez de Arellano - Frank Moya

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano – Frank Moya

I did not. I heard nothing concrete on immigration at all.

In the first of two scheduled presidential debates ahead of the November election, former President Donald Trump repeatedly used immigration and the humanitarian crisis at the border as a battering ram against Biden. He went on the offensive with the same tired attacks on undocumented immigrants, claiming that Biden “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 went so far as to say that crime associated with immigrants has turned the US into a “rat’s nest” and that immigrants are “going to destroy Social Security” and Medicare.

Biden had a chance to outline a plan that balanced security with a humanitarian resolution of the border crisis. But he didn’t. Instead, he went on the defensive and countered by describing how he had raised the legal standard for asylum claims and cut access to asylum for those crossing the border illegally when arrests topped 2,500 a day, yet said nothing about immigration reform. Nothing.

How this will affect the country’s 36.2 million eligible Latino voters, who are increasingly split on immigration issues, remains to be seen. However, Biden needs the Latino vote to win reelection. A report by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative found that in 2020, Latino voters were vital in Biden’s presidential victory. In 2024, more than one of every 10 voters is expected to be Latino, meaning the Latino voting bloc will again be crucial next November. It’s the Latinization of America.

Tonight, neither Biden nor Trump acknowledged that, nor did us justice.

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano, a writer and cultural critic, is a former news director for Univision Puerto Rico.

Roxanne Jones: Democrats should be worried

Democrats have a problem and it’s President Joe Biden, whose performance during Thursday night’s presidential debate was so lackluster and confusing that it was painful to watch at times. The fiery president we watched give the last State of the Union address in March was nowhere to be found.

Roxanne Jones - Courtesy Roxanne JonesRoxanne Jones - Courtesy Roxanne Jones

Roxanne Jones – Courtesy Roxanne Jones

Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, came out of the gate confident, clear and focused, although he fell far short of offering the American people any solid details about what exactly he would do if elected president in November.

Trump stuck to his predictable strategy — make broad and bombastic statements that are either false or unprovable. On questions about immigration, Trump offered no reform policies, instead declaring, “We are living in a rat’s nest.” He went on to add that “we don’t have borders anymore” while accusing migrants of “killing our people.” Studies show that immigrants, whether they are undocumented or not, do not commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans. Instead of offering solutions for the immigration crisis, Trump resorted to base-level fear-mongering.

On women’s reproductive rights: Trump bragged that he’d done “a great thing” by appointing three conservative Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade and give states the final say on women’s reproductive rights. Trump also revealed that he supported exceptions for rape and incest and to save the life of the mother.

Shockingly, even on this key issue — a winning one for Democrats — Biden was weak, countering that Trump had done a “terrible thing.” Throughout the evening, the president failed to speak coherently about his record or even make the case for why he should be reelected.

Trump may have spoken louder than Biden and delivered more insults. But neither candidate made a compelling argument for how they would move our nation forward, improve the economy and make life better for most Americans.

Last night’s debate was a debacle. Nobody won, especially not the American people.

Roxanne Jones is CEO of the Push Marketing Group and former vice president at ESPN. She is an author, executive producer and radio voice. Jones has worked at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lanhee J. Chen: Biden’s big missed opportunity

Absent from tonight’s debate was any significant discussion of what either former President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden would do with a second term in office.

Lanhee J. Chen - Lanhee J. Chen/ECG Studios, LLCLanhee J. Chen - Lanhee J. Chen/ECG Studios, LLC

Lanhee J. Chen – Lanhee J. Chen/ECG Studios, LLC

There were a lot of discussions about who the “worst president in history” is, along with a few policy discussions — but these were largely retrospective exchanges about each candidate’s record during their four years in office.

The debate was a lost opportunity for both candidates in this sense. While Biden made a half-hearted effort in his closing statement to articulate his plans if the American people reelect him for a second term, his inability to do so clearly and earlier in the debate was a big miss given his position in swing-state polling, which generally shows him lagging behind Trump.

One of the ways that Biden could have garnered additional support tonight — particularly from undecided independent voters — was to give Americans a sense of where he would take the country and how that vision for the future contrasts with the one contemplated in a second Trump term.

He simply didn’t do this.

And while Trump didn’t articulate any new forward-looking policy either, he was able to tout his economic record as well as his actions on immigration policy, and essentially say that he would do more of the same if reelected. That might be enough to convince undecided voters to support him and ensure that he is elected president again on November 5.

Lanhee J. Chen, PhD, is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution. Chen has been an adviser to four presidential campaigns, including as policy director of Romney-Ryan 2012.

Frida Ghitis: America’s future is in danger

Watching the debate, a sense of rising panic was palpable in many American living rooms: a creeping dread that the country is in grave danger. That’s because the debate made it clear that former President Donald Trump has a strong chance of defeating President Joe Biden; a realization that the Trump threat is very real.

Frida Ghitis - CNNFrida Ghitis - CNN

Frida Ghitis – CNN

Listening to Trump, it has become clear again that America’s future as a democracy is in danger; the future character of the nation is at risk. From friends overseas I received messages like, “What a disaster.”

Trump has all but promised to end support for Ukraine. He has been sharply critical of US aid in the past, has repeatedly disparaged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and has vowed to end the war in 24 hours.

Russia’s neighbors fear they will be next after President Vladimir Putin ends up with a chunk of territory conquered by force. Europeans now fear America’s potential withdrawal from NATO under Trump, and the destabilization of the alliances that helped keep the peace.

We can again visualize a country where the president attacks the media, undercuts individual rights, mocks the disabled and debases women. Worst of all, a president who uses the tools of government to go after his political foes.

Trump’s barrage of lies — with inept responses from Biden — overwhelmed the debate. It was a reminder of his presidency when incessant presidential lies were everyday fare.

It was a debate like no other, with two men who dripped contempt for each other. Unbelievable lines will remind historians of this sad moment. “I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump declared. “You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden shot.

Biden’s poor performance was visibly delightful to a self-satisfied Trump, who defended insurrectionists when asked about January 6. And when he was asked the key question at the end of the debate, whether he would commit to accepting the results of the next election, he concocted a response that was in fact a refusal to say he would accept the election results, claiming he would do so if the election was clean, but we know what that means. He will likely only accept them if he wins. We already saw what happened in the last election, when he falsely claimed he had won, helping set the stage for a wave of political violence that included his followers assaulting the US Capitol.

After this debate, it’s clear that the country is in danger because Trump may well take power again on January 20.

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a senior columnist for World Politics Review.

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