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Winners and losers from the Biden-Trump debate

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One of the most dramatic presidential debates in decades unfurled over more than 90 minutes here on Thursday — and it left Democrats reeling.

A hesitant, halting and hoarse President Biden struggled badly in a clash that he had sought in an effort to change the trajectory of a campaign he appears to be narrowly losing.

Team Biden hoped a strong performance would restore the president to parity, at least. The opposite happened. Afterwards, there was fresh speculation as to whether Biden would be replaced as the Democratic nominee.

Incumbent presidents have struggled in the first debates of their reelection campaigns before. GOP challenger Mitt Romney was widely seen as getting the better of then-Present Obama in 2012, for example.

But Obama was 51, not 81, at the time. And he recovered in a second debate soon afterward. There won’t be a second Biden-Trump debate until September.

Biden’s struggles left the field largely clear for Trump, despite the former president displaying his usual tendencies toward hyperbole and belligerence.

Here, for once, virtually no one outside of the most hardcore partisans disagreed on who the principal winners and losers were.

WINNERS

Former President Trump

Trump won because Biden lost.

That’s the brutal math of a presidential debate, an inherently gladiatorial contest.

From a performative standpoint, Trump was far sharper and more vigorous than Biden.

He also turned potential attacks to his advantage, as when he contended that his propensity to fire former members of his administration was a good thing.

“This guy [Biden] hasn’t fired anybody,” Trump said. “He should have fired every military man that was involved with that Afghanistan [withdrawal] horror show.”

He also got off the hook from harder questions with almost no pushback either from Biden or from the debate moderators, CNN’s Dana Bash and Jake Tapper.

On abortion, Trump sought to position himself as someone who merely wanted to leave the question with the states. Asked about the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, he talked about the state of border security and tax policy at the time.

Trump was conspicuously equivocal when asked whether he would accept the results of the election. He claimed he did “nothing wrong” despite his recent conviction of 34 felonies — and the three other indictments he faces.

Yet, for all that, Trump and his allies will be thrilled with how the debate went. He leaves Atlanta more likely to win back the White House than when he walked onto the stage.

Alternative Democratic nominees

It’s hard to overstate the degree of the Democratic panic that spread across social media — and into text messages with reporters — within a half hour of the debate starting.

It is a testament to the scale of Biden’s stumble that talk of replacing the president as the Democratic nominee has instantly become mainstream.

No other potential nominee can seem to take glee from the president’s performance.

But in the brutal business of politics, Thursday was a good night for Democratic figures such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom — who was a big presence in the spin room here — and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Vice President Harris, who braved a tough interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper soon after the debate, is another possibility, though she has her own weaknesses.

Former first lady Michelle Obama is a dream candidate for many Democrats — but the fantasy is unlikely to become reality, given her adamant opposition to ever seeking elected office.

CNN

CNN pulled off a coup in getting the debate in the first place.

There are plenty of questions about the moderators’ conduct, in particular their reticence about fact-checking.

There was also a media kerfuffle about the network’s refusal to permit a White House pool reporter in the room where the debate was taking place.

But still, any network that hosts a debate hopes it will be a headline-grabber.

Thursday night’s clash easily hit that mark.

It will be discussed years from now — and CNN’s name is all over it.

MIXED

Jake Tapper and Dana Bash

The spotlight is unforgiving on any moderators in a presidential debate.

Tapper and Bash avoided any single negative moment, and the debate never evolved into chaos.

But Tapper and Bash’s reluctance to take a stronger line over questionable, or false, claims drew plenty of criticism, including on social media.

“I wish the CNN moderators did more fact-checking, letting the audience know when things are said that are flatly false. Not sure how it helps for a platform to transmit falsehoods disguised as facts,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on social media.

LOSERS

President Biden

It all went pretty wrong pretty fast for the president.

From the outset, he was meandering and indistinct.

He claimed to have capped the cost of insulin for seniors at $15 a shot when the actual cap is $35 per month.

The worst moment of all came next. In an answer that began with Biden confusing millionaires and billionaires, the president then lapsed into pauses and outright incoherence.

“Making sure that we are able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the…with the COVID. Or excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with. Look, if. We finally beat Medicare,” Biden said.

It was painful to watch, for Biden’s supporters most of all. And it is guaranteed to be replayed on conservative TV, radio and social media for days to come.

At other times, Biden let clear opportunities slip through his fingers.

His comments on abortion — perhaps the strongest political issue for his party — dissipated into a confusing riff on the three trimesters of pregnancy. An attempted attack on Trump for allegedly demeaning veterans as “suckers” and “losers” ran aground because of the lack of energy with which it was delivered.

Biden arguably improved — a bit — as time went on. But by then the damage was done.

A debate that the president sought had turned into a disaster.

Facts

It was not a good night for the truth.

Spin is par for the course in debates. But the amount of actual falsehoods uttered was striking.

Trump said a “relatively small number of people” went to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

As an Associated Press factcheck noted, more than 1,400 people have been charged with Jan. 6-related crimes and more than 1,000 have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial.

Trump said Biden had in the past used the racially charged term “super-predators.” There is no evidence the president ever used that phrase.

There was, of course, also hyperbole.

Trump insisted he could end the war between Russia and Ukraine before he even took office. He claimed that a universal 10 percent tariff on imports would not raise prices for American consumers, an assertion that economic experts overwhelmingly disagree with.

But the misstatements and exaggerations were not all from Trump, by any stretch.

The president said the Border Patrol union had “endorsed me, endorsed my position.” The union did back a deal on border security that Biden also pushed earlier this year. But it took to social media to note it had never endorsed him. And as mentioned above, Biden bungled his description of a cap on insulin prices.

 

THE HILL

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