The First Presidential Debate: Social Media Was Bummed Out by the Trump v Biden Showdown

To a large extent, it almost didn’t matter that Dana Bash and Jake Tapper were on stage.

The two CNN journalists prepared meticulously to moderate Thursday’s presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the first ever between a sitting president and his predecessor and asked several sharp questions.

Not only were many of them ignored, but the impression that some Americans were left with about President Biden’s fitness for the job essentially had nothing to do with Bash and Tapper or their involvement in the program.

“There’s no question this was not what the Biden campaign wanted or needed,” said ABC’s Mary Bruce. After the debate, CNN’s John King pointed to his cell phone, saying he hadn’t seen anything like the concern expressed to him in text messages as the debate went on.

“There’s a full-on panic about this performance,” said NBC’s Chuck Todd.

The event, organized by CNN and broadcast over most of the country’s main news and broadcast networks, was the earliest general election debate ever, before the two candidates had been formally nominated by their parties.

Did the moderators play a role?

Tapper and Bash asked about the economy, the war in Ukraine, climate change, the border, and election denial — a litany of issues that most Americans, in polls, say they are most concerned about heading into the 2024 election.

Their problem was that more times than not, the questions were ignored as the two candidates continued to squabble at their own pace.

“You have 67 seconds left,” Tapper said to Trump when he didn’t address one. “The question was, what are you going to do to help Americans in the throes of (opioid) addiction right now to get the treatment that they need?”

“This does pertain to it,” Trump said, moving on to talk about open borders and Soviet leader Vladimir Putin.

At another point, when Bash asked Trump whether he would support the institution of a Palestinian state, Trump said, “I’d have to think a bit before we do that,” and went on to talk about NATO.

Bash also had to go back to Biden to ask a second time what he would say to Black voters who believed they hadn’t made enough progress under his administration after he recited a handful of programmatic changes. She asked Trump three times about whether he’d accept election results if he lost.

They weren’t designed to be referees

CNN determined ahead of time that Tapper and Bash would be questioners, not umpires. They didn’t follow up on questions — except to repeat those that weren’t answered — and left it to the politicians to try and fact-check. Each called the other a liar.

CBS’ Gayle King said later that the lack of fact-checking benefited Trump because he was able to seem more in control with his answers. “If you don’t know the facts, you’d think he was making a lot of sense,” she said.

CNN’s Daniel Dale sent out several fact-checks on social media during the debate, but television viewers would not be aware of them unless they happened to look for them. Per CNN rules, other networks carrying the debate were not allowed to break in with any commentary of their own until the debate was finished.

Heading into the debate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said that she did not envy the position in which Tapper and Bash were placed.

“The moderators at CNN have an impossible job,” she said, “and they are under nuclear hot scrutiny.”

CNN came under criticism before the debate by the White House Correspondents’ Association, which protested the network’s decision not to allow a pool text reporter into their studio to observe Biden and Trump off-camera. CNN said there was no room, although it promised to usher a reporter in briefly during one of the two commercial breaks.

The first debate between Trump and Biden in 2020 was seen by 73 million viewers, while the second had 63 million. Those were in the fall when television viewership was generally up.

Following the debate, The Washington Post and The New York Times had nearly identical lead headlines. The Post: “Biden Struggles, Trump Deflects Questions.” The Times: “Biden Struggles as Trump Deflects Questions During Contentious Debate.”

In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Vice President Harris again acknowledges it was a slow start, “but I thought it was a strong finish.”

“What we had in Joe Biden is someone who wanted to have a debate based on facts, based on truths, and in Donald Trump, we have what we’ve come to expect, which is someone who is going to push lies and distract from the reality of the damage he has created and continues to create in our country,” Harris said.

 While picking up his order, he said, "I think we did well.” Biden also said of his opponent, “It’s hard to debate a liar.”

His voice was raspy and he said he had a sore throat.

President Joe Biden's age, at 81, has long been a topic of discussion. However, the first presidential debate between Biden and former President Donald Trump on Thursday night has intensified focus on this issue. Biden's verbal missteps, weak voice (his campaign cited a cold), and wandering responses to both Trump's jabs and the moderators' questions may prompt the question: Can Biden be replaced as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee? The short answer is, practically, no.

All 50 states have already held their primaries, and Biden has secured the vast majority of delegates. Only Biden himself can instruct these delegates to vote for someone else, as they are pledged to him unless he withdraws before the Democratic convention this August. The decision to drop out rests solely with Biden; no party apparatus or individual can compel him to do so. Given his resolve after Thursday night, it seems unlikely he would step down.

There are significant real-world challenges to consider. Presidents are elected through a systematic party process. The Democratic presidential nominee will be chosen in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, requiring majority support from Democratic delegates. These delegates, assigned based on primary vote totals, are bound to their candidate in the initial convention vote. Since Biden holds virtually all the required delegates, there is no viable substitute at this stage.

Financially, Biden's campaign has the necessary fundraising machinery to effectively run a campaign, including ads, events, and staff. No other Democrat has an equivalent campaign infrastructure. Politically, attempting to force Biden out is risky. The Democratic establishment has rallied around Biden, endorsing him and leading party operations for both his incumbency and personal connections. There is no powerful entity within the DNC capable of sidelining Biden.

Despite any perceived unpopularity, Biden won decisively in the 2020 primary and has retained support in critical states like New Hampshire and Nevada. Leading Democratic figures who could potentially replace him, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, or Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, are publicly supportive of Biden. They have no incentive to undermine him privately either, fearing backlash and division within the party.

Only Biden can decide to drop out, a choice he appears unwilling to make, especially given his commitment to preventing Trump's re-election. If he did step down, the least controversial replacement would be Vice President Kamala Harris. However, Harris faces her own challenges, polling worse than Biden against Trump and encountering voter biases as a woman of color. Other potential successors like Whitmer, Shapiro, and Newsom also fared poorly in polls and bypassing Harris could alienate crucial Black voters.

Even if a new Democratic contender emerged with strong backing from influential figures like Barack Obama and Biden's close confidantes persuaded him to withdraw, it would lead to a brokered convention with multiple voting rounds, risking further chaos and disunity within the party. Given the stakes, it seems unlikely that anyone in Democratic politics would find this scenario appealing. Until Thursday night, the answer remained clear: It’s too late to replace Biden.  

Well, that was somehow even worse than we feared. President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump took the stage in Atlanta on Thursday for the first presidential debate on CNN, and it was rough going from the jump.

CNN announced that the moderators wouldn’t fact-check the candidates live, meaning no one intervened when Trump falsely claimed that states are allowing people to get abortions after they give birth. The candidates seemed like diminished versions of themselves, doing little to change the perception of the 2024 election cycle as a depressing, lower-energy version of the 2020 race. The general consensus on social media? This just isn’t it.

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