For Whom the Split Screen Tolls

Column: It tolls for Joe Biden.

(Reuters/Emily Elconin)
June 27, 2024

It was clear within the first few minutes that the presidential debate was not going to go well for President Joe Biden. His breath was heavy, his voice was raspy and faint, his physical bearing poor. When he wasn't speaking, his mouth was agape. His answers rambled, and he was sometimes incoherent. Every so often, he coughed noticeably. He did not look well.

This wasn't the hyped-up, partisan Biden who appeared at the State of the Union in March. This was the Biden who mumbled argle-bargle at the White House's Juneteenth celebration.

The contrast with former president Donald Trump was apparent. Trump was confident, direct, and forceful. Unlike in 2020, he did not interrupt his opponent or the moderators. He followed the debate rules. He kept his facial expressions, and even his sarcasm, to a minimum. I have watched every Trump debate since he entered electoral politics in 2015. Thursday night was his best performance.

I've missed quite a few Biden debates because of his longevity, but this was easily his worst showing since 2008. And while his answers became somewhat steadier over time, he could not overcome the visual of the split screen with Trump.

On the left of television screens around the world, Trump looked like he had just stepped off the 2020 campaign trail. On the right, Biden looked like a diminished man who is not up to the job and cannot be expected to complete a second full term as president. Biden's presence confirmed that Robert Hur, the special counsel who investigated the president's handling of classified documents, was, if anything, pulling punches when he wrote that Biden is "a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

The split screen explains why the level of panic among liberal commentators and Democratic strategists on social media was so high during the debate. This wasn't some "cheapfake" or altered video meme online. This was happening in real time, in a television studio in Atlanta, with only Biden, Trump, Jake Tapper, and Dana Bash in the room. How do you spin what Americans saw Thursday night? You can't.

Nor were Americans the only ones watching Biden's performance and assessing Biden's demeanor. Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, the mullahs, and Kim Jong Un tuned in as well. And the world has become a more dangerous place.

Biden's hubris might not only cost him a second term and cause Democrats to lose Congress this November. It may provoke America's adversaries to commit hostile acts before January 20, 2025. And if that happens, Biden won't be the only one who loses. We all will.