The New Underdog

On the aftermath of the Biden vs Trump debate

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The only thing you really need to know about Joe Biden to understand him is the house. An old du Pont mansion outside of Wilmington. A beautiful old wreck that had been abandoned and rotting for years. Biden got himself worked up into a lather over the possibilities and did a deal for far more than it was worth — and far more than he could himself afford. His inspection tour before buying it was going there one night and breaking through the plywood to look around for a few minutes in the darkness. Once he moved in, he discovered that there were animals living on the third floor, which was wide open, the roof had holes in it, and the whole place was full of asbestos. He had to sell off some lots of the land to afford windows to keep the animals out. Then he needed a new driveway because he ticked off his neighbor, so he sold another lot to get the money to pave the driveway. But the driveway had ran through that lot so he had to build yet another driveway. Then he decided he needed more privacy from all of the new neighbors who were building on the lots he sold off so he found a nursery in Pennsylvania who sold mature trees  — saplings wouldn’t do, he needed big ones right away. He got twenty foot tall hemlocks and planted them two feet apart like a solid wall. They died of course. He kept selling off lots until there were none left. His next move was to run for President in 1988.

Joe Biden is a man who has lived completely untethered from reality for his entire life and refused to accept any setback. A visionary. At the age of twenty-nine he was a county councilman, not exactly the kind of office that people jump into the United States Senate from. Especially not against Sen. Cale Boggs, a beloved fixture in Delaware politics who had served three terms as a congressman, two terms as Delaware’s governor, and two terms as US Senator. Biden had an open path to the Democratic nomination because no other Democrats wanted to be the sacrificial lamb against such a sure-bet as Cale Boggs. But Biden had a vision. He would treat him respectfully, like a grandpa, but with the message that Boggs was just too old to do the job anymore. Cale Boggs was sixty-three years old. Biden won the election. 

Fast forward two and a half decades. A circular firing squad has erupted within the Democratic Party around Biden for being too old himself following his debate performance against Trump. Biden had been widely expected to bomb at the State of the Union address back in March, but ended up pulling off a surprisingly competent performance relative to his baseline (though he did begin crashing about 45 minutes in as the initial adderall high wore off). This raised the bar for his debate expectations. I myself had assumed that the greatest stimulant cocktail in pharmacological history was being prepared. With CNN as the host, there were expectations on the Right that they would rig the debate in Biden’s favor. A meme circulated through the pundit and influencer sphere that it was a mistake for Trump to even agree to a debate — that’s how nervous some on the Right were going into this. But it was apparent from the moment that Biden shuffled out stiffly that he was the one who would be having a bad night. As debate co-moderator Jake Tapper was framing the first question of the night by listing off low-ball estimates of the increase in food and home prices over the last four years, Biden stared back in a look of abject horror. Things only got worse once he began talking.

Trump supporters haven’t been served such delicious schadenfreude since Election Night 2016. At a VIP debate watch party featuring Doug Emhoff, Rob Reiner began screaming about losing and Jane Fonda was reported to have tears streaming down her face. Prominent Democrats took to Twitter to air out their fears, like a confessionist ritual. The gaffes only got funnier as the debate wore on. Biden warned that women need abortion because they are being “raped by their sisters.” Give him some credit, his brain is still sharp enough to remember the transgender dogma.

Biden’s poor debate performance was an opportunity for a ratings bonanza that the TV media just couldn’t pass up. Pundits on panels desperately worked to outdo one another in coming up with the most alarming adjectives and inside gossip as to how Democrats were handling the spectacle. The media circus continued to grow into a general panic about Biden’s health with Democrats calling for a late-term abortion of his presidential bid due to fears that the public might be catching on to his senility. Recriminations, blame shifting, finger-pointing have spilled both in public and private. It is a weird news cycle that is reminiscent of the kind of panic that set in over three months into the Covid-19 pandemic, when a critical mass of officials and media suddenly decided that we had to take action, actions which of course turned out to be worse than doing nothing at all. 

The knives are out for Biden, but he is wearing a kevlar nursing home gown.

Joe Biden, newly elected senator from Delaware, addresses the press in Washington (December 12, 1972).

Everyone is capable of extreme acts of self-delusion, but especially those who are intelligent and/or high-status. Just look up Bernie Madoff’s client list. It is these types who now express shock that President Biden showed up to the debate in the exact same mental and physical state that he has shown up to nearly all public events in for the past four years. It should have been no surprise that Biden would have a rough time at the debate. Just a couple of weeks before, he kept wandering off at the G7 summit in Italy only to be chased down and guided back by some prime minister or president in the group. Just a week before that, at the American cemetery in Normandy on the 80th Anniversary of D-Day, he squatted slightly while talking to French President Emmanuel Macron and soiled himself in a majestic display of Presidential Intimidation not seen since President Lyndon B. Johnson intentionally urinated on a Secret Service agent’s leg. 

The funny thing about the din of calls for Biden to drop out, however, is that his poll numbers have not substantially moved from where they were before the debate. The public has been well aware of the president’s condition for a long time now and had already priced it in. The people who were shocked by Biden’s debate performance are never going to vote for Trump or Kennedy. Bloomberg has Biden up 5 points in Michigan, 3 points in Wisconsin, and within the margin of error in Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, and Nevada. The election apparatuses of all of those states (save for North Carolina) are in the hands of Trump’s political enemies. The RNC still has no clear answer for what the plan is to overcome election fraud. Sure, there is a “plan”. A hundred-thousand poll watchers and five hundred lawyers that will be deployed to polling sites around the country. That is enough lawyers to put one in each polling site in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, with about one hundred left for the tens of thousands of precincts across the rest of the battlegrounds. As for the poll watchers, there were plenty of those in 2020. They were on hand to see election workers putting cardboard up over the windows after herding them out of the counting room, or alternatively kept inside to watch the counts of the boxes of fraudulent ballots from drop-off boxes. If a tree falls in a forest, it still falls if you are there to observe it. In 2020, more non-citizens voted in Arizona than the difference between Biden and Trump’s totals. Since then, millions more have flooded across the border. House Republicans are pushing a bill to federally ban non-citizen voting in federal elections, but the White House has already signalled a veto and Congressional Democrats are whipping their members to vote against it. 

It goes against conventional wisdom, but the current freakout among Democrats may well be strengthening Biden’s hand. The panic over Biden’s capacity and realization that President Trump is now favored to win has woken many Democrats out of their torpor. There is an element of religious ecstasy that comes with consciously abandoning reality to participate in a shared delusion, rallying behind a visibly decrepit standard-bearer, the Zombie King. We saw it with Covid, and again with Ukraine. Big things happen when these people get themselves worked up into a fervor. Some of the best grassroots fundraising days the Biden/Harris campaign has had has been since the debate. Lest we forget, an election less than two years ago in the key swing state of Pennsylvania was won by a guy who had a stroke during the campaign and did far worse than Biden in his own debate against Dr. Oz, a guy who made his living talking on TV. President Biden has secured the backing of the black leaders in the party and of the progressive wing. He has given a shot of adrenaline to the partisans, who are now operating in Fear Mode. He is the underdog, training his fire on the party elite who never fully accepted him. He is calling into Morning Joe like he is Donald Trump in 2016. This is his Billy Bush tape leak moment. Remember when the entire GOP establishment was in full panic mode in October 2016? Remember when Trump’s own running mate couldn’t even bring himself to say he should stay in the race? Donald Trump’s biggest advantage in that race was that Hillary Clinton’s supporters were so confident that she was going to win that many of them didn’t bother to volunteer for the campaign, or even vote. And Hillary’s own campaign was so confident that they didn’t bother even once to send her to Wisconsin on the homestretch of the campaign. 

Republicans were also supremely confident of a red wave in the midterms. The wave never materialized. The GOP just barely took the House and washed out in the Senate. This was blamed on the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade, and that did activate a lot of liberal women. But digging deeper into the results, GOP under-performance was almost entirely attributable to Republicans doing much worse in rural areas than expected. Virginia’s Gov. Glenn Youngkin pulled off a big win in 2021 not just because he did marginally better in the suburbs (he still lost them), but entirely because rural whites turned out in force and voted Republican the same way that black people vote Democrat. It was a backlash against VA Democrats’ assaults on gun rights and Southern heritage, allowing rioters to set civil war museums on fire and tear down memorials to the defenders of Virginia. 

Back in 2022, when I was in Arizona covering the Blake Masters’ unsuccessful campaign for the US Senate, I was hearing rumors that support for Masters was surprisingly weak in the rural parts of the state. Sure enough, when the results came in, Masters under-performed in the rural areas. I started looking at other states like Minnesota where the Republicans had lost a number of seats that they were sure they’d win, and a similar pattern appeared. Republicans were much weaker than expected in the rural areas.

I believe this is because the economy is still the prime political mover. While rural America did very poorly coming out of the Great Recession, but it came out of the Covid Recession much stronger than the suburbs and metropolitan areas. Rural America stayed open while everyone else locked down. White flight from the cities injected new youth and vigor into local economies. The increase in commodity prices benefited farmers and other commodity producers, and the reshoring of American manufacturing has led to the opposite problem of unemployment: difficulty with finding qualified workers. 2021 was an odd year with few elections, so there isn’t much data available, but the decline in Republican rural performance from 2020/2021 to 2022 suggests that these economic factors are somewhat mollifying to rural voters. If this holds, Trump will have to make the difference up somewhere. I fully expect he will do much better in the big cities and blue states than he did in his previous elections, but his campaign would be well advised to not take any voting bloc for granted, particularly the rural one. This election is just getting started.

Overconfident Republicans should be preparing for a knife-fight, not a cakewalk. Beyond the White House are the races for the US Senate and House of Representatives. If Trump wins, he will need majorities in both chambers to govern effectively, but especially in the US Senate, which approves or rejects the President’s nominations to the executive and judicial branches. The way to win any race is to run like you’re still in second place. The consequence of misunderestimating your opponent is defeat. The consequence of not doing that is victory. And if you overestimate your enemy a bit, you may end up winning really big. 

Benjamin Braddock is an American writer and an Editor-at-Large at IM—1776. He can be followed @GraduatedBen.

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