Don’t let Thursday's debate become the Democrats' Capitol riot

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We all remember the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. It was obvious that what happened that day was wrong, and it was equally obvious what it implied about Donald Trump.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Trump’s behavior was “a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recognized that Jan. 6 crossed a line and that Trump was responsible: “All I can say is, count me out. Enough is enough.”

Their moment of clarity probably resulted from how shocking the attack on the Capitol was.

The recent debate between former President Trump and President Biden was similarly shocking. After the debate, almost no one denied the reality that Biden was barely coherent.

Right after the debate ended, the chyron on CNN read “Very Aggressive Panic.” Former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wanted to focus on the positives, but admitted that she had to be “really honest.” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) has since said, “We have to be honest with ourselves that it wasn’t just a horrible night.” Jon Stewart wasn’t really exaggerating when he described Biden’s “resting 25th amendment face.”

All of this was reminiscent of what happened immediately after Jan. 6, when Republicans could not deny Trump’s responsibility for the riot.

For years now, political scientists have warned that many Republican elected leaders may not be committed to democracy, that Trump has violated democratic norms, and that Republican-led state legislatures have undermined democratic performance. I don’t disagree with them. I understood when Hillary Clinton said in 2016 that Trump’s “final target is democracy itself.” I was sympathetic in 2020 when Barack Obama said, “Don’t let them take away your democracy.”

There is no denying that Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election. Yet McConnell and Graham, who were so clear-eyed immediately after Jan. 6, have reversed themselves. They are now backing Trump again and have little to say about the Capitol riot.

We have been told throughout the last four years that Biden is up to the job, and even if there were hints, we had no conclusive evidence that he was not. But within the first 10 minutes of Thursday’s debate, it became clear to me that Biden cannot run for reelection. The next hour did nothing but confirm that conclusion. 

We were honest that Trump was “not normal,” and now we have to be honest and admit that Biden’s debate performance indicates that he too is not a normal president. To be sure, in the days since the debate, Biden has effectively delivered prepared speeches, just as he did during the State of the Union. 

It is also imaginable that Biden is sharp in meetings, at least most of the time, as supporters claim. But the job of the president is not just to read from a teleprompter or to be sharp in daytime meetings. 

Unfortunately, just as the Republicans’ moment of clarity about Trump faded after Jan. 6, the Democrats’ moment of clarity about Biden may already be fading, less than a week after the debate. Many Democrats are now taking their lead from McConnell and Graham.

Former President Obama wrote that “this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.” Almost every other elected Democrat has followed. Their argument is not that Biden is the best person for the job. Instead, their support is based almost entirely on Biden’s opponent.

Democrats’ current level of partisan loyalty, in the face of the available evidence, is like the Republican willingness to overlook the Capitol riot to serve their own political purposes. Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Tim Walz, even recognized this parallel, saying that he thinks Democrats need to learn from Republicans and continue to back Biden, adding that “Republicans will not abandon Donald Trump through indictments, through whatever it may be.”

This is a dangerous place to be. In my field, research shows that when partisans believe their opponents are not committed to democracy, they are themselves more willing to undermine democratic principles.

The day after the debate, Biden said that “Donald Trump will destroy our democracy. I will defend it.” But the debate made it abundantly clear that, for different reasons, Biden is also a threat to our democracy.

If Democrats want to convince us that they are the defenders of American democratic institutions, they will need to recognize the importance of what we all witnessed at that debate for longer than a moment.

Curtis Bram is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas. Follow him on X @curtisgbram.

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