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Can Biden come back from a bad debate the way Reagan did in 1984?

U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.
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U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.

After President Biden’s surprisingly weak debate performance this week, some defenders have pointed to other incumbents who stumbled in their first debate but recovered to win reelection.

Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan did it. The clear message these defenders want to convey is: Joe can too.

But can he? Are the situations comparable? Or is this more like the incumbents who stumbled in their first meeting with the opposing nominee and wound up leaving office after one term? That list is longer: Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), George H. W. Bush (1992) and Donald Trump (2020).

The most recent comeback story was Obama, who had an uncharacteristically flat first outing against Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 (Obama himself called it a “stinker”), then did fine in the second debate and won with 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206 in November.

But the classic and in some respects parallel case was Reagan’s 40 years ago, as he faced Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in Louisville, Ky.

Reagan was comfortably ahead in the polls that fall, cruising toward reelection, even if his age of 73 made him older than any previous president in history. But his performance that night on stage was alarming to his staff and supporters as much as to observers in general. The polls narrowed and the next issue of Time magazine had a cover illustration of two horses neck-and-neck and the headline: “A real race?”

Lou Cannon of The Washington Post, who had covered Reagan’s political career from his early California election bids in the 1960s through his presidency, wrote in his book Ronald Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, that Reagan had “not even cracked” his pre-debate briefing book. Cannon noted the staff had limited that document to 25 pages after first lady Nancy Reagan insisted her husband not be “overworked” prior to the debate.

In his practice debates, Cannon reported, “Reagan suddenly looked old and frail [and] that is exactly how Reagan appeared to millions of Americans the following Sunday in Louisville.”

The Wall Street Journal ran a headline stack asking: Fitness Issue – New Question in Race: Is Oldest U.S President Now Showing His Age? That was followed by: “Reagan Debate Performance Invites Open Speculation on His Ability to Serve.”

The accompanying article said age had not been an issue, but “the president’s rambling responses and apparent occasional confusion injected an unpredictable new element into the race.” The article quoted two gerontologists calling for cognitive testing and a management consultant and Reagan voter who said he would not recommend the incumbent for a corporate presidency, let alone the White House.

Cannon in his book said there was not so much dismay over Reagan’s words as his appearance and demeanor. His summary sounded remarkably similar to some accounts of the Biden-Trump meeting this week.

“If one read the debate transcript, without seeing the candidates, it would be difficult to see what the fuss was about,” Cannon noted. ”Both candidates overstated their positions and misstated important facts, as they often did in the campaign speeches.”

But that was not the point, Cannon concluded, as televised candidate debates were not really debates but “have always been personality contests.”

Meg Greenfield, long the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, judged Mondale the winner in Louisville but noted that other candidates thought to have lost in a debate (Richard Nixon in 1960, Ford in 1976 and Carter in 1980) “believed themselves to have won ‘on the facts’ and lost on some intangibles of presence and performance.”

Again, a judgment made 40 years ago that seemed nonetheless apt for Biden’s attitude on the day after the debate: “I know I’m not a young man, I don’t walk as easy or speak as smoothly or debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong and I know how to do this job.”

A distant mirror

Biden now faces a far steeper climb than Reagan did then. The incumbent in 1984 had been renominated with only token opposition, like Biden, but unlike Biden had a double-digit polling lead coast-to-coast and no apparent weaknesses prior to the Louisville debate.

President Reagan and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, at the second presidential debate in Kansas City on October 21, 1984.
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President Reagan and his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, at the second presidential debate in Kansas City on October 21, 1984.

Biden by contrast has been buffeted by the age question since his reelection campaign began. When he and his campaign pressed for an unprecedented pre-convention debate, it was taken as a show of confidence and an attempt to put the age question to bed. Getting that done was regarded as Biden’s primary mission this week.

A model for that might have been found in the way that Reagan’s age issue was addressed at the second debate. The two candidates met in Kansas City, Mo., where most of the evening was pro forma until one of the moderators, Henry Trewhitt of The Baltimore Sun, noted that Reagan staff had observed the president was “tired” on the night of the Louisville round. Trewhitt noted that White House crises could come at any hour of the day or night and asked if Reagan had any doubt he “would be able to function in such circumstances.”

With his best Hollywood twinkle in his eye and a deadpan expression, Reagan replied: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience erupted in laughter and applause. Even Mondale, who was 56, had to laugh.

The age issue had been raised in one debate and dismissed in the next. Reagan went on to win 49 states a month later.

But there was a kind of counterpoint to that moment. At the end of the debate, each candidate was giving a closing statement. Reagan’s rambled on quite a while past the allotted time and another moderator, Edwin Newman of NBC, told him his time had expired.

Reagan, seeming relieved, said: “Oh, thank you, Ed.” And stopped.

It was not until several years after he had left office in 1989 that Reagan’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was made public. He died of its effects in 2004.

'A good idea to have two'

On the morning after the Kansas City debate, Reagan’s chief of staff, James A. Baker III met at breakfast time with the White House press corps and other reporters present at the debate in the president’s hotel. Baker, who had managed Reagan in 1980 and was again the main decision maker for the reelection year, was asked whether it had been a good idea to have Reagan debate Mondale at all, given his lead and any anxiety the campaign staff might have had about his performance.

In that era, presidential debates were not presumed. There had not been one in 1964, 1968 or 1972. Reagan was the first incumbent president to agree to debate during his reelection campaign and then win a second term.

Baker considered the question for only a moment. “I will not say whether it was a good idea to have debates,” he said. “But I will say it was a good idea to have two.”

At this moment, there is no guarantee Biden’s campaign will have a second shot. Another debate has been slated for ABC in September. But that assumes Trump stays on board for it. He has pulled out of primary debates in his first campaign and refused to participate in any at all in his third. He has often charged the sponsors with unfairness. It is not hard to imagine him feeling confident enough to skip a rematch with Biden.

The steeper climb out

Reagan put his stumble behind him. In 2012, Obama easily cleared the hurdle erected by his first-debate shortcomings much the same way simply by showing up and turning in a solid evening in the second debate with Romney.

But Biden’s recovery is doubly difficult because he now must placate a chorus of voices – including those of longtime allies and friends -- who are urging him to step aside.

The question they pose is: Why not claim credit for a successful term in office, call it a transitional presidency and call it a day? It is not simply a matter of making it to November, or to Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2025. It is a matter of serving until Biden is 86 years old. That would be a daunting prospect if Biden had been as fully vigorous and engaged this week as he was in 2020 and in his years as vice president.

The rules of the Democratic Party make it all but impossible for anyone to be nominated but Biden, who has 99% of the delegates to the August convention in Chicago. He would have to leave the race and release the delegates. Many in the party hierarchy fear this would cause an anarchic convention that would divide the party for the fall and for years to come. Wounds and enmity left from nomination battles or convention floor fights hobbled the party and its candidates in 1968, 1972 and 1980. Those with long memories remember.

Others will simply see the video clips of Biden onstage in Atlanta and imagine them being replayed endlessly for months to come. Even those who did not watch the debate will see it again and again – and see it in their sleep.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.