Screenshot via YouTube.

President Debate in Review

It is hard to imagine that LGBTQ voters tuned into the presidential debate Thursday night (June 27) because they need more information before deciding who to vote for in November. But now, it is hard to imagine that anyone —LGBTQ or straight— expected the post-debate chatter would be dominated by deep concern that Democratic President Joe Biden might be too physically and cognitively frail to tackle the hardest job in the world for another four years.

Biden walked onto the CNN debate stage in Atlanta in his usual slow, stiff, gait, as if an invisible escort was holding his elbow and guiding him to the podium. From the beginning, his face seemed frozen in a painful grimace. But when he spoke, Biden’s voice sounded weak and hoarse (reportedly due to a cold), and his answers trailed off topic.

“Watching this was excruciating. It was Biden’s worst performance yet,” said Lorri Jean, former executive director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

“It was painful watching this debate and embarrassing for our country,” said Republican activist Rich Tafel, former head of the Log Cabin Republicans group.

Various political commentators said Biden failed to do the one thing he needed to do at the debate: assure the American people that he will be strong enough, at age 82 in November, to serve another four-year term. Former U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democratic commentator for MSNBC, put it bluntly: “He failed.”

Several other commentators said they were hearing from Democratic Party notables and operatives a sense of “panic” over Biden’s performance and appearance Thursday night –to the point where many were contemplating whether the August convention should try to put up another nominee.

“The universal reaction from campaign people, operatives,” said MSNBC regular Joy Reid, “was approaching panic.” She said they were “very concerned.” Nicole Wallace said she was hearing much the same thing; so did former campaign chief for President Obama, Jen Psaki.

There were no LGBTQ-specific questions at this, the first debate of the 2024 presidential campaign.

Lesbian MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow agreed Biden was weak at the start. But she said she thought he “became stronger, peaking near end of debate.

Maddow said she thought Republican former President Donald Trump had some “coherence” and “started strong” but then became “less coherent and visibly flustered.”

Though Biden tripped through his sentences, he generally answered the questions put to him. But the debate moderators —Jake Tapper and Dana Bash— had to re-ask questions to Trump repeatedly as he tried to avoid answering many questions. When asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s terms for ending the war to take Ukrainian land —the land and no attempt to gain NATO membership— were acceptable to him, Trump suggested that, if he had been president, Putin never would have invaded Ukraine. When Dana Bash pressed Trump to answer the question —were Putin’s terms acceptable— Trump said, “No, they’re not acceptable.”

Later, Bash asked Trump if he would pledge that political violence was “unacceptable” and that he would accept the results of the election regardless of who wins. Trump said violence is “totally unacceptable.” When Bash pressed Trump again to say whether he would accept the results of the election, Trump jumped back to Putin, saying, “He’s not going to play games with me.” Bash pressed again.

“President Trump, the question was, will you accept the results of the election regardless of who wins? Yes or no, please?”

“If it’s a fair and legal and good election – absolutely,” said Trump.

One could almost hear LGBTQ voters around the country choke. In 2016, when he was running against Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump pledged, “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful, foreign ideology –believe me.” But in 2024, Trump has said, “The left-wing gender insanity being pushed at our children is an act of child abuse. Very simple. Here’s my plan to stop the chemical, physical and emotional mutilation of our youth.”

Columnist and historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote that she was surprised by the focus on Biden’s weak performance, given Trump’s. Like Maddow, she said, “Trump came out strong but faded and became less coherent over time.”

“His entire performance was either lies or rambling non-sequiturs,” wrote Richardson in her daily essay.

“He lied so incessantly throughout the evening that it took CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale almost three minutes, speaking quickly, to get through the list,” said Richardson.

At one point, the candidates were asked about the national debt and whether former President Trump’s tax cuts for the very wealthy should be approved again next year. Trump said his tax cuts helped pay down the debt and “spurred the greatest economy that we’ve ever seen.”

Biden, who appeared frequently to be staring into space, said that, if the nation’s wealthiest paid even a modest amount of taxes, “We’d be able to wipe out his debt.”

“We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do – childcare, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the – with – with – with the COVID….”

It seemed obvious, even to Biden, that he had lost his train of thought.

“Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do, with – look, if – we finally beat Medicare.”

At a post-debate appearance at a Waffle Shop, someone in the restaurant asked Biden how he felt he did at the debate.

Biden’s reply: “It’s hard to debate a liar.”