Goldberg: How Democrats' defense of Biden reminds me of Republicans rallying around Trump

The fallout from President Biden’s miserable debate last week is giving me deja vu.

In the political right’s intramural arguments over Donald Trump, I got some things correct and some incorrect. But I believe I was indisputably right in one respect: From the outset, I argued that Trump’s presidency would end badly because, to echo Heraclitus, character is destiny.

Trump’s presidency did indeed end badly, though sadly his political career did not end with it. Whatever laws he may or may not have broken on Jan. 6, 2021, he spent a large chunk of the afternoon watching TV as violent hooligans stormed the Capitol on his behalf, trying to steal the election, chanting death threats and literally and figuratively defecating on the people’s house. He was even impeached on his way out the door.

If I’d made a wager on my prediction, I surely would have collected my winnings that day.

You know what else is destiny? Age.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to make it to their golden years, but those who do inevitably lose the qualities of youth, mentally and physically. Some lose more than others, but everyone declines.

Even Biden acknowledges that he is not immune to senescence. He just denies that it matters very much. And so does pretty much the entirety of the Democratic Party.

The rhetorical wagon-circling consists of a few interchangeable talking points. “Bad debate nights happen,” Barack Obama declared. The Biden family “will not let those 90 minutes define the four years he’s been president,” First Lady Jill Biden told Vogue. “We will continue to fight.” The gist of all of this is that the president’s performance last week was just a snapshot, an isolated incident.

That’s all nonsense. Familiar nonsense. For years, whenever Donald Trump put his unfitness on display, his defenders would say it was a stray remark, a one-time event. You have to judge him in context. He’s a good man. He’s fighting for you.

In short, they would say all the things Biden’s partisan Praetorian Guard is saying now.

But they were isolated events in the way that the frames of a film are when you look at them one at a time. Roll the film, and you see the man in action. Biden’s bad 90 minutes weren’t a one-off; they were an example of a long-standing problem that, disastrously, was televised for all of America to see.

The deja vu doesn’t end there.

After he secured the nomination in 2016, Trump’s defenders would respond to any denigration of the candidate, particularly in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape that caught him boasting about sexual assault, by saying, in effect, “What about Hillary?”

Anyone questioning Trump’s fitness was accused of supporting Clinton. Today, any concerns about Biden’s fitness are greeted with the same whataboutism with regard to Trump.

After Trump was elected and the “isolated incident” defense lost all plausibility, his defenders resorted to telling people not to believe their lying eyes. For years, Democrats and other Trump critics called this “gaslighting”: trying to make people doubt their own perceptions rather than acknowledging that anything was amiss or untrue.

Now the foes of gaslighting have become the gaslighters.

It was Biden’s idea to hold this debate. He set the date and the rules. He locked himself away in seclusion for a week to prepare. Why? Because the Biden campaign knew it needed to rebut the narrative that he was too old and diminished to do the job.

Instead, Biden confirmed it.

Defenders rightly note that Trump’s performance was full of lies (though Biden wasn’t exactly a paragon of truth). But Biden was utterly incapable of rebutting them.

When asked about abortion, his most potent issue, the president offered a word salad that ended with a garbled morass about how crime committed by illegal immigrants isn’t a big deal because American women are getting raped all the time, including by their sisters. In response to Trump’s ridiculous diatribe about the national debt, Biden rhetorically meandered into declaring, “We finally beat Medicare.”

Old age is different from bad character. But the similarities here are more important than the differences.

If you believe Biden is the best possible choice to defeat Trump, make that argument. If you think a man who is “dependably engaged” only between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., as Axios reported, can do the job for the next six months — never mind for another four years — make that argument.

But spare me the talk about Biden’s legacy, one bad night and “Whatabout Trump?” The only relevant questions are “Can he do the job?” and, in a very distant second place, “Can he win?”


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