MSNBC in disarray: Biden’s debate crisis meets liberal self-delusion

The survival of American democracy currently seems to depend upon convincing a majority of voters that a man who could not speak in complete sentences and spent half the night staring blankly into the middle distance in front of the largest audience in CNN’s history, is a trustworthy steward of the federal government and the world’s most lethal military force.

Concerns about Joe Biden’s age, infirmity and mental acuity are nothing new. They have troubled his prospects for re-election for more than a year. What began as yet another expression of right-wing paranoia and manipulation — baseless accusations of senile dementia dating back to 2020 — have morphed into a legitimate inquiry into the health and state of mind of the president. 

Biden’s inner circle, and nearly all liberal commentators, ignored the warning signs that compiled during his year of visible decline: his increasingly labored gait and difficulty articulating complicated sentences, along with his bizarre episodes of incoherence, such as the occasion when he ended a speech about gun control with the words, “God save the queen, man.” They also ignored pre-debate polling data indicating that the majority of Democrats believed that Biden should withdraw from the race. 

Then Biden went on stage in Atlanta and gave the worst debate performance of any presidential candidate in American history. Looking vacant and on the verge of passing out, Biden failed to form even one argument or land one punch against the authoritarian and congenital liar across the stage. Unintelligible moments, including a digression about deaths in Afghanistan during a question about inflation and the meaningless declaration that “We finally beat Medicare,” had millions of Democratic voters — and no doubt many independents and Republicans — clutching their sofa cushions in panic. 

In the immediate postmortem of that traumatic debate, prominent pundits, including former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, suggested that Biden should step aside. The New York Times followed with an editorial making the same argument, and former big-name Democratic strategists James Carville and David Axelrod also joined the chorus. Reportedly, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told Biden staffers that after that horrific debate, Biden “cannot win” her crucial battleground state — although she later denied saying anything of the kind. 

At least two Democratic members of Congress, Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, have called on Biden to step aside. The president was already trailing Trump in most opinion polls before the debate. Since then, his numbers, both nationally and in the decisive swing states, have only worsened. 

It’s not too late for Joe Biden to retire with dignity, and give his party a fighting chance to save the country from the theocratic autocracy that Donald Trump, with the compliant Supreme Court rolled up in his back pocket like one of his overly long red ties after a long day, has in store for his second term. 

Biden’s opponent in 2024, after all, is not a boilerplate center-right pro-business Republican in the Mitt Romney mold, but a brazen neofascist whose team longs to transform the U.S. government into a quasi-dictatorship that resembles an amalgamation of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and the isolated compound of Jim Jones.

It was refreshing, and temporarily encouraging, to see the liberal commentariat demand the exact change that, according to one recent poll, 72 percent of the electorate desires

How quickly it faded. Within hours, MSNBC, which largely functions as the Democratic house network, was transformed into delusion central. The arguments that its hosts and regular commentators began to make soon went far and wide, transforming countless social media feeds into electric Kool-Aid acid tests. 

For starters, Rachel Maddow correctly pointed out that Trump lied like a maniac throughout the debate, and often outright refused to answer the CNN moderators’ questions. Those moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, then became the focus: Somehow, Maddow implied, they were to blame for the debacle, because they neglected to “fact-check” Trump. While it is more than fair to point out that CNN failed miserably, and also that Trump, a man recently convicted of multiple felonies who overtly attempted to subvert an election, should not be treated like a normal candidate for office, no amount of deflection can prevent American voters from asking obvious questions about Biden’s fitness for the most stressful executive position on the planet. 

Nicolle Wallace, former White House director of communications under George W. Bush and now a liberal talking head, claimed that a “big event” the next day might undo the damage of the debate, implying that Biden’s failure was just a “bad night,” rather than a catastrophic dismantling of his case for a second term. Let’s remember that the Biden team wanted to schedule this debate early in the election cycle in order to prove the president’s lucidity and competence. 

Nicolle Wallace and her MSNBC colleagues reacted to the generic scripted address Biden delivered in Raleigh as if it were Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg.

Biden sought to create Wallace’s “big event” by reading a 15-minute speech from a teleprompter the next morning in Raleigh, North Carolina. She and her MSNBC colleagues reacted to this generic scripted address as if it were Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg. They neglected to note that Biden’s supposedly stunning performance in Raleigh undermined another popular excuse for his debate disaster: MSNBC hosts Alex Wagner, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ari Melber had all previously argued that Biden fared poorly in Atlanta because he had a cold. 

The common cold is not an exotic disease with unpredictable symptoms. We’ve all had it without descending into mumbling gibberish. 

Al Sharpton, who receives the kind of deference from his MSNBC colleagues typically reserved for gods in ancient myths, actually suggested that the debate might endear Biden to the voting public, because everyone can relate to overcoming adversity. It is rare to hear an argument so ridiculous that no rebuttal is necessary. 

Sharpton, Wallace and Maddow also committed willful journalistic malpractice in comparing Biden’s debate performance with Barack Obama’s during his first 2012 debate with Romney. Pundits at the time widely agreed that Romney got the better of Obama, but no one suggested that Obama — who was 50 years old at the time — should have his driver’s license taken away. He demonstrated a command of facts on myriad issues, and offered cogent arguments in defense of the Affordable Care Act and his foreign policy. His problem was tone and demeanor: He came off as overly aloof and at times unprepared to handle Romney’s aggressive attacks and impressive recollection of minor details. 

I would argue that MSNBC’s collective delusions, and those of the liberal intelligentsia that it represents, are partially responsible for the crisis now facing the United States. Before the debate, Wallace, Maddow and others repeatedly insisted that no one could possibly present a better case against Donald Trump than Joe Biden. Without a sodium pentothal test, it’s impossible to judge their sincerity, but does anyone really think those commentators truly believed that Biden was better prepared to take on Trump than, just for example, Vice President Kamala Harris or Gov. Whitmer or Sen. Raphael Warnock?

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Worse yet, most MSNBC commentators and their allies stayed silent for two years as Attorney General Merrick Garland dilly-dallied over Trump’s evident criminality. Had he appointed a special prosecutor in January of 2021, the now-indefinitely-delayed trials on the Jan. 6-related cases and Mar-a-Lago documents case would almost certainly have happened by now. 

One popular theme on MSNBC, often delivered by Joy Reid and Mika Brzezinski — whose husband and co-host, Joe Scarborough, believes Biden should withdraw — is to argue that the president’s record has so spectacular that his debate face-plant is irrelevant. 

This attempt to repackage Biden as the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln is also nothing new. It’s an extended version of a dubious assertion that MSNBC has harbored and propagated for three years. While Biden can claim a few significant accomplishments, such as the bipartisan infrastructure package and significantly lowering the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare, his presidency has also been full of disappointments and half-measures. 

One popular theme on MSNBC, often delivered by Joy Reid and Mika Brzezinski, is to argue that Biden’s record has so spectacular that his debate face-plant is irrelevant. 

Setting aside Garland’s botched Trump investigations, there is Biden’s tendency to give a thunderous speech on a topic of great importance, like voting rights or the future of democracy, and then follow through with nothing of substance. Throughout his first term, MSNBC hosts have consistently behaved as if presidential rhetoric is revolutionary in itself, presenting Biden as the sorcerer-in-chief who casts marvelous spells every time he says “Look” or “Here’s the deal.” 

Even if Biden actually did have the record that Maddow and Melber insist is real, there is the unfortunate but irrefutable fact that he is widely unpopular. Biden’s approval ratings have hovered around 40 percent for nearly his entire term in office. It doesn’t require a lifetime of studying political campaigns to conclude that running on your record is ill-advised when the majority of voters, fairly or unfairly, disapprove of that record. MSNBC, it seems, is eager to avoid political reality. 

Despite the obvious lack of public enthusiasm for Biden’s presidency, the majority of Americans do not support fascism, and almost certainly would not approve of the MAGA-sphere’s Project 2025 plans to imbue Trump with near-dictatorial powers to circumvent Congress and the courts, and turn the civil service into his private fiefdom. Viewers of the Atlanta debate consistently found Trump dishonest, unpersuasive and repugnant. Democratic candidates for governorships and the U.S. Senate are outpolling Biden in nearly every state. 

Fascism’s greatest chance for victory lies the complacency and self-comforting fantasy of Democratic poohbahs who hope that millions of Americans will forget what they saw — and what they will continue to see, as clips of Biden’s meltdown continue to go viral on social media.

Even as the debate over Biden’s immediate future as the Democratic nominee unfolds in the media and behind the scenes, there is another critical factor that few have mentioned: How this drama will affect the long-term credibility of the Democratic Party. 

Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein, who helped break the Watergate scandal and bring down Richard Nixon, says that his sources in or around the White House have told him that Biden is “mentally sharp,” but has occasional episodes of confusion and struggle like those the world watched during the debate. 

If the Democrats, fueled by MSNBC-style delusions, insist on plunging onward with Biden as the 2024 nominee, they risk another unfortunate presidential episode going viral. His odds of electoral victory have plummeted since the debate. But what if he wins? How long can Biden plausibly continue performing his duties as president? Is it one year? Is it two? Is it six months?

Biden’s potential resignation or further deterioration during a second term would do immeasurable damage to all the leading Democrats who have publicly insisted that nothing is wrong, a list that includes Harris, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and many others. MSNBC, which functions as the Democratic Party’s house organ, is not just missing the point but endangering its own reputation by endlessly parroting absurd apologetics for Biden’s weakness.  

Republicans will of course deny this — and many on the progressive left will bemoan it — but at least for now the Democratic Party is the only electoral bulwark against a fascist takeover of American democracy. It cannot afford to squander its political capital, and risk the nation’s future, in defending the delusional hubris of one decent, rapidly failing man and his devoted family. 

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