In the cold light of day, the most important development from the final presidential debate may be something that did not happen at all: Joe Biden embarrassing himself in a fit of mental disintegration.
Our minds move so quickly from story to story that it can be easy to forget just how all-consuming the prospects of Biden’s alleged dementia was. To be sure, Biden has lost a step since his prime, and aging has worsened his lifelong stutter, producing some haltering moments he did not have as a younger man. But the charge against him was far more severe: that he was gone, or almost gone, literally unable to remember basic facts or handle his job.
“They are going to put him in a home and other people are going to be running the country,” charged Trump last March. The anti-anti-Trump left gleefully embraced the narrative, conspiratorially asserting that Democratic insiders secretly knew Biden was a drooling invalid, but refused to say so. “Democratic insiders know Biden has cognitive-decline issues,” claimed left-wing activist Matt Stoller. “They joke about it. They don’t care.” Frequent Tucker Carlson guest Glenn Greenwald asserted “it is visible to the naked eye that the 77-year-old six-term senator and two-term vice-president is in serious cognitive decline.”
Trump spent months hammering “Sleepy Joe” or “Basement Biden,” insinuating he was avoiding the campaign trail and the media because he couldn’t answer questions. Even many Democrats spent the summer wringing their hands about Biden’s low profile and what this suggested about his capabilities.
The lynchpin of Trump’s strategy in both debates against Biden was to expose his supposed senility. In the first debate, he badgered and taunted his opponent in an effort to make him stammer and melt down. When that backfired on Trump, his strategists calculated they could produce the same effect by backing off. Their reasoning was that Trump’s constant interruptions rescued Biden from his own incoherence. If they allowed him to speak, he would disintegrate on his own.
It didn’t happen. Biden gave perfectly cogent responses to every question put to him, controlled his stammer, and displayed a far stronger command of facts and figures than his opponent. (To be sure, knowing more about politics than a man whose understanding comes almost entirely from Fox News is an extremely low bar.)
Propaganda works through repetition. Trump invested almost the entire campaign driving a singular theme against Biden. Now the results of that work have just sunk below the surface without a trace.