The Real Problem with Biden’s Bad Debate

The response to President Biden’s subpar debate performance against Donald Trump creates an opportunity to talk about the poor choices black voters in particular face in seemingly every election in the United States. I’m talking about the reaction to the debate rather than the debate itself because I didn’t watch it. Debates are not the same as governing, and what the Biden administration has accomplished legislatively (rather than just through executive orders) is more than enough to merit a second term. The immediate aftermath of the debate was filled with panic, both in my social media feeds and among friends I talk to regularly. The chattering class at the New York Times ran to fill their opinion columns with calls for Biden to resign (calls they very notably did not make when Donald Trump was convicted on all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records). What I most noticed about every single panicked replacement plan I saw posed in social media is that they all involved stepping over Kamala Harris, the current Vice President of the United States who also happens to be a black woman (as well as southern Asian, on her mother’s side).

When you call out liberals on this, you tend to get responses that look like this one:

This is utter horseshit because if Michelle Obama was running you wouldn’t hear any of this. And you know it, but for some reason the people making your argument want to ignore it.

— Underachiever ( Jun 29, 2024 at 12:31 PM

Aside from the obvious virtue signaling, they tell you who has no clue, memory, or care of the way the actual Michelle Obama was treated while she was First Lady. I called it out as wishful thinking at the time, and while the original poster had very little to say in response, another person on Bluesky provided this helpful reminder of how both Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were once regarded:

The history of the Democratic Party taking black voters, our issues, and candidates from our communities for granted is not exactly a short one. As such, the idea among many hair-on-fire panickers about Biden’s poor debate performance that they should simply replace Biden (and his vice president) with someone else that can beat Trump is not surprising. One proposed replacement, Pete Buttigieg (currently secretary of transportation), ran for president before and had his candidacy fail in large part because of a lack of connection to and interest in black voters and our issues. I haven’t looked deeply at other prospective replacements regarding their connections to and interest in engaging black voters (in addition to other demographics), but the small percentage of black voters they represent suggests that they haven’t had to care about black voters to win elections. The speed with which the powers-that-be in the party suggested that Biden be cast aside after the bad debate suggests to me a desire to no longer be beholden to black voters (and our interests) in the way Biden quite clearly is because his primary campaign was on life support before South Carolina and Jim Clyburn’s intervention and now he is president.

Seth Moulton might be the best current representatives of the middle of a Democratic Party for whom the existence of black voters is an hindrance to his goal of having the party change its focus by “talk about [Biden’s] bipartisan wins, like the infrastructure bill”. Particularly when the GOP marches in lockstep behind the convicted felon who currently leads them, the insistence of Moulton’s fellow “centrists” on bipartisanship dooms good policy to defeat. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema prevented the child tax credit from being expanded, erasing the gains made in the reduction of child poverty–which helped everyone while it was in place, including black folks.

According to Moulton, his party colleagues have “lost the middle” due to Biden’s push for student-loan debt relief and “identity politics”. When I looked up the demographics of the congressional district Seth Moulton represents, it turns out to be not only one of the whitest congressional districts in the country, but also rather well-off financially on average. It’s quite revealing of a so-called centrist to point to “identity politics” as why the Democrats have supposedly lost the middle in an environment where the Supreme Court has made affirmative action in higher-education illegal and conservative school boards in so-called red states are busily banning books by and about black people. Despite not treating black people as a constituency to be respected, the Seth Moultons of the Democratic Party will be the first ones to turn around and blame us when his party loses elections they think they should win.

This isn’t to suggest that the Biden administration has been an unambiguous plus for the black community either. While he did choose Kamala Harris as his vice president and nominated Ketanji Brown-Jackson to be the first black woman on the Supreme Court, along with passing economic recovery legislation that helped reduce unemployment among black people to the lowest level on record, he hasn’t succeeded in reviving the Voting Rights Act from its nearly-dead state (thanks to judicial overreach from the conservative activists who sit on the Supreme Court). Biden has also been relentless pro-police, despite decreasing rates of violent crime, and despite the disproportionate impact of police violence on black communities. And that’s before you get to the prior years of his political career which included mishandling the hearings which would ultimately result in Clarence Thomas being elevated to the Supreme Court, co-sponsoring a crime bill that paved the way for decades of mass incarceration of black folks, and legislation that stripped student borrowers of bankruptcy protections–which would ultimately be shown to disproportionately impact black borrowers.

The “indifference, unless it’s an election year” approach of national Democrats is obvious enough that the GOP has made it part of their pitch to black voters. But a GOP approach that veers between the cartoonish (such as Trump’s continuing insistence on the appeal of his mugshot to black voters), the insulting (literally anything Vivek Ramaswamy says), the dishonest (Tim Scott pretending that systemic racism doesn’t exist), and voter suppression manages to be even worse. Any messages they might try to put forward about values, or fiscal responsibility, or entrepreneurship are largely undermined by Trump’s corrupt business dealings, nepotism on behalf of his incompetent children, and his unconvincing attempts to even pay lip service to the idea of Christianity mattering even a little bit to him personally. But in the debate where Biden performed poorly, Trump may have managed to hit a new low even for him by warning both during the debate and a recent campaign rally that migrants are taking “Black jobs” and “Hispanic jobs” from Americans.

Predictably, we took “black jobs” and ran with it for fun on Black Twitter #BlackJobs, to flip Trump’s nasty xenophobia into a way to highlight the variety of different work we do in this country. Sadly, given the disrespect I’ve observed and personally experienced online directed at black immigrants who are naturalized U.S. citizens or who have parents from abroad, there is definitely a small segment of black Americans Trump will succeed in attracting to his camp with xenophobia. Nor will I rule out the possibility of xenophobia succeeding in attracting a small number of Hispanic Americans. But the press is so focused on Biden’s poor debate performance that they’ve almost entirely missed and failed to even comment on why this particular remark by Trump is revealing and important. Quinta Jurecic touches on why political media’s handling of this might be inadequate:

it feels like the whiteness of big political media spaces right now is having a big effect on how people are thinking about the debate. eg I have seen relatively little discussion of trump's "black jobs" comment, which immediately exploded on black twitter

— Quinta Jurecic ( Jun 29, 2024 at 9:45 AM

Adam Serwer’s reply provides necessary context as well:

Both the “black jobs” remark and using palestinian as a slur are hopefully clarifying as to actual Trump’s ideology and worldview, in contrast with the imaginary trump some people have built up in their heads as the memory of his administration has receded

— Adam Serwer ( Jun 29, 2024 at 12:10 PM

Beyond nobody in the GOP even thinking to push back on the xenophobia of these remarks by Trump, having developed a very strong muscle memory for surrender during his reign of the party, it is necessary to take certain “never Trump” Republicans to task as well. Whether they recognize it or acknowledge it or not, the GOP we see today is one that to a man (and virtually all of them are men) that they helped create. On their watch, the GOP changed into a party that embraced the vision of Pat Buchanan and rejected the “kinder, gentler” conservatism of George W. Bush which despite the many flaws of his presidency (both foreign and domestic) managed to appeal to enough voters to win the popular vote in 2004, including between 40 and 44% of Hispanics. So while they have predictably joined the chorus of panic that would push Biden out in favor of some mythical moderate candidate who would appeal to enough of the electorate to beat Donald Trump, they are operating from the same Seth Moulton perspective that sees black voters and our issues as a inconvenience. They may oppose Donald Trump, but their views of black voters don’t appear to be much more sophisticated than his.

So these are the choices of black voters–a Democratic Party that takes our votes and interests for granted, or a GOP who would rather suppress our votes and divide them than compete for them. Black voters ceased to be the largest minority group in the United States years ago, and both parties appear far more interested in pursuing Hispanic-American and Asian-American votes than black votes.

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