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Winners, losers and lessons from first...

Winners, losers and lessons from first presidential debate

By: Russ Latino - June 28, 2024

President Biden and former President Trump squared off in the first presidential debate of 2024 last night
  • President Biden’s performance sent Democrats into a self-described “panic” last night. Republicans should hold off on the victory laps. Trump’s winning the debate battle could unlock a stronger challenge for the presidential war.

Last night’s debate did not come down to what any candidate said. It came down to this: one guy showed vitality. The other was frail, his voice was weak, and he showed clear signs of mental confusion. That’s going to be the takeaway for most casual observers.


1. Donald J. Trump

No, he was not the second coming of Clarence Darrow last night. His lack of policy acumen resulted in missed opportunities to offer challenge to some of President Biden’s policy prescriptions. There were also missed opportunities to tie Biden to some of the more radical elements in his party, including folks who have called for defunding the police and the violent pro-Palestinian protesters who took over campuses with “Death to Jews” chants. Trump’s ego makes it difficult for him not to be drawn into “I know you are, but what am I” back-and-forths on who is smarter, better, or has the better golf game.

All of those caveats aside, he won the debate, and it was not particularly close. Trump benefitted from CNN’s audienceless format and mic policy, both of which restrained his natural tendency to go scorched earth. He largely stayed on message about the economy and the border crisis. But more than anything, he won because he displayed real vitality. Just 3 years younger than Biden, Trump appeared 20 years his junior.

Donald Trump scored where it mattered most in comparison to his opponent. He demonstrated vitality during last night’s presidential debate.

2. CNN

Going into the debate, I was very skeptical of CNN’s debate format. Politicians, like all performers, frequently draw on the energy of their audience. Without one, I thought the flow could be awkward — like a comedian in an empty club. The mic policy, too, threatened the opportunity for real “debate” by eliminating the chances of organic back-and-forth exchanges.

Perhaps some of those concerns were realized, but overall, the format allowed the network to avoid the chaos that plagued the 2020 debates. Whether candidates fully seized the moment, there were legitimate opportunities to have substantive policy discussions without interruptions. And while some people are mad that the moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, did not themselves engage in the debate through live “fact checking,” their decision to simply moderate was a feature, not a bug, in my mind. It put the candidates front and center.

3. The Democratic Party (Maybe)

Now for the curveball that is sure to raise eyebrows. Within 10 minutes of the start of last night’s debate, Democratic punditry on social media called for the replacement of Joe Biden as their candidate. That fervor grew throughout the night as more and more of the left’s intelligentsia came out to question Biden’s fitness to serve. In the immediate aftermath of the debate, CNN’s Jon King reported “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” panic among senior Democratic officials, who described Biden’s debate performance as “dismal” and were strategizing on how to replace the 81-year-old from the ticket.

This panic is manufactured, at least partially. All of the insiders who unleashed hell on their own candidate last night knew how weak Biden was before he ever stepped foot on the debate stage. There is a universe in which people who want a switch needed him to publicly fail in order to create party unity around the conversation on replacing him. Google “debate” and “panic” and scroll the dozen of news sources with similar headlines. The response to the performance was too quick, too in unison, and too frequent for there not to have been some preparation for the likelihood of Biden faltering.

So how does this mean the Democratic Party might be a winner? Because if they can pull off replacing Biden they will have removed their biggest weakness against Trump — a candidate that most Americans simply believe is too old to be president. Lots of questions about how and who remain.


President Joe Biden showed his age, seeming frail and frequently confused during last night’s presidential debate.

1. Joseph R. Biden

Republicans had set a low bar for Biden with months of attacks on his health. He just had to show some mental acuity and some pep in his step. He failed. There were times during the debate when he strengthened a bit — in scripted moments. But he never cleared the bar. There were blank stares, moments of mental constipation, and weird segues that were softballs to Trump.

Early in the debate, Biden, without provocation, brought up a young woman who was raped and killed by an illegal immigrant in an attempt to make the point about the need for abortion exceptions for children conceived in rape. I had to rewind it just to make sure I heard it correctly. Talk about a wild leap that plays to your opponent’s strength. At one point later in the debate, Biden admitted that “there was no inflation” at the end of Trump’s term. Yikes.

More than any of that, though, he proved unsuccessful in pressing the case against Trump. When he tried, he came across more like a guy yelling for kids to get off his lawn than a serious political combatant.

On a human level, I felt bad for Joe Biden last night. His candidacy is borderline elder abuse.

2. Mainstream Media

For the last several months, as Republicans pointed out Biden’s declining mental faculties, they have been excoriated by mainstream media — frequently accused of taking gaffes out of context or doctoring videos that showed a meandering or falling Biden.

The sudden “Eureka!” moment from all these press sources after last night’s debate is baloney. (Or is it malarkey?) Basically, a whole lot of professional “journalists” have been running a gaslighting campaign in favor of a candidate for the highest office in the land. You can’t tell people to trust you over their own eyes for months, then flip the switch and expect that trust to continue.

3. The Year 2024 & Beyond

This debate was set in the past. So much of it focused on what happened in 2020 or in early 2021. I understand that both candidates had points they want to make about their achievements and their opponents’ failures. In the case of Trump, there’s a desire to be vindicated from the circumstances of his loss in 2020. But my lord, last night was lacking in vision for the future of this country and positive aspiration. I want to hear how things will improve, not arguments on why they were better or worse before.

About the Author(s)
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Russ Latino

Russ is a proud Mississippian and the founder of Magnolia Tribune Institute. His research and writing have been published across the country in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, USA Today, The Hill, and The Washington Examiner, among other prominent publications. Russ has served as a national spokesman with outlets like Politico and Bloomberg. He has frequently been called on by both the media and decisionmakers to provide public policy analysis and testimony. In founding Magnolia Tribune Institute, he seeks to build on more than a decade of organizational leadership and communications experience to ensure Mississippians have access to news they can trust and opinion that makes them think deeply. Prior to beginning his non-profit career, Russ practiced business and constitutional law for a decade. Email Russ: