Panic? Thoughts on the U.S. Presidential Debate | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: Last Thursday, the presidential candidates for the 2024 U.S. election met for their first public debate in Atlanta. The reactions to the debate were clear: It was a disaster for Biden. While I tend to agree, I think that the debate debacle rather points to a deeper crisis of the Democratic Party: A lack of vision, charismatic leaders, and a hostile environment to do politics in.

What a hot mess. A train wreck. Devastating. The reactions to the U.S. presidential debate last Thursday in Atlanta, GA from Democrats were unusually unison. The Times drafted an already-classic cover: A red front page with nothing on it, except President Joe Biden leaving the frame, and the headline “Panic.” Whether it was the New York Times, Washington Post, Pod Save America — regardless of the medium I consulted, everyone agreed: this was bad. Dangerously bad.

But I think the problem reaches deeper than a single missed debate. I think that the Democratic Party has four issues to fight: (1) A lack of vision; (2) A Republican coverage-bias in U.S. media; (3) A lack of charismatic leadership; and (4) A platform that exclusively focuses on the enemy.

After the debate, the discussion has shifted: Democrats are starting to argue in broad daylight that Biden should step away from the presidential race, all the while the Biden team allegedly thinks about firing top advisers. Before the debate, the country was cleanly divided into people who want to vote for Trump and those who knew the biggest case was to prevent another Trump presidency. Now, these demarcations have shifted. It’s more gloomy: “We still need to prevent a Trump presidency, but we just lost our ticket to do so.”

Over the past four years, I have consumed possibly more news on the U.S. political system than I have ever on the German political system during my studies. And I think that the debate was a lot – but not a train wreck.

Anyone who is familiar with U.S. politics and who was genuinely surprised by the debate must be called delusional. In a rhetorical battle, Trump will always win. Look alone at the way Joe Biden entered the stage: old, brittle, and barely able to move. Of course Trump would win that debate. That’s not news.

In my opinion, the debate was the apex of a slow realization that the U.S. Democrats have nothing to offer to the American people anymore. They have lost their visionary skills. When was the last time you heard revolutionary news from the DNC? Maybe 2019 when the DSA brought amazing people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib into the House of Representatives. After that? Crickets.

But the Republicans did not sleep. Probably driven by rage, hatred, and a community of evangelicals and fascists, the Republicans kept themselves in the news. And they have a plan: Project 2025.

Allow me to perform a little experiment. Think about Democrats. How many can you name that have been recently in the news? And then do the same for Republicans. You probably came up with many more Republicans than Democrats. People like Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie are constantly in the news. And more join them every week, most recently Jeff Landry, governor of Louisiana who signed a Christian-fundamentalist law requiring the posting of the “ten commandments” in every school.

The U.S. media system certainly carries part of the responsibility for the strong Republican Party in 2024. While the Democrats have plenty of their own success stories, those get rarely covered. Since reasonable politics is less “engaging”, outlets constantly talk about the next atrocity some Republican has said or done. Even when covering the debate, and even liberal outlets – all focused on the atrocities Trump said during that debate. The message to the voter is clear: Republicans are more important because they are more being talked about.

But the U.S. media system is not entirely to blame. The debate has laid bare another issue at the foundation of the Democratic Party: a lack of charismatic leaders. We already know that modern politics requires charisma (I’m referring to the work of Colin Crouch, Stephanie Mudge, and others here). If you don’t have any charismatic leader that you can plaster onto political advertisements to give your party a face, you have a problem. Now, Joe Biden is (or at least: was) charismatic. The issue that the Democrats have is rather that they have nobody else lined up.

Should Trump really end up in prison, the Republicans can draw from a pool of individuals to replace him. As the authors of Project 2025 have made abundantly clear: they don’t care who the president is, as long as he’s going to listen to them in what policies he enacts. Trump is an easy choice right now, but even if he is being dropped out, Republicans can still count on their zealous voter base to vote for a different candidate.

But to those people who now say Biden should drop out of the race and the DNC should nominate a different candidate: are you out of your mind? No democratic candidate right now could garner enough votes to secure a victory in the next four months. That train has left the station a year ago. Besides, whom do you wish to choose? While I am all in for a female-president, I don’t think that Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Amy Klobuchar, or other big names can stand a chance should they get nominated at the DNC in August. And when it comes to male candidates, there is not that much, either.

To be fair, I’m a European and while I center my research on U.S. politics, nuances will be harder for me to understand, so I have limited knowledge about this part. But what I do know is that the Democrats in the U.S. are facing the same issue as many democratic parties in Europe: A lack of vision. And this also translates into the presidential platform for 2024.

Republicans have a vision, even though it is a deeply concerning one that could very well end in the abolishment of democracy in the U.S. in general. I think we can agree on that. But what counter-vision do Democrats have? The vision cannot be “we maintain democracy”, because unfortunately that doesn’t resonate with voters.

It is a sarcastic twist of history that conservative parties constantly try to upend processes we have grown accustomed to, while liberal parties try to conserve the democratic institutions. But you can only change the world with a vision. If your vision is to maintain democracy, voters – especially those who feel left alone – won’t be excited. And it’s not that voters don’t know what they want: inflation is too high, unemployment is rising, and the housing crisis has never really gone away. I can tell you what they care less about, though: “LET’S DEFEAT TRUMP TOGETHER” (the main claim on Biden’s campaign website).

Defeating Trump won’t reduce the stress on undocumented immigrants, low-paid workers, or women who struggle more and more to exercise their right to bodily autonomy. The entire campaign is circling around defeating Trump. And this is precisely what has broken the neck of so many parties in Europe. Whenever a German party, for example, exclusively focuses on the message to “stop the AfD”, they usually lose an election. The main reason why the German green party had such an overwhelming success three years ago was because they had a point. And voters agreed.

When you run for president, you must make a promise to the voters. Trump makes constant promises. Of course, only to white cis-heterosexual conservative rednecks, and most of those are lies. But apparently this excites people. Biden does not make a promise. They kindly ask for permission to “finish the job.” The campaign lives entirely off of the opposition to their opposition. Should Trump really end up in prison, Biden won’t have anything for the American people, because they fulfilled their promise already in advance. And then, what?

Let me conclude before this article turns into a rambling story. I think the debate was just a symptom of a larger problem that the Democratic Party faces. They have little vision, no promises to make to the American people, and a lack of charismatic leaders. In addition to that, Democrats have to fight against a biased U.S. media system and their job is made harder every day some wild Republican governor enacts the next atrocity-ridden law.

At this point, the Democratic Party’s job is simple: Keep Joe Biden at the helm, get him nominated in August and elected in November and fight hard for every vote. Then, in January 2025, the Democrats must start to reflect on who they are, what their vision is, and build up more charismatic leaders, preferably less than 70 years old. But at this point, all options are foreclosed, it is simply too late to do a major stunt. Remember what happened to Macron’s plan on calling for snap elections last Sunday.

I sincerely wish for Biden to get re-elected in November and that they indeed manage to fend off a second Trump presidency. But, the DNC really must start working towards a positive vision, regardless of the outcome. Because a party that defines itself publicly mainly via its own primary enemy is not a party, it’s a depression.

Update: Only minutes after publishing this article, it appears that I'm not alone with the broad strokes of my sentiment: The Road to a Crisis: How Democrats Let Biden Glide to Renomination

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2024). “Panic? Thoughts on the U.S. Presidential Debate”., 1 Jul 2024,

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