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Will Joe Biden’s post-debate chaos turn 2024 into 1968?

If anyone is capable of analyzing the turmoil in the presidential campaign sparked by Thursday’s debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, it is CBS News anchor John Dickerson.

Dickerson is the network’s chief political analyst and host of the streaming show “The Daily Report with John Dickerson.” In his role as a writer for the Atlantic and author of the 2020 book “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency,” he has written extensively about American presidents and the political dynamics of our time. In addition, Dickerson is also co-host of the Slate podcasts “Political Gabfest” and “Whistlestop.”

Since the candidates faced off on June 27, Dickerson has worked overtime to understand the implications of Biden and Trump’s performances in the debate, which came unusually early in the campaign. Dickerson finds little in the way of past precedents that might offer clues about how the battle for the White House might play out in 2024. And that’s a sobering admission from someone who knows the terrain well.

“This time, I don’t know which historical parallel to stick to,” Dickerson says.

The election is still more than four months away, but the CNN debate feels like a turning point in an already unusual presidential campaign. Are there any examples from the past where the performance of the debates was decisive for voters?

There’s never been an environment like that, but there have been major debates that have been problematic. Two that come to mind. One is (Ronald) Reagan in 1984 and another is (Gerald) Ford in 1976. 1984, Reagan’s first debate – the headlines in the major newspapers after that debate were similar to what we saw on Friday morning after the debate with Biden. There were questions about Reagan’s age and basically whether he might run again. But the two main differences in this case are: First, the debate was in October, very close to the actual election, and Reagan was ahead by 15-16 points. He ended up defeating (Walter) Mondale. So whatever concerns people had after that first debate, they never really changed the polls and certainly didn’t change the final outcome.

Over the years, it has been claimed that Reagan’s performance in the second debate, in which he joked, “I will not take advantage of my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” somehow re-started the game. This is nonsense. Reagan was already 15 points ahead and won in what is the modern theory of a landslide.

In 1976, Ford said (during the debate) there was no Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, which was a major faux pas and was treated as such at the time. It was late in the campaign and Ford was in a much worse position compared to (Jimmy) Carter. But there was no call for Ford to quit or any concerned visits to the White House or anything like that. It was a faux pas in the campaign debate and then everyone kind of moved on. It certainly didn’t help Ford. But there’s no evidence that the course of the race was significantly accelerated by that debate performance.

Do you think it will work this time?

This campaign is different for all the reasons we talk about in our modern campaigns. The country is so divided politically. The campaign is going to come down to six or seven states where it’s very, very, very close. We’ve never seen a situation where you would have expected (the election) to be this extremely close and where the country was so impervious to change. Important things have happened that would have torpedoed a campaign in previous political times. A good example would be a candidate being a felon. And (this year) they haven’t really changed the overall dynamic of the campaign, if we have any idea how dynamic the campaign is, given the fallibility of polls and things like that.

It’s possible we’ll be dealing with something else next week, but will the Biden team deeply regret pushing for the debate so early?

Political timelines are extremely short these days, and so everything about a debate reinforces our unfortunate tendency to define the entire world by what happened 10 seconds ago. … You could replace it with any number of things that would make people move on. The fact is, our country is so divided on partisan lines that there are many voters whose minds are not going to change no matter what happens to Joe Biden.

The reason this debate performance is a burden on him is the fact that it’s not going away. He’s not getting any younger. The decision to move up the debate was itself an attempt to diffuse that issue. So it was an attempt to diffuse the question of whether he can do the job for another four years. And that didn’t happen. Not only did it not diffuse that question, it made it even bigger. So there are a lot of days between now and the end of the vote where you know that question is still going to be there and there’s always the possibility that it will be answered negatively.

1968 is the modern benchmark year for political upheaval in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson surprises the country by deciding not to run for re-election in the middle of the Vietnam War and after primaries against fellow Democrats Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy. Then Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are assassinated and riots break out in major cities. How do you think 2024 will compare?

With LBJ, it wasn’t the result of a particular triggering event, it was just more dissatisfaction with a president. There was an ongoing war that was going to continue for the rest of the campaign that was dragging him down. He was feeling it from the left and the right. ….To the extent that there was a triggering event, you could say it was the Tet Offensive. Which, like (Biden’s) performance at the debate, was a news event that exacerbated an underlying strain on the candidate. That’s probably the best analogy in terms of a single event that caused this problem. But (Johnson’s withdrawal) was a surprise. Nobody said, ‘Oh, Johnson has to drop out,’ right? I mean, the McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies had the idea that the incumbent should lose. But it wasn’t what we’re going through right now. Although the question today is, what are we going through? Is it essentially just pundits and editorials saying, “Biden needs to drop out?” Or are there real elected officials going to Biden and saying, “You need to drop out?” And so far I haven’t seen any. The usual suspects have barricaded themselves in this case. So it may be that we just have a serious reaction from the apolitical class, and that kind of limits the potential impact.

The country’s political orientation began to change fundamentally after the elections of 1968 and 1972.. What do you think is happening now?

There was a lot more going on back then, the political system could move in ways that sometimes this system can’t anymore. And back then, all of that was happening in the streets and in the lives of Americans — the (anti-war) protests and the assassinations. We had January 6, the historic shock that I associate with 1968. And look at what happened on January 6. The leaders of the House and Senate, the vice president and other leaders of the Republican Party said Donald Trump was responsible for that attack on the Capitol. I really can’t think of anything worse. The person who swore an oath to defend the Constitution is responsible for an attack on the constitutional process. I mean, you’d think it’s over. The man would have been driven out of politics if the political system worked the way it did in 1968. Now you have all these people who have said Donald Trump is responsible for trying to overturn an election — and they’ve now supported him. Mitch McConnell has supported Donald Trump. Kevin McCarthy endorsed Donald Trump. That’s crazy, and it’s far stranger and more destabilizing to the political process than anything that happened in 1968.

So we have our own new concerns. History usually stabilizes us. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of the normal stability that can come from history. After the January 6 attack, the system reasserted itself, the people held their ground, and Congress was finally able to count and certify the votes. The people within the (Trump) administration did the right thing. All of that was history and norms reasserting themselves. This time, I don’t know which historical parallel to follow. Whether or not the norms will prevail is still an open question.

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