It’s Not Just an Age Problem. It’s a Trust Problem.

A person who has been lying or cheating for a long period of time, and is suddenly caught in the act, will almost never come clean. If they cannot convince the person they’ve been fooling to disregard the fresh evidence of deceit, they will insist it is an isolated incident. They will construct an explanation for why they transgressed this one single time — I was desperate, I was drunk, I made a horrible mistake — while promising it will not recur.

Often, the target of these pleas will believe them because they are invested in the relationship — a work partnership, a friendship, or a romantic relationship. And in some cases, the transgression truly is isolated. But what the partner needs to do in that situation is to scrutinize their memory for previous episodes that might have revealed evidence of cheating they ignored.

The Biden campaign has insisted that the president’s horrific performance in the first presidential debate was just “one bad night,” not an indication of a sustained problem. If we consider the evidence, there is very little reason to trust them.

When the debate was still going on, and panic began to spread, the Biden team came out with the message that the president was suffering from a cold. I don’t think a cold, even a very bad one, could possibly account for the level of incoherence Biden displayed onstage.

This explanation was quickly discarded. The next day, speaking during daytime and with the benefit of a prepared text, Biden appeared perfectly vigorous, and his supporters seized on that speech to supposedly prove that everything was fine. But … what about the cold? The virus that had such a terrible effect on his health had disappeared completely overnight?

The desperate dissembling from the Biden team ought to cast a new light on previous evidence Democrats may have dismissed. Biden has given fewer press conferences and interviews with independent journalists than his predecessors. Democrats explained this away as a natural response to a changing media landscape. Then came the strange decision to skip the opportunity to do an interview during the Super Bowl, which would have afforded Biden a far larger audience than he could otherwise get. Why would a candidate who was trailing in the polls throw that away?

Around the same time, Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s handling of classified documents described him as unable to recall key dates and facts and frequently wandering off-topic to tell rambling stories. Biden’s supporters dismissed this report as a partisan hit job.

Last month, The Wall Street Journal published a story saying Biden displayed intermittent signs of serious decline in his private meetings. At times, the Journal reported, he appeared sharp, but at others seemed extremely diminished. “He read from notes to make obvious points, paused for extended periods and sometimes closed his eyes for so long that some in the room wondered whether he had tuned out,” the newspaper found.

The Journal mostly relied on anonymous sources for its story. The few sources willing to go on the record were Republicans. This gave critics of the story an obvious an opening to discredit it as coming entirely from Republicans who had a partisan interest in discrediting their campaign opponent.

In retrospect, the Journal story makes perfect sense. Biden’s cogency comes and goes, and the descriptions of his bad moments — closing his eyes, losing his train of thought, speaking inaudibly — closely match the behavior on display at the debate. The pattern of intermittency also explains why Kevin McCarthy could describe Biden as sharp and effective in their dealings last year, while also portraying him as frail in other meetings. Liberal critics had seized on this contradiction to discredit McCarthy, and thus to discredit the Journal, when McCarthy may have merely been accurately conveying divergent behavior at different times.

If you still doubt all these data points, ask yourself this: Why isn’t Biden appearing in an unscripted setting now? His campaign is facing an unmistakable crisis of confidence. If Biden had one bad night and could easily stack vigorous performances together from now until November, the campaign should offer a wide-ranging press conference. Previous administrations used to hold such events routinely.

Unlike some critics, I don’t consider Biden’s limitations disqualifying. There is a difference between campaigning and governing. I don’t think Biden has deteriorated to late-stage Dianne Feinstein level, where his advisers have to make all his decisions for him. Even if he had, that arrangement has a level of functionality. (I would certainly prefer it to a madman like Donald Trump.)

Campaigning is a different matter. Biden is manifestly unable to handle that task. That doesn’t mean there’s no chance he can win without being able to conduct a vigorous campaign. But any plan for winning has to face up to the reality of Biden’s enormous and growing limits. (It must, for instance, price in the cost of either skipping the second debate or potentially exposing him to a second televised meltdown.)

The overarching question about any such plan is whether we can trust the people charged with making it.

It seems to me that the aides surrounding Biden began with a small, containable problem. They had good and noble reasons to try to contain the problem by managing the president’s schedule and public profile. As the scale of the predicament grew, they decided it was too late to come clean and redoubled their denial. And now they are so deeply enmeshed in the lie they can’t find a way out. They are desperate and playing for time.

Many Democrats have spent the last year angry at a series of targets. Why were newspapers pestering Biden about press conferences? Why was Robert Hur taking partisan shots? Why were some liberal commentators asking about challenging Biden in the primary or replacing him with a different candidate?

It can be easier to rationalize the person who was manipulating you than to admit that you were being manipulated. At this point, however, it is hard to look back at the months of spin from the White House any other way.

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