It was a night that could shape the 2024 election.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 15 minutes.

It's Friday, so in today's special edition we are breaking down the Trump versus Biden debate.

Special announcement.

Last night, Tangle editors Ari Weitzman and Will Kaback were tuned into the debate along with Isaac. We thought it’d be extra informative, even fun, for today's special edition if we included more than just Isaac's perspective in “My take.” So we’re going to give you “Our take” — which is a sample of how the staff reacted to the night's events. 

Heads up: Today is a members-only Friday edition (free readers get Monday-Thursday newsletters at no cost). That means “Our take” today is behind a paywall, so if you're not a subscriber you’ll be asked to subscribe to read the whole thing — but trust me… it’s worth it.

Also, we recorded a special post-debate podcast this morning where we go more in-depth on what just happened. That goes live Friday afternoon. If you want to listen to it, be sure to check out our podcast channel and keep an eye out for it this afternoon (and follow our podcast so you get updates whenever we post a new episode!).

Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to overturn a 1984 precedent directing federal courts to defer to agency legal interpretations when the statutory language passed by Congress is ambiguous. (The ruling) Separately, the court sided 6-3 with a participant in the January 6 Capitol riot who was challenging his conviction for a federal "obstruction" crime. (The decision)
  2. Additionally, in a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Securities and Exchange Commission’s use of administrative proceedings to seek civil penalties was unconstitutional, limiting the ability of federal agencies to impose monetary penalties through in-house tribunals. (The decision) Separately, the court ruled 6-3 that cities can enforce bans on homeless people sleeping outdoors in areas that lack space to shelter them. (The ruling)
  3. A Uvalde County grand jury indicted former school district police Chief Pete Arredondo and another former district officer on child endangerment, the first criminal charges brought against law enforcement for their response to the 2022 mass shooting in Texas. (The charges)
  4. Iranians are voting today in snap presidential elections after President Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash in May. (The election)
  5. Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters (R) ordered the state’s public schools to incorporate the Bible into lessons for grades 5 through 12. (The order)

Today's topic.

The first presidential debate. On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump took the stage at CNN’s studio in Atlanta, GA, for the first presidential debate of the 2024 election. 

CNN's Jake Tapper and Dana Bash moderated the 90-minute debate, which was the first such event not to be run by the Commission on Presidential Debates and differed in several ways from its forerunners. For instance, the studio that hosted the event did not include a live audience, the candidates did not make opening remarks, the candidates' microphones were automatically cut off when it was not their turn to speak, and the broadcast was broken up by two commercial breaks.

President Biden and former President Trump are their parties’ presumptive nominees, though neither has officially been nominated yet. Both the Republican and Democrat parties will hold their official nominating conventions this summer. All non-major party candidates, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., failed to meet the June 20 thresholds set by CNN to participate in this first debate — earning 15% support in four approved national polls and being on the ballot in enough states to be able to win 270 votes in the Electoral College.

The debate spanned many topics, including the economy, abortion, immigration, foreign wars, and the candidates’ mental fitness. The format of the debate kept it almost entirely devoid of interruption, with only a few moments of personal attack and hostile back-and-forth. President Biden spent much of this time attacking his opponent’s record on immigration and the economy while in office, as well as deriding his moral character. Former President Trump positioned the president as weak on immigration and foreign policy, and derided his record on the economy. 

Many commentators criticized Trump for not giving straight answers to questions he was asked, while Biden was panned for giving confusing or poorly delivered responses that made him seem old or tired. Following the debate, several of Biden’s vocal supporters — including Thomas Friendman and Van Jones — publicly pressed for the president to step aside for another candidate.

The Trump campaign claimed victory in the debate. “Tonight President Trump delivered the greatest debate performance and victory in history to the largest voter audience in history,” Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles said in a statement on Trump’s campaign website. “Joe Biden on the other hand showed exactly why he deserves to be fired.”

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign is in damage control. Sources close to Biden’s campaign said that he is suffering from a cold. “Democrats just committed collective suicide,” a Democratic strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns said anonymously during the debate. “Biden sounds hoarse, looks tired and is babbling. He is reaffirming everything voters already perceived.”

The campaigns agreed to hold two presidential debates before November, breaking with the precedent of the major candidates holding three debates before the election. ABC News will host the second and final presidential debate on September 10, and CBS News will host one vice presidential debate on either July 23 or August 13.

In today’s special edition, we’ll go over what the right and left are saying about each candidate’s performance. Then, the members of Tangle’s editorial staff — Isaac Saul, Ari Weitzman, and Will Kaback — will give their impressions in a unique structure chosen specifically for this event.


  • Both sides agree the debate was a disaster for President Biden, characterizing his performance as inarticulate, confused, and unconvincing. 
  • Many commentators from the left and right are calling on Biden to drop out of the race, arguing he does not have the capacity to serve as president for another term.
  • Most consider Trump the winner of the debate and say his campaign will be energized by his performance.

What the right is saying.

  • The right says Biden’s performance was catastrophic, while Trump’s was disciplined. 
  • Some suggest the debate was Democrats’ worst fears about Biden being realized.
  • Others say the implications of Biden’s performance make this debate one of the most important ever.

National Review’s editors wrote about the “Biden debate debacle.”

“Democrats cannot say they weren’t warned. Joe Biden’s age has never been a secret. He shows it every time he appears in public… That reality ought to be clear even to his admirers after a debate in which his chief opponent was not Donald Trump but his own frailty,” the editors said. “If Biden’s performance had not been so halting and weak, Trump’s own ramblings and flights from reality — on tariffs, on January 6, on deficit spending — might have cost him. But Trump was himself more disciplined than he had been during the 2020 debates, making relatively focused defenses of his record and attacks on Biden’s.”

“Biden’s senescence wasn’t the only dismaying thing about the debate. Neither candidate explained what he intends to do with power the next four years. Both were lost at sea when confronted with questions about the nation’s finances. They were livelier comparing golf handicaps. Bad as all of that is, though, the immediate problem is that we have a president who does not appear to be up to the job today, let alone for the next four and a half years.”

In The Federalist, David Harsanyi argued “Biden just put on the most disastrous debate performance in presidential history.”

“Even with abnormally low expectations, Biden tripped over them as if they were sandbags. After watching post-debate reaction, it’s safe to say no presidential debate has ever rattled a political party quite like this one,” Harsanyi said. “Recall that Biden’s team, down in the polls, pushed for this debate. Remember that video the president cut mocking and challenging Trump to face him? The Biden team reportedly fought for the strict rules implemented by CNN. Then the president took an entire week off from his job just to prepare for the contest. Letting him debate was political malpractice. Letting him run for the presidency is a dereliction of basic decency.”

“In the past year, Biden’s acuity has taken a nose-dive, which was evident to anyone who witnessed the octogenarian president awkwardly freezing up on stage or wandering off into fields or shaking hands with ghosts. Even a week ago, every media outlet was still gaslighting the country about Biden’s struggles. This time, the president couldn’t hide,” Harsanyi wrote. “It’s worth noting that even without Biden’s competency issues, Trump was already leading in most polls and on most issues. Now, I’m generally skeptical that presidential debates move enough votes to make much of a difference. This may be an outlier. Trump may still lose, but no sentient voter still believes Biden is OK.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan called it “the most important presidential debate ever.”

“In the weeks before CNN’s presidential debate I was skeptical of its significance. I didn’t see a dramatic, high-stakes, pivotal showdown coming, only a moderately sized, pro forma moment in a long, drawn-out campaign,” Noonan said. “It was in fact as consequential as any presidential debate in history, and the worst night for an incumbent in history. It was a total and unmitigated disaster for Mr. Biden. It was a rout for Mr. Trump. It wasn’t the kind of rout that says: If the election were held tomorrow Donald Trump would win. It was the kind of rout that says: If the election were held tomorrow Donald Trump would win in a landslide.

“It is impossible to believe that the Democrats will continue with Mr. Biden as their presidential standard-bearer. They are going to have to do what they fear to do: make themselves uncomfortable, reveal their internal splits and brokenness, and admit what the rest of the country can see and has long seen, that Mr. Biden can’t do the job. They have to stop being the victim of his vanity and poor judgment, and of his family’s need, and get themselves a new nominee.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is dismayed by Biden’s performance, suggesting he failed to adequately counter Trump’s presence on stage.
  • Some criticize the substance of Trump’s message but say it was overshadowed by Biden’s feebleness.
  • Others argue Biden must drop out to give the Democrats a shot at beating Trump.

The Washington Post editorial board called the debate “ninety minutes of pain.”

“Always a better talker, Mr. Trump tried gamely to make the most of a bad record, while Mr. Biden struggled to speak with authority about a presidency for which he could claim more credit than he is getting,” the board said. “Biden generally had the right of it on these matters: He inherited an economy still suffering the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, and today the labor market is strong and inflation has eased. Congressional Republicans are the ones blocking needed border reform… Trump, meanwhile, came equipped with lies and manipulation. He brought his typical bombast.”

“But this debate may not be remembered for what was said, but rather for how it was said. Mr. Biden tried to interrupt Mr. Trump’s parade of fantasies, but his presentation was weak,” the board wrote. “He had his moments, as when he forcefully explained a crucial difference between him and Mr. Trump on reproductive rights: If congressional Republicans pass a nationwide ban on abortion, he will veto it. His opponent, he said, would sign it. But Mr. Biden’s task on Thursday was to wipe away worries that he has lost one too many steps to run the country for another term. He ended up raising more concerns than he dispelled.”

In MSNBC, Brendan Buck said “Donald Trump may not have 'won' the presidential debate. But Biden lost.”

“The president gave one of the worst debate performances in recent memory. Biden was on defense for most of the night. His three-, five- or 10-point answers failed to land, if he was able to complete them at all. He didn’t connect with his trademark empathy. He couldn’t land a meaningful blow on Trump, despite multiple opportunities to do so,” Buck wrote. “The beginning of the evening — the most important part — was actually painful to watch. And it didn’t get much better. He failed to complete thoughts, made awkward and confusing statements and looked lost when not talking.”

“This debate served as a true kickoff for the fall election, and people just tuning into this race will likely be shaken by how diminished the president seemed. And it’s all the more troubling because of how bad his opponent was at the same time,” Buck said. “Trump gave people who hate him or simply worry about his character plenty of reasons to keep worrying. He is exactly who people remember him to be: hyperbolic, shameless and unserious. He refused to give straight answers, confidently lied about things that are easy to prove and repeatedly failed to respond to the moderators’ attempts to redirect him… And yet, Joe Biden was a clearly diminished person from the candidate we watched four years ago.”

In The Atlantic, Jerusalem Demsas wrote “dropping out is Biden’s most patriotic option.”

“Joe Biden says he ran for president in 2020 because of Charlottesville. He says he ran because he saw the threat Donald Trump posed to the country and the threat he posed to democracy. If Biden truly believes that, he needs to end his reelection campaign. Indeed, dropping out could be the most patriotic gesture of his long career in public service,” Demsas said. “Throughout last night’s debate, Trump lied, obfuscated, and made bizarre, unsupported arguments about the economy, foreign policy, abortion, and the January 6 riot. A halfway competent opponent would have capitalized on these many, many errors. But Biden could barely speak coherently.”

“It should be the last straw. The president went into this debate as a historically unpopular candidate. At this point in his presidency a lower percentage of Americans support him than any other president since at least Harry Truman,” Demsas wrote. “Speeding through a nominating process in a month and a half because the incumbent has decided he’s incapable of victory is going to be chaotic, and the Democrats could end up with a candidate with serious vulnerabilities. But as Biden showed last night, the party most certainly has a flawed candidate now. The Democrats need to be able to find a nominee who’s actually able to mount a vigorous challenge to Trump and the singular threat he poses to American democracy."

Our take.

For today’s special edition coverage, we thought we’d give our reactions to the debate in a bit of a different, and more formal, structure. Each member of Tangle’s editorial team answered five questions: What were Biden’s high and low points, what were Trump’s high and low points, what moments told us the most about each candidate, which moments are being over-discussed and don’t really matter, and who won the debate. 

Worth noting: We answered these questions independently, without seeing each other’s responses. So any overlap or similarities we came to without consulting each other, which might be interesting to readers.