1968 Redux? CBS News’ John Dickerson on Post-Debate Presidential Campaign Turmoil and Why Joe Biden is Not Having an LBJ Moment

If anyone is equipped to analyze the turmoil in the presidential race that was catalyzed by Thursday’s debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, it’s CBS News anchor John Dickerson.

Dickerson is network’s chief political analyst and anchor of “The Daily Report with John Dickerson” streaming broadcast. He’s written extensively about American presidents and the political dynamics of our age in his role as a contributor to the Atlantic and author of the 2020 book “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.” What’s more, Dickerson also co-hosts the Slate podcasts “Political Gabfest” and “Whistlestop.”

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Since the June 27 faceoff between the candidates, Dickerson has been working overtime trying to sort out the impact of Biden and Trump’s performances in the debate held unusually early in the campaign cycle. Dickerson finds little precedent from the past to offer guidance on how the 2024 battle for the White House might play out. And that’s a sobering admission from someone who knows the terrain well.

“This time around, I don’t know what parallel from history to hold on to,” Dickerson says.

The election is still more than four months away but the CNN debate feels like a turning point in what has already been an unusual presidential cycle. Are there past examples where debate performances proved pivotal for voters?

There’s never been an environment like this before, but there have been big debate performances that have been a problem. Two come to mind. One is [Ronald] Reagan in 1984 and another is [Gerald] Ford in 1976. In 1984, Reagan’s first debate – the headlines coming out of that debate in the major newspapers were similar to what we saw Friday morning after the Biden debate performance. There were questions about Reagan’s age and basically, whether he could serve again. But the two main differences in that case are one, the debate was in October, so it was very close to the actual election, and Reagan was up by 15-16 points. He ended up trouncing [Walter] Mondale. So whatever concerns people had after that first debate, they never really changed the polls very much, and they certainly didn’t change the final outcome.

People have said over the years that Reagan’s second debate performance in which he joked “I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience” somehow reset the game. That’s foolishness. Reagan was already up by 15 points and he won by what is the modern example of a landslide.

In 1976, Ford said [during the debate] there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, which was a huge gaffe and was treated as such at the time. It was late in the campaign, and Ford was in a much worse place relative to [Jimmy] Carter. But there was no call for Ford to drop out or any worried visits the White House or any of that stuff. It was a gaffe in the campaign debate, and then everybody sort of moved on. It certainly didn’t help Ford. But there’s no evidence that the trajectory of the race was accelerated significantly because of that debate performance.

Do you think this time it will?

This race is different for all the reasons that we talk about when we talk about our modern campaigns. The country is so closely divided politically. The race will come down to six or seven states where it’s very, very, very close. We’ve never really had a situation where the expectation was that [the election] was going to be so extremely close, and where the country has been so impervious to change. Major things have happened that in a previous political era would torpedo a campaign. Having a candidate be a felon would be a good example. And [this year] they really haven’t changed the overall dynamic of the race, to the extent that we have any sense of what the dynamic of the race is, given the fallibility of polling and the rest of it.

It’s possible by next week we are obsessing over something else. But will the Biden campaign deeply regret pushing to hold this debate so early?

Political timelines are now hyper short, and so everything about a debate exacerbates our unfortunate tendency to define the entire world by what happened 10 seconds ago. … It could be replaced with any number of things that would cause people to move on. The fact is that we have such partisan splits in the country, there are a lot of voters whose minds aren’t going to change no matter what happens to Joe Biden.

The reason that this debate performance is a liability for him is the fact that it doesn’t go away. He’s not going to get younger. This choice to have a debate early was itself an effort to dispel this issue. So it was an effort to dispel the can-he-do-the-job-for-four-more-years question. And it did not. It not only didn’t dispel that question, it made it even larger. So there are many days between now and when voting is over, when you know that question is always going to be out there, and there’s always the opportunity for it to be answered negatively.

1968 is the modern benchmark year for measuring political upheaval in the U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson surprises the country by opting not to run for reelection amid war in Vietnam and after facing primary challenges from fellow Democrats Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy. And then Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are assassinated and riots erupt in major cities. How do you think 2024 will compare?

With LBJ it was not the result of any one specific initiating event, it was just more unhappiness with a president. You had an ongoing war, which was going to be going on for the rest of the campaign and that was dragging him down. He was getting it from the left and the right. ….To the extent there was an initiating event you could say it was the Tet Offensive. Which like [Biden’s] debate performance was a news event that that exacerbated an underlying liability for the candidate. That’s probably the closest analog in terms of a single event caused this issue. But [Johnson’s withdrawal] was a surprise. Nobody was saying, “Oh, Johnson’s got to drop out,” right? I mean, implicit in the McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies was the idea that the incumbent should lose. But it wasn’t whatever we’re going through right now. Although the question today is, what are we going through? Are we going through essentially just pundits and editorial boards who are saying, “Biden’s got to drop out.” Or are there real elected officials who are going to Biden and saying, “You got to drop out.” And so far, I haven’t seen any. The usual suspects have circled the wagons in this case. So it may be that we’re just having a serious response from the nonpolitical class, and that kind of limits the possible impact.

The political alignment of the country began to fundamentally change after the 1968 and 1972 elections. What do you see happening now?

Back then you had a lot more going on where the political system could move around in a way that sometimes it feels like this one can’t. And back then it was all happening in the streets and in American lives – the [antiwar] protests and the assassinations. We’ve had Janunay 6, which is the historical shock of the kind I associate with 1968. And look at what’s happened about January 6. You had the leaders of the House and the Senate and the Vice President and other leaders in the Republican Party say that Donald Trump was responsible for this attack on the Capitol. Can’t think of anything more severe, really. The person who took an oath to defend the Constitution is responsible for an attack on the constitutional process. I mean, you would think, it’s over. The man would be driven from politics if the political system worked the way it did in 1968. Now you have all of those people who said Donald Trump is responsible for trying to overthrow an election — they’ve now endorsed him. Mitch McConnell has endorsed Donald Trump. Kevin McCarthy has endorsed Donald Trump. That is crazy, and that’s far weirder and far more destabilizing to the political process than anything that happened in 1968.

So, we’ve got our own fresh worries. History usually stabilizes us. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of the normal stability that can come from history. After the January 6 attack, the system reasserted itself and people held the line, and Congress was able to ultimately count the votes and certify them. People inside the [Trump] administration did the right thing. All of that was history and norms reasserting itself. This time around, I don’t know what parallel from history to hold on to. Whether the norms assert themselves or not is still an open question.

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