It is part of the right-wing canon that President Joe Biden is senile, with his mental faculties deteriorated to the point where he must be confined out of sight in his basement to avoid embarrassing himself publicly. This talking point was always a dubious and opportunistic political attack. But Biden’s successful negotiation of the debt ceiling deal demolishes the claim – and the right hasn’t figured out how to handle that.
Republicans and their allied media apparatus have hyped claims of Biden’s purported dementia since the 2020 presidential race. Trumpists on Fox News and elsewhere frequently highlighted Biden’s speech flubs (he has a stammer) and out-of-context video clips to draw attention to his admittedly advanced age and suggest he was “struggling.” At the same time, they attacked Biden for purportedly “hiding in the basement,” suggesting that Biden was eschewing public rallies not due to the pandemic but rather because his campaign was hiding him from voters to avoid scrutiny of his mental acuity.
Biden’s electoral victory did nothing to quell such attacks, with Fox figures regularly and casually describing Biden as “senile,” and extremely online Republican officials like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talking on the campaign trail about the need to send “Joe Biden back to his basement.”
The last week has been brutal for this theory, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Biden personally negotiating a debt ceiling deal that right-wing media figures call a “total cave” to Democrats that produced “a typical DC swamp sewer bill.” In March, McCarthy offered to bring the president “soft food” to kickstart negotiations, an obvious crack at his age. But on Sunday, after striking a deal, the speaker described Biden to reporters as “very professional, very smart. Very tough at the same time.” The resulting legislation passed the House on Wednesday night and now moves to the Senate.
The right is having difficulty coming to terms with how, as Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) put it on Twitter, “Republicans got outsmarted by a President who can’t find his pants.”
Some, like Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity, are treating Biden’s purported senility as entirely unrelated to the result. Hannity was discussing foreign policy as the House began voting on the bill, and said of the president, “We all know he's a cognitive mess, and he has no idea that today is Wednesday.” Minutes later, after the bill passed, Hannity complained that Republicans’ “hand was stronger” and expressed disappointment that they didn’t get more out of their hostage-taking. But he did not apparently consider how a president who didn’t know what day it was had managed to outnegotiate McCarthy.
Others, like Fox’s Jesse Watters, are continuing to talk up Biden’s purported mental frailty while ignoring the debt ceiling negotiations altogether. Watters did not mention the debt ceiling deal at all during Wednesday’s show. But he found time to amplify an actor’s claim that Biden has “obviously declining mental faculties” and to claim that Biden is “going to stay at home, he's not going to campaign” for reelection.
And a third group, headlined by Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, is trying to cope with the tension here, albeit without considering that perhaps the problem is that their talking point isn’t true.
It is an embarrassing failure for Bartiromo and company to have spent years telling their audience that Biden is practically a “vegetable,” leaving them woefully unprepared to grapple with evidence of the president’s actual faculties. But don’t expect anything to change – they are all too deeply committed to the bit to alter course at this point.