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Opinion: Is this going to be the most performative presidential debate ever?

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Opinion: Is this going to be the most performative presidential debate ever?

The first debate between President Biden and former President Trump on Thursday night will be a real test of Americans’ sense of civic duty. I essentially get paid to watch; political journalism is my job. But given the sort of cringey schoolyard ruckus that Trump provoked between the two men in their initial encounter four years ago, it’s a fair question why anyone else would tune in.

Except out of dedication to good citizenship.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

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So here we go again, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s memorable riposte to then-President Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate. Don’t expect edification, not when Trump is involved, but hope for some anyway.

About 73 million viewers tuned in for the Biden-Trump melee in September 2020 — not for the entire 90 minutes, I’m confident — and additional viewers livestreamed the spectacle. For perspective, that compares to about 160 million registered voters. The audience was smaller than anticipated, down from the record-high 84 million who watched Trump’s first face-off with Hillary Clinton in 2016, and down as well from the number who viewed the Carter-Reagan debate 40 years earlier.

Nonetheless, as my colleague Stephen Battaglio recently wrote, presidential debates are “one of the last mass audience experiences left in a highly fragmented TV landscape.” Six of 10 U.S. adults said they would watch all or most of Thursday’s showdown, and nearly a quarter said they would closely follow the news coverage about it, according to a PBS News/NPR/Marist poll this month. Good for them. In our polarized nation, a presidential debate is a rare communal experience, if far less enjoyable than a Super Bowl.

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Just as with the NFL championship, most viewers will head into the presidential debate cheering for one contender or the other, and nothing about the show in Atlanta — no lie or imbecility from Trump, no gaffe or stumble from Biden — will dissuade them from their man’s team. That makes the candidates’ target audience the few persuadable voters. The ones who actually will go to the trouble of watching the virtually unwatchable in the hope that it will help them make up their minds.

Just about everyone, however, will be united in their focus: How do both men look, sound and perform? Biden and Trump are the oldest people ever to serve as president, and each has been credibly criticized as too old to do it again.

As Republican pollster Whit Ayres put it to PBS News, “Can Joe Biden not look like a senile old man? Can Donald Trump not be an obnoxious jerk?”

The answer to the first question is yes, Biden can, as evidenced by his impressive performance recently at Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-day, and months earlier in his feisty State of the Union address. He desperately needs to look and sound presidential again, for a much larger audience of voters who are, by definition, politically engaged. But he also needs that feistiness — not to give as good as he gets from Trump (who would want that?), but to sparingly and strategically counterpunch in ways that underscore Trump’s inanity. For example, Biden’s zinger in 2020: “Will you shut up, man?” He spoke for so many millions of us that night.

The answer to the second question is no, Trump can’t be anything but obnoxious. For his own electoral sake, however, he really must try. CNN’s debate rules lend him a hand: Given Trump’s penchant for the kind of nonstop interruptions and insults that all but wrecked the 2020 debate, CNN will cut off both candidates’ mics when it’s not their time to speak. And there will be no studio audience for the performative Trump to play to.

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Perhaps that’s why he’s started calling it a “Fake Debate.” The rest of us can hope it’s more like the real thing, with fewer theatrics, lies and butting-in — a matchup that a high school debate coach might recognize.

Except for this: The extent to which viewers’ emphasis will be on the two candidates’ style over substance will be all but unprecedented in the history of presidential debates — especially the 64 years that they’ve been televised. (Would-be spoiler Robert F. Kennedy Jr., fortunately, failed to make the cut for the CNN-sponsored debate; the conspiracist hasn’t yet qualified for enough states’ ballots.)

Emphasizing style over substance is perhaps inevitable, and even important, when such old men are seeking reelection as leaders of the free world. But it’s not a good thing at a time when so many issues troubling the nation demand substantive policy responses.

Take the existential threat of climate change. As Biden and Trump prep for debate, much of the nation is enduring deadly record-high heat, along with the wildfires and intense storms that have become commonplace on our warming globe. Biden is implementing the most ambitious clean-energy agenda ever, and Trump has sworn he’ll repeal it. That dichotomy deserves probing questions from the CNN moderators, and our attention to the answers.

And what about the continued threats to reproductive rights in the wake of the Dobbs decision that Trump’s justices on the Supreme Court made possible? The debate will come three days after that ruling’s second anniversary. Or the unsustainable growth of the national debt, to which both Biden and Trump contributed? Or the ongoing chaos in the nation’s immigration system, which was a big problem on Trump’s watch, too, despite his false revisionism about how well-controlled the southern border was then.

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The candidates are likely to respond with more heat than light, especially the policy-phobic Trump. Yet his advisors’ Project 2025 plan is chock full of radical, detailed policies for gutting the civil service, repealing environmental laws, enforcing mass deportations that would rock the economy and defunding or closing whole government departments, should he regain the office. Trump must be forced to answer for those dangerous ideas — by the moderators, Biden or both.

If everyone who says they’ll pay attention does so, Americans will have passed the civic duty test. We can hope the candidates will pass theirs, delivering more than gaffes and groans. Alas, there’s nothing in Trump’s sorry rhetorical record to suggest he will rise to the occasion. Yet that, too, would be informative. Stay tuned.

@jackiekcalmes

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‘Coup’ and ‘Cover-Up’: How the G.O.P. Is Reacting to the Harris Candidacy

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‘Coup’ and ‘Cover-Up’: How the G.O.P. Is Reacting to the Harris Candidacy

‘Unfit to serve’

‘Best interest’

‘Proof of life’

‘Far Left Democrats’

‘Resign’

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‘Less competent’

‘Coup’

‘Largest political cover-up’

‘25th Amendment’

‘Rigging’

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‘Where is Joe Biden?’

‘Border Czar’

‘Gaslighting and lying to each of us’

‘Wood chipper to democracy’

‘Who is running the show?’

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‘All the best’

While elected Democrats have been quick to rally around Vice President Kamala Harris after President Biden’s announcement that he would leave the 2024 presidential race, a vast majority of prominent Republicans have treated the development with suspicion or scorn.

A New York Times analysis of statements by Republican senators, representatives and governors found that their reactions to Ms. Harris’s presumptive candidacy and Mr. Biden’s withdrawal clustered around several themes, including the opinions that Mr. Biden must resign or that the events of the past few days amounted to election subversion or a bloodless coup. Recent polling suggests nearly 9 in 10 Americans believe Mr. Biden’s decision to step aside was the right one.

Several officials also suggested that Mr. Biden — who had been in Delaware recovering from Covid-19 but returned to the White House on Tuesday — had gone missing. A greater number made statements attacking Ms. Harris’s record, while a small handful posted positive or supportive comments. Emphasis in these quotations was added by The Times to highlight common themes in the statements.

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65 called Mr. Biden’s withdrawal a coup or said it amounted to election interference.

‘This is a coup of a puppet regime.’

‘While President Trump took a bullet for our democracy, the progressive democrats are taking a wood chipper to democracy by shredding the will of 14 million primary voters.’

‘Now the Democrats are rigging their *own* elections.’

These statements have tended to argue that Mr. Biden’s decision to end his candidacy was not his own, was not democratic or both. Many have mocked Democrats for positioning themselves as “defenders of democracy” in contrast to Republicans, following attempts by former President Donald J. Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

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Some of this language began to bubble up among Republicans even before Mr. Biden announced that he would drop out. During the Republican National Convention last week, Chris LaCivita, a top adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, described the pressure on Mr. Biden to withdraw as an “attempted coup.”

97 said that Mr. Biden must resign or be ousted, or that he is unfit for office.

‘Today I’m demanding the Biden Harris cabinet invoke the 25th Amendment. If Biden isn’t capable of being a candidate, he’s not capable of being President.’

‘If Joe Biden is unable to serve another term, then he must resign right now. If he’s unfit to campaign, he should not have the nuclear codes — it’s that simple.’

‘If Joe Biden is unfit to run for re-election then he’s unfit to serve the remainder of his term.’

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Statements along these lines have primarily argued that if Mr. Biden is not able to run for a second term, then he is unfit to continue to serve now. Many said should step down from the presidency. Some have gone further, suggesting that the 25th Amendment should be invoked to remove Mr. Biden from office.

76 speculated about a high-level conspiracy in the White House about the condition of Mr. Biden’s health.

‘Kamala Harris was complicit in a massive coverup to hide and deny the fact that Joe Biden was not capable of discharging the duties of the office.’

‘The American people should fire every single politician that has been gaslighting and lying to each of us about Biden’s capability to lead our Nation. Kamala Harris is as culpable as Biden’s senior staff and family in this scheme to subvert democracy.’

‘Democrats have been complicit in the largest political cover-up in history.’

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These comments have, without providing evidence, accused Ms. Harris and other top Democrats of a cover-up to hide the state of Mr. Biden’s physical and mental fitness.

18 asked, ‘Where’s Biden?’ or implied that the president had gone missing.

‘Where is Joe Biden? Who is running the show?

‘Americans are asking: Where is Joe Biden?

‘For the third time today, I’m asking Joe Biden to provide the American people with proof of life.’

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Mr. Biden was self-isolating with Covid-19 at his family’s Delaware beach house when he made the announcement that he would step aside from the 2024 presidential race. These comments drew attention to his lack of recent public appearances, in some cases even calling for a demonstration that Mr. Biden was still alive. Mr. Biden returned to Washington Tuesday afternoon and is set to give a televised address this evening.

143 made other statements, mostly attacking Ms. Harris’s record.

‘ “Border Czar” Harris has NOT done her job to secure the border.’

‘Kamala Harris leads the Far Left Democrats’ pro-crime, anti-victim agenda.’

‘Cackling Kamala is widely considered less competent than dementia-impaired Joe Biden.’

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Dozens of Republican officials made more typically political statements, including criticizing Ms. Harris as a candidate. One common line of attack, positing that Ms. Harris failed as a “border czar,” is misleading. (Some Republican candidates have already begun to run ads like this one, drawing attention to some of the more liberal positions Ms. Harris has taken in the past, particularly during her failed 2020 presidential primary campaign.)

And 9 made positive or supportive comments about Mr. Biden’s decision.

‘Fran and I wish President Biden and the First Lady all the best as he serves out the remainder of his term and in the years ahead.’

‘I understand and respect President Biden’s decision not to seek reelection. While we have political differences, I appreciate his lifelong service to our nation, which he dearly loves.’

‘I respect President Biden’s decision to act in the best interest of the country by stepping aside in the 2024 presidential election.’

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A few Republican officials wrote kindly about their relationships with Mr. Biden or sent him well wishes.

In the table below, see which Republican elected officials made which types of statements, as of Tuesday night.

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Anti-Israel agitators descend on DC ahead of Israeli PM Netanyahu's address to Congress

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Anti-Israel agitators descend on DC ahead of Israeli PM Netanyahu's address to Congress

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Anti-Israel demonstrators descended on Washington, D.C., on Wednesday ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress. 

One demonstrator, whose face was covered, was spotted by Fox News carrying what appeared to be the flag of the terrorist group Hamas. 

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Fox News estimates that a few hundred protesters had gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street, outside the Gallery of Art. They have a stage set up in front of the Capitol building and are currently chanting.

The protest organizers include Answer Coalition and Code Pink. There have been numerous speakers from various organizations, including one from the Party for Socialism and Liberation. 

HARRIS BOYCOTTS NETANYAHU, SNUBS ISRAELI LEADER’S WARTIME ADDRESS TO GIVE SORORITY SPEECH

One anti-Israel demonstrator in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday was spotted carrying the Hamas flag.  (Fox News/ Griff Jenkins)

Fox News crews witnessed numerous signs with Netanyahu’s face, labeling him a “Wanted War Criminal.” 

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Even inside Capitol Hill, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., held up a sign that said “war criminal” while listening to Netanyahu’s speech. 

Rashida Tlaib holding up a sign that says war criminal

Rep. Rashiada Tlaib, D-Mich., holds up a sign that says war criminal during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech.  (CSPAN)

Other slogans from protesters on signs included, “Stop the Genocide,” “Stop arming Israel,” and “End all US Aid.” 

Protesters holding up signs

Washington, D.C> protesters holding up anti-Israel signs.  (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

The crowds have chanted “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea…,” an antisemitic phrase that calls for the elimination of the state of Israel. 

Anti-Israel protests in DC

Anti-Israel protesters have gathered in Washington, D.C., ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress.  (Fox News)

The speakers later concluded and the crowd of attendees started walking up Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Netanyahu protesters holding up an effigy

(Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

Protesters clashing with police

U.S. Capitol Police officers clash with anti-Israel demonstrators, on the day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024.  (Reuters//Umit Bektas))

Protesters waving flags

Anti-Israel protesters march near the US Capitol as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on July 24, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Photo by ANDREW THOMAS/AFP via Getty Images) (Andrew Thomas/AFP via Getty Images))

Police formed a blockade on the corner of Constitution and Louisiana Avenue, and demonstrators released red and green powder into the air. 

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Police remove DC Anti-Israel protesters blocking traffic

DC Metropolitan Police clear demonstrators from blocking traffic, Wednesday, July 24, 2024, in Washington, ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit at the U.S. Capitol.  (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Some protesters yelled at the police line, “You’re a b—-.” Fox News witnessed pepper spray being used at one point. 

U.S. Capitol Police said six people were arrested after disrupting the joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday afternoon.

Police using pepper spray on protesters

Police use pepper spray as anti-Israel demonstrators as they gather on the day of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024. (REUTERS/Nathan Howard) (Reuters/Nathan Howard)

“All of them were immediately removed from the Gallery and arrested,” Capitol Police said in a post on X. “Disrupting the Congress and demonstrating in the Congressional Buildings is against the law.”

Capitol Police originally said five people had been arrested, but later updated it, saying, “Our officers just reported that the final number of arrests in the House Galleries was a total of six people for D.C. Code §10-503.16(b)(2), Unlawful Conduct.”

Line of anti-Israel demonstrators in DC street

Demonstrators blocking traffic on Independence Ave., near the National Mall ahead of a scheduled visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the US Capitol, Wednesday, July 24, 2024, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Earlier, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department officers were seen clearing anti-Israel protesters who were blocking traffic in the nation’s capital on Wednesday. 

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Police pepper spraying protesters

U.S. Capitol Police officers use pepper spray on anti-Israel demonstrators, on the day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024. (REUTERS/Umit Bektas) (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

Police have taken people into custody near the U.S. Capitol, the Associated Press reported. 

DC officers confront anti-Israel protesters blocking street

DC police begin to clear demonstrators from blocking traffic on Independence Ave., near the National Mall, Wednesday, July 24, 2024, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A handful of people were led away by officers, while others chanted for them to be released.

Protesters washing pepper spray out of eyes

An anti-Israel protester has his eyes washed after police used pepper spray during anti-Israel demonstrations as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024.  (Reuters/Nathan Howard)

More than 1,000 people gathered Wednesday morning on Pennsylvania Avenue within sight of the Capitol building, the AP reported. 

Anna Paulina Luna, Rashida Tlaib

At one point Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., was seen speaking with Tlaib. (Getty Images)

A large group of protesters marched toward the Capitol after blocking a nearby intersection and calling for a “student intifada.” 

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Protesters burning effigy of Netanyahu and an American flag

Anti-Israel demonstrators burn a U.S. flag and an effigy depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the day of Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024. REUTERS/Nathan Howard (Reuters/Nathan Howard)

“Shut it down!” they repeatedly chanted.

Protesters burning American flag

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators burn a U.S. flag, on the day of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024.  (Reuters/Nathan Howard)

Pro-Palestinian-demonstrators burning effigy of Netanyahu

Anti-Israel demonstrators burn an effigy depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the day of Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2024.  (REUTERS/Nathan Howard)

“Bibi, Bibi, We’re not done! The intifada has just begun!” demonstrators shouted, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Just after 3 p.m., the U.S. Park Police said on social media that a “crowd in Columbus Circle is engaged in criminal activity and confronting law enforcement on scene. USPP is attempting to deescalate and contact the event organizer for help.”

Around 15 minutes later, the Park Police advised that the Columbus Circle protest permit had been revoked, adding “Please leave the area at this time.”

Park Police said just after 4 p.m. that a crowd remained at Columbus Circle, again advising on social media for protesters to disperse. 

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Fox News’ Meghan Tome and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Opinion: The Olympics promise to be socially responsible. How's that working out?

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Opinion: The Olympics promise to be socially responsible. How's that working out?

Olympic host cities make promises that are all but impossible to keep, and in recent years, the organizers’ wishful thinking about housing and neighborhood redevelopment has been one of the cruelest Olympic disappointments. As the 2024 Paris Games approach, we are seeing it all over again — displacement, gentrification and the unhoused “voluntarily” lured elsewhere with assurances of help that never materializes. What will it mean for Los Angeles, when the Games arrive in 2028?

In 2017, when Paris and Los Angeles were the last cities standing as potential Olympic sites — Boston, Budapest, Hamburg and Rome all withdrew — the organizers promised to stage Games that sidestepped the vexing social problems that emerged in Seoul, Rio, Tokyo and London.

Paris bidders vowed to rejuvenate the city’s banlieues, replenishing the housing stock by building an Olympic Village for the athletes in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of Paris’ poorest districts, and converting large swaths of it into so-called social housing. In Los Angeles, then-Mayor Eric Garcetti stated on late-night television, “I’m confident by the time the Olympics come, we can end homelessness on the streets of L.A.”

How has it worked in Paris?

In the lead up to the Games, French security officials are executing a “relocation plan” for the city’s migrants, refugees and unhoused people, expelling them from their encampments and squats — and from fragile connections to jobs and community — and escorting them onto buses that take them to 10 cities around France where temporary shelters and services have supposedly been organized. A government official told the New York Times the number was about 5,000. Human rights groups expect many more of the estimated 100,000 Parisians without steady housing to be exported as far from Olympic venues as possible.

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Officially, the relocations are meant to lessen pressure on the asylum application process and to help migrants more efficiently apply for refugee status. But of course, this is all about optics. Most of those banished from Paris won’t qualify for permanent housing in their new locations, and as for asylum status, one lawyer in France calls the busing program “an antechamber to deportation.”

A recent report by a Parisian group whose name translates as the Other Side of the Medal documented a nearly 39% surge in encampment evictions in the City of Light in the year leading up to the Games, which open Friday. The researchers found that more than 12,500 people were displaced from Paris in 2023-24 alone. They have dubbed it “nettoyage social,” or social cleansing.

The French government has denied a connection between the Olympics and intensified displacement. But an email from a government official, first reported by the French newspaper L’Equipe, stated that the objective of the mass clearances was to “identify people on the street in sites near Olympic venues” and remove them before the Games commence. French National Assembly member Aurélie Trouvé told us that the program “is definitely connected to the Games and the need to offer a ‘clean,’ idealized image, even though it means that thousands of people are pushed afar.”

Trouvé’s district, Seine-Saint-Denis, north of the city center, is the Paris département most affected by the Games. It’s home to a new Aquatic Center and the Olympic Village — block after block of apartments and commercial space constructed on what was industrial land. But it remains to be seen whether it will help the 1.6 million residents of Seine-Saint-Denis, one-third of whom live below the poverty line, or simply push them aside. About 40% of the district lives in social housing; only a quarter of the Olympic Village units are earmarked for that population after the Games.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the organizers of LA28 have steered clear of direct Games-associated urban renewal — no new venues will be built under LA28’s auspices and UCLA’s dorms and campus will become the Olympic Village.

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And of course, Garcetti’s confidence about a homelessness cure is long forgotten. After Mayor Karen Bass checked out Paris’ preparations earlier this year, she told a reporter she was merely “hopeful” the Olympics would “be a catalyst to L.A. finally addressing homelessness in a way that is long-term, that eventually ends street homelessness.” She did offer this “major commitment”: The unhoused wouldn’t be moved to the hinterlands during the Games.

In December, a year into Bass’s Inside Safe program to address homelessness, just under 2,000 people had been helped off the streets and into hotel rooms. And in June, the city’s Homeless Services Authority announced that the latest point-in-time count found more than 75,000 unhoused residents in L.A. County, down a few ticks for the first time since 2018.

LA28 touts the legacy it will leave for the city and county but in a striking about-face from Garcetti’s optimism, Casey Wasserman, the chairman of the Los Angeles organizing committee, has relinquished all responsibility for helping to reduce homelessness. He told LAist’s Larry Mantle in 2021, “We’re not responsible for solving homelessness. We’re responsible for delivering the Olympic Games as a private enterprise in 2028.”

Wasserman is only being honest. The Olympics can’t solve gentrification, the affordable housing crisis or the needs of the unhoused. That’s not what the Games are created to do. Promises made otherwise should be seen as public relations. That hosting the Olympics may even make matters worse is one reason so many cities were happy to leave the job to Paris and L.A. for 2024 and 2028.

In a few weeks, the hoopla and the tally of gold, silver and bronze medals at the Summer Games will give way to a much more consequential reckoning: Paris’ winners and losers. It seems likely its most vulnerable residents won’t have fared well. Los Angeles should take heed.

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Jules Boykoff, a former professional soccer player, is a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon. He has written six books on the Olympics. Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation and the author of 11 books on the politics of sport.

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