David Bell – La Débâcle

30 June 2024

For months the U.S. presidential contest seemed almost frozen in place, the two candidates already chosen, and most of the key events taking place in courthouses, not on the campaign trail. But on Thursday things blew apart. The first televised encounter between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was quickly recognized as the most important presidential debate since Kennedy took on Nixon in 1960—possibly the most important one ever. But unlike in 1960, it was a debacle for the Democrat. Stumbling, hesitant, sometimes confused and unintelligible, President Biden not only looked and sounded painfully old, but was utterly unable to effectively counter Donald Trump’s well-delivered stream of insults and fabrications.

In my last column, I wrote that after his criminal conviction in New York, Trump looked shaken, and made even less sense than usual. I even speculated that of the two old men running against each other for the presidency, Trump might well be the first one to bend under the pressure of a presidential campaign. 

Well, that was obviously wishful thinking!

It’s true that just three and a half months ago, Biden delivered a rousing State of the Union speech that managed, for the moment, to quell concerns about his advanced age. Trump and his allies even claimed that the President had taken drugs to enhance his performance. But aging is not always a steady, gradual process. Sudden, dramatic downturns have a way of happening, and it seems quite possible that between the fiery Biden of the March speech, and the stumbling, confused, frail Biden of the June debate, a serious downturn took place.

While it will make no difference to the political crisis that the Democrats now face, Biden did not actually give any indication of senility on Thursday. Many elderly people retain essential mental capacity even as they grow slower and more hesitant of speech, more prone to verbal flubs and memory lapses, especially under pressure. In fact, putting performance aside and judging the debate entirely on the merit of the arguments and the accuracy of the facts presented, Biden won easily. But in politics, as in most things, performance can’t be put aside. The Biden on display on Thursday was no longer an effective candidate. Quite possibly, he will no longer be an effective president.

As I should also have noted, the pressures on Biden have been much greater than the pressures on Trump. Biden, after all, takes his job as President seriously, including trying to manage the two massive and intractable foreign policy crises in Ukraine and Gaza. He takes his campaign seriously as well. Trump, by contrast, spends far less time doing anything that an ordinary person would recognize as work. Unlike Biden, he clearly did not bother to prepare for Thursday’s debate, because it is so much easier to make things up than to learn about a subject and memorize facts. Trump’s debate performance amounted to mendacity and fabulation from one end to the other. His claims that the United States was a paradise under his presidency but immediately became a hellhole under Biden’s were absurd on their face and easily debunked. Biden tried to call Trump out, repeatedly saying “he’s lying.” But Trump simply threw the charge back at Biden: you’re the liar. And in predictable fashion, the exchange quickly descended to the level of a nursery school food fight.

Trump, meanwhile, has shown a certain dismaying consistency.  Liberal critics have made too much of the fact that he often rambles incoherently in the middle of long rallies. Unlike Biden, who sees and appreciates the complexity of the world, Trump’s vision is one-dimensional. He judges everything by the sole criterion of whether it brings him immediate benefit and pleasure. He is an amoral creature of pure id (the one palpable hit Biden scored on Thursday was his line that Trump had the “morals of an alleycat”). So, while Trump may ramble when left to his own devices, when forced to answer questions, as during a debate, his responses are in fact fairly predictable and undeviating. They are, we might say, not just consistently mendacious, but mendaciously consistent.

Given the magnitude of the disaster on Thursday, can anything save the United States from a second Trump presidency? Barring a health crisis for Trump, or a miraculous recovery for Biden, there seems little chance that the current Democratic standard-bearer can win in November. He cannot expect any further help from the economy, which is doing very well already. He cannot count on any improvement in the international situation.

Could Biden step aside? Already, many American commentators—although, significantly, no major Democratic office-holders—are calling on him to do so. But the means by which the party might replace him are not at all clear. New Republic editor Michael Tomasky, one of the best current liberal commentators on politics, has gone into the issue in depth, and noted that in order for the Democratic candidate to appear on all fifty state ballots, the party needs formally to nominate him or her by early August, two weeks ahead of the convention that is the only possible venue for choosing a replacement. There is little indication that the unpopular Vice-President, Kamala Harris, would do better against Trump than Biden, and if the party ditches her, African Americans—especially African American women—might angrily refuse to vote in November. And the Democratic governors who might have had a chance of beating Trump if had they won the nomination in a normal primary campaign—Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, Jay Pritzker of Illinois or Joshua Shapiro of Pennsylvania—remain largely unknown to the general public (not to mention untested and unvetted).

The day after the disastrous debate, Biden, speaking from a prepared speech on a teleprompter, seemed far more confident and energetic than the day before. My guess is that Democratic party leaders, uncertain of how to replace him, taking encouragement from this performance, and hoping against hope that by November the memory of the debate will have faded, will do what comes all too naturally to them: nothing. And of course, some unforeseen event might yet turn this strange presidential campaign upside down yet again. But for the moment, it still looks like the Biden campaign has taken a fatal hit.

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1 Comment

  • Don Brophy says:

    This was the June surprise so to speak. We haven’t gotten to the October surprise. In this campaign it surely is coming. It was also an exercise in confirmation bias. People most likely thought the same of Trump and Biden after the nursery school food fight as they did before the food fight, only more so. And the undecided are probably more undecided.

    I love the song The Room Where It Happened from the play Hamilton. It is timeless. There are so many lines in it that could be used by and about Biden and Trump especially after their performances in this “debate”. People might consider looking at the lyrics and enjoy themselves in the process.

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