Presidential debate: Oh no, Joe! by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote that I thought there was nothing to be gained by a Trump-Biden debate. Knowing that presidential debates are usually more about style than substance, I said that, if there were to be a debate, there should be real-time fact checking. Without it, I feared that Trump’s repeated falsehoods and wild promises would worm their way into the brains of low-information viewers.

Last night, one candidate had to prove that he was not too crazy; the other had to prove he was not too old. Trump, aided by a format that restrained his usual antics, lied and lied. From the moment Biden shuffled stiffly to the podium, this man whose primary task was to assure voters he was up to the job through 2028, faltered badly. Trump looked ruddy and robust; Biden was pale and frail. Trump dodged questions; Biden, armed with facts, couldn’t finish sentences. (What on earth did he mean when he said “we beat Medicare?”) Trump bullied; Biden sputtered. It was only a fair night for Donald Trump. It was a disaster for Joe Biden.

Biden came to life on abortion but repeatedly mishandled opportunities to define the differences between himself and the former President, who prides himself on having given us the Supreme Court that reversed Roe v. Wade. Biden should have reminded listeners that Trump’s packing the court has had pernicious effects on issues beyond abortion. With the next President possibly naming another two members, the Supreme Court itself is on the ballot in November.

He was also energized on Ukraine but didn’t hit Trump hard enough on Trump’s false and dangerous views about America’s role in the world. Trump attacked viciously and repeatedly on immigration. Biden mumbled several words about the bipartisan immigration bill and was barely audible about how Trump had sabotaged it. Where Biden gave fuller responses – on child care, the opioid crisis – Trump dodged the questions. So too did Trump repeatedly dodge the question of whether he would accept the results of the 2024 election regardless of who won.

Biden struggled to fight back, but too often his remarks devolved into word salad. His performance was pathetic and stomach-churning. Debating Trump on their respective golf handicaps was a new low.

Instead of committing to preserve democracy, Trump offers lies, grievances and retribution. Biden scored on policy. But the lasting image is one of his performance. Despite years of accomplishment, even including bipartisan successes, Biden left the deeply unsettling impression that, with democracy on the line, he may not be strong enough to protect it. The President, capable right now of doing the job, has difficulty communicating without teleprompters. It is frightening.

Along with the rest of us, many leading Democrats, especially those in down-ballot races, are now deeply worried. Should Joe Biden step down? Would Jill Biden encourage him to do so, resting on the laurels of his remarkable record of accomplishments and avoiding the Ruth Bader Ginsburg model of staying too long? Do any of the concerned Democrats even have a realistic plan to replace him on the ticket? What happens to Kamala Harris? Could the Democratic convention be anything but a blood bath?

Barack Obama in 2012 badly lost the first debate to Mitt Romney and went on to win the election. Obama was 51 years old at the time. Joe Biden is known for his resilience, but Joe Biden is 81. Could this be a similar “off” night? Maybe, but would you bet on it? Instead, last night’s performance reinforced not-so-latent concerns about the President’s age, diminished vigor and cognitive capacity.

Being President is primarily about critical decision making. Being a candidate depends more on effective communication skills. For months, we have heard reports that behind the scenes Biden is as engaged and strong as ever. That was not the Joe Biden who showed up last night. If he wants to prove the debate disaster was a “one-off,” he should immediately embark on a series of tough interviews to demonstrate he hasn’t lost his edge. If he can’t, the party should develop a Plan B.

My heart wants him to take a victory lap and, holding hands with Jill, go off into a life of long-overdue relaxation and enjoyment. But then what?

Four years ago, Biden implied he would be a one-term, transitional President, a bridge to the future. He has crossed that bridge but has failed to make way for the next generation. Party leaders need a strategy to deal with this predicament.

Democracy really does hang in the balance. A good heart alone may not be enough. We also need a clear head and strong hands at the helm. Donald Trump would be a catastrophe. Who among the Democrats can ensure that won’t happen?

Do you think Biden should stay the course? If not, whom would you like to see enter the race? What’s your winning ticket? I welcome your feedback in the comments section on the home page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *