A Broken Biden vs A Lying Trump: How will this end?

Trump’s boastful, mendacious, smirking performance was repulsive to many watchers. But he was vigorous, alert, and forceful – everything Biden was not.

By: /
2 July, 2024
The recent presidential debate may have cost President Biden the election. Image: Rogier Hoekstra/Pixabay.
Jeremy Kinsman
By: Jeremy Kinsman
CIC Distinguished Fellow

Americans are aghast after the presidential debate last week. The US President came across as … well, words fail … incompetent? … dysfunctional? A CBS poll indicates that now only 27% of US voters believe he “has the cognitive and mental health to serve.” 45% of Democratic voters want a new candidate. Donald Trump’s MAGA supporters seem pleased. But they fall short of a majority for the presidential race. Trump needs to attract more moderate Republicans (to the extent they still exist), independents, Latinos, and even get some Blacks and young people to come over to build his winning coalition at last.

They will be more attracted to do so after this debate. Many disconcerted potential Biden voters just won’t turn out November 5, even with all the fear that exists about a Trump second term. Such people saw what they saw in that debate and can’t bring themselves to vote for Biden. It’s not that Trump scored substantive debating points. It was all performative. Politics at this unique level are more a contest of appearance than substance. Trump’s boastful, mendacious, smirking performance was repulsive to many watchers. But he was vigorous, alert, and forceful – everything Biden was not. Bill Clinton once warned, “Strong and wrong beats right and weak.”

Biden’s “weakness” was that of the tooth of time. My dentist tells me, “Look, teeth weren’t designed to last for lives as long as ours.”

Most Americans who saw Biden found the evidence of mental decline excruciatingly painful on a human level. Older people recognize the symptoms, because they have seen them, or they have them. Younger people were facing an incomprehensible gap between what they want from leadership and what they saw. 

I was a “freshman” in college in the US in 1960 for the now-famous first TV debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. JFK’s performance, demeanor, focused energy, and insight inspired many of my age cohort in ways that have lasted a lifetime. Obama? The same. Even 68 year-old Ronald Reagan in 1979 conveyed leadership conviction that still inspires many. Yet, in Washington, anecdotes were already circling about episodes when Reagan lost focus, train of thought, or just didn’t get it. In his second term, his aggravated condition became an open secret, and a US liability.

The acute thing about this darker moment in American history is that generous and decent citizens would be willing to go along with today’s reassurance from the Biden family and political staff, that Joe just “had a bad night.” They ask, “Didn’t Obama, on his first debate with Romney in 2012 falter?” Yes, he did, because Obama came across that night as entitled, pedantic, and boring, not because he didn’t make sense. Anyway, Obama came roaring back. And today’s anxiety is not about that one night. It’s about what Joe Biden will be like in 2, 3, 4 years.

Various Democratic establishment figures are repeating Joe Biden’s reassurance he always gets back up from a blow, there are months yet to go, and Trump will himself blow a gasket before long (he certainly didn’t in this debate).

But privately, the worry and action are in high intensity. The search is for the words and the way to persuade Joe Biden to do the right leadership thing, and bow out. Nancy Pelosi, who stepped down at 83, reflected the nuances in play, when she said “I’m not abandoning Joe Biden right now, for any speculation.”

Speculation focuses on experienced candidates who could beat Trump, including in a TV debate, hands down. Governors Gavin Newsom, 56, of California; Gretchen Whitmer, 52, of Michigan, Josh Shapiro, 51, of Pennsylvania stand out. But dark horse candidacies of other very competent people would also emerge ending the “speculation,” once Biden gave his say-so, turning selection over to the Democratic Convention to be held from August 19 to 22 in Chicago, where Governor JB Pritzker, 59, has been super-effective (he’s also a real billionaire which Americans seem to find trustworthy). Super-delegates and the Democratic National Committee would draw up a list, probably including VP Kamala Harris, and produce a galvanizing talent show, after this endless unpleasant campaign in which polls never moved. It would be a throwback to the 1950s and early 60s, but throwbacks are in. Progressives in the party will make sure the positions fit the need and the time. 

President Biden could give the opening keynote and serve out his term a political saint. Maybe even get an acceptable outcome from Netanyahu.

From July 9 to 11, NATO will hold its 75th Anniversary Summit in Washington. Its agenda is pre-cooked; trans-Atlantic unity, support for Ukraine (but not yet membership), a new Secretary-General, more best intentions on the famous 2% of GDP on defence. What will make it more than a yawn is the obvious fact that NATO’s democracies are wobbly, or at least their leaderships are. And especially America’s.

Furthermore, and abroad, the US image is going down the drain. By all private accounts Joe Biden was already unfocused and unsteady at the G-7 in Italy, and in France several weeks ago. That’s not why the NY Times is pushing for Biden to stand down, since Americans don’t care that much about foreign opinion. 

But foreign partners do care greatly about the need of sound US leadership and are deeply worried.

The UK, from where I write today, has an election this week. Its outcome is a foregone conclusion: the end of 14 years of Conservative rule. Despite deathbed warnings from the Tories that Labour will now wreck everybody’s life and set themselves up to stay in power for ever, no one believes it. It’s a more centrist Labour’s turn, and the Conservatives were essentially incompetent. Brexit is now so regretted it never came up in the campaign at all.

In France, after President Macron’s impulsive decision to call the unnecessary election, there is much moaning from opponents that the electoral surge by Marine le Pens extreme right National Rally will win on July 7, and with its parliamentary majority, “wreck the country forever.” In any event France will be paralyzed politically. Macron is a lame duck.

In Germany, the coalition government headed by Olaf Scholz has lost public confidence.

Yet, in those three key countries, the erosion of their leadership position is pale in comparison to America’s. 

Biden can, however, as a leader help restore reasonable equilibrium by withdrawing his candidacy as President Lyndon Johnson did in March, 1968, over losing public support (less drastically than Biden), declaring, “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office.” The US is not at war abroad today as it was then but it is in a form of virtual war at home, and it risks getting much worse. 

Leaders are often vain. Their vanity keeps some from recognizing the departure of the public’s affection or their own capacities. Democracies need the guard rails of public opinion to overwhelm the delusion of unique indispensability.

When Open Canada started in November this occasional chronicle of coverage of the US election, we warned to “expect the unexpected to intrude…Campaigns make a difference.”

And now it is so. 

Canadians should be worried, prepared for the worst, if the Democrats don’t rally. Donald Trump is not more moderate than before, far from it. Much of the US public looks with customary ignorance at good old Canada and many now envy what they assume is our settled calm. But they don’t have time or bandwidth to worry about our worries about how Trump might hurt us. They are mostly scared and depressed about what is happening to them. 

Biden, their titular leader, can do the right thing for the nation and for worried allies abroad, and come out a winner in history. 

Will he?

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