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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Joe Biden’s horrific debate performance casts his entire candidacy into doubt

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The mission for Joe Biden in the presidential debate held in Atlanta on June 27th was clear: to prove his critics wrong, by showing that he was mentally fit and thereby reverse the polling deficit that makes Donald Trump the favourite to win the American election in 2024. Unfortunately, his performance was an unmitigated disaster—perhaps the worst of any presidential candidate in modern history. The president, who is 81 (and would be 86 by the end of a second term in office), stammered indecipherably, struggled to complete his lines of attack and proved his doubters completely correct. Although Mr Trump was in his typical form—meandering, mendacious, vindictive—he somehow appeared the more coherent and lucid of the pair. Mr Biden’s decision to seek re-election rather than standing aside for a younger standard-bearer now looks like a reckless endangerment of the democracy he claims to want to protect.

Merely quoting Mr Biden’s rhetorical bumblings do not do them justice, but they do give a sense of the shambles. Consider one of his lines at the very start of the debate, the first indicator that the president was in poor form: “Making sure that we continue to strengthen our health-care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single, solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the…uh, covid…excuse me, dealing with everyone we had to do with… look, if we finally beat Medicare…” The moderator interrupted before further damage could be done, one of several coups de grâce graciously administered.

Despite nearly a week spent huddled with his advisers, Mr Biden was unable to deliver his rehearsed attack lines even on the issues where he should have been most powerful, such as on establishing a right to abortion, yanked away by Supreme Court justices appointed by Mr Trump. What came out was this: “I support Roe v Wade, which had three trimesters. First time is between the woman and the doctor. Second time was between the doctor and an extreme situation. The third time is between the doctor, I mean between the woman and the state.” A direct question to Mr Biden about his capacity to do the job given his age—one that he ought to have been completely prepared for—earned only a half-hearted response that quickly veered into a discussion of computer chips and South Korea.

That is not to say that Mr Trump was anything like presidential. He lied inveterately. He would not promise to accept the results of the election in November, in effect threatening a repeat of the attack on the Capitol that his supporters staged on January 6th 2021 (for which he blamed Nancy Pelosi, then the Democratic speaker of the House). He was loutish and undignified, forced to say “I did not have sex with a porn star” and then accusing his opponent of being a “Manchurian candidate” who receives money from China (of course, without any evidence).

On the serious policy matters that would face a future president, Mr Trump was evasive. His responses to questions about the war in Ukraine and Gaza were identical: the conflicts would not have happened if he were president, due to the force of his personality. When pressed on his environmental policy, Mr Trump said: “I want absolutely immaculate clean water. I want absolutely clean air and we had it. We had h2o, we had the best numbers ever.” Pupils in secondary school can give more serious answers than that. But Mr Trump at least had the distinction of appearing vital.

But all of this is standard-issue Trumpian chaos. For the American voters who did suffer through the debate—and the millions who will watch clippings of it later—the most distinguishing feature will be Mr Biden’s unsettlingly poor performance. It is a marked deterioration not just from his past debates (those against Mr Trump in 2020 show a doppelganger seemingly a decade younger) but even from his state-of-the-union address a few months ago.

Before the debate had even ended, Democratic elites were starting to panic. On current trends, Mr Biden is not favoured to win. He is trailing in the swing states needed to secure re-election. Debates tend not to have huge effects on public opinion, because the American electorate is deeply polarised and generally hard to persuade, but a performance as dismal as this (and one so early in the election cycle) might do grave harm to Mr Biden’s poll numbers. Immediately after the debate, betting markets registered a marked decline in the chance that Mr Biden would in fact be the party’s nominee.

If the president were to abandon his re-election bid, it would be a seismic event—perhaps even more consequential than Lyndon Johnson’s decision to drop out of the presidential race in 1968 because of his Vietnam-war-induced unpopularity. Mr Biden had flirted with the idea of being a single-term bridge to a new generation of Democrat, but the allure of a second term seemed impossible to resist, and no one within the party was able to persuade him to make way. Doing so this late would be chaotic.

Mr Biden has accrued almost all of the delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination in August in Chicago (also the site of the chaotic Democratic convention of 1968). That means that it is too late for anyone other than Mr Biden to remove himself from the top of the ticket. Under convention rules, these delegates would then become “unbound”, free to vote for whomever they wished. The next Democratic nominee would, in effect, be selected by party grandees rather than the usual drawn-out democratic process. Mr Biden and his allies have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his campaign and spent much of it on pre-booked television advertisements.

Jettisoning him from the top of the ticket would be an extreme measure, ensuring deep schisms within the party and leaving it weakened ahead of a contest with Donald Trump. Yet after a performance this bad, Democrats might feel they have no other option but to break glass.

● By The Economist

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