NewsA commentary: Biden's debate blunders spark calls for new democratic candidate

A commentary: Biden's debate blunders spark calls for new democratic candidate

Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the debate
Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the debate
Images source: © PAP
Jakub Majmurek

28 June 2024 07:02, updated: 28 June 2024 07:54

It's hard to say either candidate won the first presidential debate of the year organised by CNN. Both candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, presented themselves in the worst possible light.

Biden hurt himself more with his performance. The incumbent president had one goal on Thursday night: to convince sceptical American voters that he isn't too old to handle the challenges of the presidency for the next four years. Simply put, he presented the exact opposite in the debate. Voters worried if Biden has the health for another term would only have their fears confirmed after watching the debate.

American media reported that panic was growing in the Biden camp during the debate. Democrats won't be able to convince anyone that Biden won the debate. Instead, they will have to deal with demands to change the candidate – which is theoretically still an option.

Half an hour that could bury the second term

Biden's performance was disastrous from the start. He spoke slowly, too quietly, often losing his train of thought. It was often hard to understand what the president was saying or what he wanted to convey. Biden couldn't effectively attack Trump and seemed older than his Republican opponent by at least a decade, though the age difference is less than four years.

After about half an hour, Biden picked up a bit, found his rhythm, and started presenting himself more energetically. However, the first 30 minutes likely set the tone for viewers and, in the worst-case scenario, could have buried Biden's second term.

While Biden won substantively on nearly every topic discussed, from the economy to national security, his missteps, how he delivered his message, and his overall physical and mental condition overshadowed the content.

This is especially troublesome as Biden failed to corner Trump on politically tricky issues like abortion. The Supreme Court decision – where Trump placed three judges with fundamentally religious views – revoking the constitutional right to abortion for American women is something that profoundly divides Republicans and the majority of American public opinion. Abortion is one of the issues that could help Democrats win the November elections.

Trump lied exceptionally intensely, even for him

Trump's performance was hardly a success either. The Republican candidate confirmed concerns, both in the United States and globally, about his potential return to office rather than alleviating them. He appeared in the debate as a compulsive liar – straying from the truth exceptionally often, even for himself.

Trump lied about almost every topic on Thursday. He denied things he had said or done – like his intimate relations with porn star Stormy Daniels – provided fabricated data about his administration's successes and Biden's failures, and described events that seemingly never happened.

Trying to shift responsibility for the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack to the Democrats, the former president falsely claimed he wanted to secure the situation by sending the National Guard to Washington, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused. There is no evidence supporting Trump's narrative, and Pelosi couldn't have stopped using the National Guard if Trump had intended to deploy it.

Neither Biden nor the journalists moderating the debate could counter Trump's constant lies or force him to confront reality. Unfortunately, debating someone who readily uses falsehoods and disinformation, such as Trump, requires a unique approach from his competitors and the journalists. If future debates about Trump's lies resemble this one from Wednesday night, there's little point in organising them. The media must find a way to verify what the Republican candidate says on the spot.

Trump avoided answering questions that were inconvenient for him, instead attacking Biden. This might not help him politically. Voters are worried about whether Trump will accept his loss in the elections, use his position to get back at political opponents, respect constitutional limitations on his power, or acknowledge minority and women's rights did not get reassuring answers. The same goes for the future of US relations with its allies, including Ukraine. Trump reiterated very concerning statements from our interests' perspective that the US is already too involved in aiding Ukraine, that Ukraine is losing the war, that Europe isn’t doing enough to help, and that the US will only protect those allies willing to pay for it.

America and the world deserve better

Given how weak Trump's performance was that evening, Biden's presentation must be viewed as an even bigger failure. It was striking that neither candidate talked much about the future and the challenges facing the US over the next decade. Instead of discussing the future, we quarrelled with two elderly men about whose presidency was worse.

At a time when the world needs American leadership, American democracy showcased itself in the CNN debate in the worst possible way.

Putin, Xi, the leaders of Iran, and minor authoritarian rulers could be truly delighted with what they saw – the Biden-Trump debate provided their propaganda machines with material to claim: "America is a crumbling superpower."

Unfortunately, one can only agree with the opinion expressed early Friday morning on the X platform by British historian William Dalrymple:

"The most depressing imaginable presidential debate between two fourth-rate candidates. One is unable to tell the truth and the other unable to string a sentence together. How on earth did the most powerful country on earth end up having to choose between two utter duds?".

Republicans will not change Donald Trump as their candidate because the Republican Party is controlled today by followers of the former president. Democrats, however, must seriously consider whether Biden is truly their best option.

The current president won the primaries, but he can theoretically still step down and give his delegates the freedom to choose a new candidate at the Democratic convention in August. This would be a shock, an atomic option, a hazardous move for the Democrats. Trump would triumph, claiming that the Democrats' president was so hopeless that he had to withdraw because he knew he couldn’t win. The party has no obvious candidate or candidate capable of uniting all its wings, is deeply divided by issues such as the conflict in Gaza, and has no guarantee that anyone other than Biden would win. Biden might still recover during the campaign, and many voters may forget the June debate by November.

However, if the candidate does not change and Biden performs similarly in the autumn campaign as he did on Thursday night on CNN, Democrats will face a significant problem, and Trump may return to the White House.

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