Voices: The Trump-Biden debate was more like the infirm vs the unstable – is this the best America can do?

Voices: The Trump-Biden debate was more like the infirm vs the unstable – is this the best America can do?

Who won the Trump Biden debate? Neither man, in truth.

Neither presented an inspirational vision for America’s future, and that’s not just a reflection on the chronological truth that Joe Biden will be 86 and Donald Trump will be 82 at the end of their next term of office.

This wasn’t JFK talking about the torch being passed to a new generation of Americans. It wasn’t Ronald Reagan, no spring chicken in his own time, reflecting on America as a “shining city on a hill”. It wasn’t even the younger Joe Biden famously asking why he was the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college degree. It wasn’t even the 2020 edition of Biden that beat Trump in debate, or the one that delivered that thumping state of the Union address in January. This was an older chap who stumbled and lost his thread a little too often for comfort.

This was, indeed, two gentlemen from an older generation trying desperately to hang on to the torch, much to the discomfort-verging-on-terror that one of these old boys is going to running the world’s pre-eminent power for the next four years. America, as it stands, has a choice between Joe the Infirm, and Donald the Unstable. At one point the Odd Couple were reduced to bickering about who was better at golf, like two codgers in a care home. You wonder what Putin and Xi make of all this.

Trump vs Biden. The rematch. It’s an unenviable choice and brings to mind the question posed by a member of the audience to the candidates in the BBC debate about the UK premiership – “Are you two really the best we’ve got to be the next prime minister of our great country?”

It was a mistake for Biden to agree this contest. As an incumbent, albeit a little behind, he had a lot to lose and little to gain. Maybe it was a little too much vanity, a touch of stubbornness and a sense of duty that drove him onto the stage in Atlanta, Georgia – that same patriotism that helped persuade him to take on Trump four years ago.

The gamble didn’t pay off, but how much he lost is not yet apparent. The American people are well aware that they’ve got a senior in the White House. He’s been around in public life for more than half a century. They’ve grown old with him, so to speak.

Biden did much better than he is being giving credit for by many pundits at the moment and in the instant opinion polls. For much of this debate he said things that were clear, detailed, rooted in reality and made plenty of sense. He was good on the economy, on abortion, on social security, on foreign policy, and on protecting America’s democracy and the disgrace of the 6 January insurrection) he got rid of Trump, after all). He lasted to the full 90 minutes without notes or messages from his aides. He mostly remembered his lines. He scored a few hits in Trump, although sometimes deeply personal ones about Trump having sex with a porn star while his wife was pregnant. Trump, foolishly, denied that; we’ll no doubt find out what Stormy has to say about that.

Unlike Trump, Biden mostly paid the moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash – and the television audience – some respect, by answering the questions. Trump responded to interrogation about the climate crisis by rambling about how much the cops love him, and addressed the opioid epidemic by calling Biden “the Manchurian candidate”. That isn’t going to help the thousands of Americans tormented by fentanyl addiction. Trump yet again refused to commit unequivocally to repeat the result of the next election, to defend women’s rights and to defend Nato allies. As usual he lied and lied. Those failings were far more serious than Biden forgetting what he what he was saying.

However… from the moment he made his opening statement Biden was showing signs of physical and, much more concerning, mental weakness. He sounded hoarse, he paused and was coughing – his aides put that down to a cold. Fair enough, but what are we to make of this, a direct transcription from the early part of the duel: “…making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I was able to do with the Covid – excuse me – with dealing with everything we have to do with – look – if we finally beat Medicare.”

Now, that was a bit painful to watch, but to my mind Biden was just experiencing some senior moments – and his record in office suggest that he gets the big calls right. What is more concerning is to contemplate what state he might be in in, say, three or four years time. An honest, but slightly embarrassing truth that neither he nor the Democrats can admit to, is that Biden would probably be more like President Reagan was in the later stages of his second term – to know and understand what he wanted, but more easily tired and not as sharp as he used to be, and needing more support from his executive team and his (younger) First Lady. That is not really something to campaign on, though.

The other consequence of Biden’s sometimes uncertain performance is that it will destabilise the Democrats, making them fret about replacing him; and focus more attention on Vice President Kamala Harris, a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, for good or ill. (It’s also a factor with Trump, for equally obvious reasons, but we don’t know his VP pick yet). No party should have to contemplate what would happen in the event of incapacity and the 25th amendment has to be deployed – though that’s also true of Trump for all sorts of reasons.

Will the debate change much? It could be one of the more consequential ones. In any case, though, for many, an infirm Biden will always be a safer, sounder bet than an admittedly more vigorous Trump. Of the two, Trump remains far the bigger threat to America’s cohesion and to world peace; a wannabe isolationist, protectionist quasi-dictator. As Biden reminded us, Trump is just a “whiner”, and as dangerous as ever. Infirm beats Unstable, every time.