Joe Biden's debate debacle a morality tale

Con Man vs Old Man—is this the best we have?

Con Man vs Old Man. That’s how analysts described the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Con Man, a congenital liar, did what he always does best—fibbing through every question. Old Man did what he is prone to, mumbling and fumbling to ignominy, for which he was clobbered by TV commentators. They pronounced that Democratic party members and donors are in “pain and panic”, wanting Biden to drop out of the presidential race. But no Democrat showed up in the TV studios to make this demand. No one was even named.

Left- and right-leaning experts said they received a tsunami of reactions from Democrats shocked by Biden’s pathetic performance. Republican commentator Scott Jennings said he was swamped by messages from Democratic governors and officials worried by Biden’s bungling. Why would Democrats bare their tormented souls to a Republican commentator? Perhaps, the Biden barrage was an AI driven mass and social media campaign. This has happened before.

No one disputes that Biden fared badly. Doubts about his cognitive decline reached a crescendo. Instantly, commentators pronounced Biden’s political death sentence. But what are the chances of Biden being defeated in the presidential race because of this dismal debate? “Zero,” says historian Allan Lichtman emphatically, asserting “historically debate performances have no impact on election outcomes”. In 2004, John Kerry debated superbly, but lost to George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama debated poorly, but won. Debates are watched only by a portion of the population. Most voters worry about real issues, not how nominees sound and look in debates. Former Trump supporter Anthony Scaramucci says, “Debates are popularity contests, but that’s not where hiring decisions are made.”

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

The New York Times, among other media organisations, urged Biden to “serve his nation” by withdrawing, arguing Democrats could then field a new candidate to defeat Trump—the “existential threat to democracy”. Biden claims he is the best candidate to do just that. Lichtman agrees. He says his “Keys to White House” model shows “more than any other Democrat, Biden has the best chance to defeat Trump”. His keys include incumbency, good economy and no-contest primaries. Lichtman has correctly predicted the US election results for four decades.

Away from the spotlight, Biden’s debate debacle is a morality tale signifying important life lessons. Commentators blasted Biden, but none mentioned his speech impediment. People who stammer, stutter more when they are nervous or tired. It is remarkable that despite this disability, Biden rose to the highest office in a treacherously competitive political landscape. Maybe his voice was hoarse due to excessive preparations. Maybe aides coached him inadequately on his appearance, so cameras caught him blank-faced and open-mouthed several times. Interrogation under a microscope for 90 minutes is hard, even harder to speak without crowds and teleprompters. It’s easier for Trump who doesn’t bother to remember facts.

Instead of feeling shamed and licking his wounds after the blistering criticism, Biden rebounded, like the boxer he is, saying, “When you get knocked down, you get back up.” The very next day, Biden gave a spirited performance at an election rally in North Carolina. The event was staged with chants and charts, but the crowd was good, teleprompters in place and Biden feisty, as he was in the State of the Union address four months ago. He crisscrossed the country that day to attend four major events, ending with a massively attended fundraiser gala in New York.

Still, many Americans wonder: “Con Man vs Old Man—is this the best we’ve got?”

Pratap is an author and journalist.