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Crisis on Debate Night: Biden’s Blunders Send Democrats Reeling

The first debate stands as the earliest presidential debate ever. Expectations were heavily in favour of the current President, with many hoping that Joe Biden would deliver an energised performance. On the back of political and legal liabilities and his infamous 2020 debate performance, Donald Trump was the underdog. Instead, however, the debate has become a significant liability for Biden, strengthening Trump’s position.

The current Vice President, Kamala Harris, even went as far as to admit that Biden began slowly which, may be too kind. Biden’s camp reported that the President was ailing. The result: a low-energy, dull and uninspiring performance. In seemingly every second sentence, Biden tripped on his words, barely uttered them at all, or ended on confusing and confused remarks. In Biden’s response to a question on national debt, he concluded “We finally beat Medicare.” Even the most passionate Democrats were unimpressed, drawing far too much attention to his fitness for office which is an already pivotal concern for voters.

Trump, in usual Trumpian fashion, told many outright lies and far more half-truths, whilst avoiding difficult questions. Trump claimed that Democrats supported late-term abortions. Biden spotted the falsehood but poorly delivered a refutation. Trump, when asked about January 6th, even went as far as to blame Nancy Pelosi for not deploying the National Guard. The former President then threatened to prosecute Biden, saying “He could be a convicted felon as soon as he gets out of office.”

The debate highlighted a stark difference in the approach of the respective campaigns. Trump often used rather harsh and violent imagery to paint a bleak story in which Biden is the author. Biden tried to offer an optimistic image; that America was still, in fact, a respected country.

Ultimately, when it mattered, neither Biden nor Trump offered a solid or clear vision of the future of the US. Rather, each unsuccessfully appealed to their tenure as President or just created some hypothetical scenario. Biden could hardly highlight the accomplishments that he had successfully presided over. Trump lied, claiming to have presided over the greatest period in American economic history.

On foreign policy, neither candidate offered concrete solutions. It was instead a contest on hypotheticals. Trump claimed Putin would have never invaded Ukraine or the war in Gaza would have never begun had he been president. Trump even went as far as to promise to settle the war in Ukraine whilst President-elect.

Trump’s victory in the debate is a painful reminder that US politics is in deep trouble: its sitting President is seemingly unfit to debate, let alone lead the free world; the next best option is a convicted felon and a pathological liar responsible for the most remarkable attack on US democracy in recent memory.

The election was increasingly about age and competency, with the respective candidates attacking each other on these grounds. But tonight’s debate could perhaps be a turning point. Swing, and even base, voters have had their greatest concern, Biden’s age, compounded. Trump appeared more vigorous and clear, appealing to some business leaders and international politicians.

The debate was supposed to shift the balance towards Biden. Instead, it has become a liability that Biden may never recover from.

Some Democrats are suggesting Biden ought to withdraw. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have all been suggested as viable replacements. Reports of Democrats beginning to inquire into options to replace Biden will only hurt his image more. If there was more procedural certainty in putting a new Democrat at the top of the ticket, then it’d probably be wise. Otherwise, it is far too risky and may cause more harm than good.

Some may argue that the Democrats must publicly address Biden’s age to assure voters. Maybe even highlight his vigour and leadership during the State of the Union. But perhaps this is unwise. Actions speak louder than words, and the action of the President last night may be so damaging that even the most incredible performance in any upcoming events will not restore confidence in his health.

The Biden campaign will likely have to control the narrative elsewhere. Perhaps they ought to use Harris or California Governor Gavin Newsom to effectively defend Biden’s record and attack Trump. The fractures in Trump’s policy are there for all to see. The Democrats just need someone with guile to capitalise upon them.

The Democrats must also focus on Trump’s legal issues. Biden mentioned the former President’s ongoing legal issues, including his affair with Stormy Daniels, but not enough. Trump is a convicted felon; this and his other legal liabilities must be brought up repeatedly to keep them in public consciousness.

Biden needs to divert attention away from the debate. Although the election is still many months away, the Democrats could introduce initiatives or tease new, impactful policies. Swing and even base voters need reasons to vote Democrat and be optimistic about a second Biden term. Voters mustn’t dread Biden or see him as the lesser of two evils.

The Democrats must rally and seize this critical juncture to redefine their strategy and reinvigorate their base. With Trump’s weaknesses exposed through his legal troubles and falsehoods, there remains a window of opportunity to remind Americans of the values and vision that Biden embodies. The Democrats, for the sake of their survival, must turn the momentum in their favour.

Image: Eric Haynes for the Office of the Governor of Massachusetts


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