OPINION - Joe Biden and Donald Trump have a common enemy: staying coherent


In my head, this is how I think Joe Biden should approach tomorrow’s presidential debate in Atlanta. He should act as though Donald Trump is a big crybaby and goad him into over-reacting. Biden should taunt his opponent by saying, “You are a stone-cold loser who keeps whining about being beaten at the last election, pretends everybody is ganging up against you even though a jury found you guilty of crimes, sucks up to enemies of America like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, and whipped up a vicious mob to storm the Capitol.

“Thanks to you, women and girls are being forced to risk their lives giving birth, including victims of rape and incest. You are a proven liar and conman who has been found guilty of fraud. Your friends, like Tucker Carlson, say privately they ‘hate you passionately’. You lost in 2020 and will lose again in November because you are a criminal who is demonstrably unfit to be President of the United States.”

In my heart, I fear Biden might not rise to the occasion. As things stand, it is surprising enough that Trump has a 50-50 chance of winning the election and possibly better than even odds when the polls in swing states are taken into consideration. Most Democrats are in an agony of apprehension about the debate. The 81-year-old president has yet to persuade voters he has sufficient vigour to soldier on in the job for another four years. Add this to the anti-incumbent mood sweeping the West in the aftermath of Covid-19, with high inflation (now curbed) and high interest rates (still up there) — and Biden has the fight of his life on his hands.

Ultimately, the debate will boil down to this: if Biden can stop sounding senile, he wins. If Trump can stop sounding crazy and self-obsessed, he wins. Neither man will find sticking to this formula easy. Biden managed to read forcefully from an autocue at the State of the Union address in January, but has since appeared frail and doddery. Despite spending the weekend prepping for the debate with aides at Camp David, it will only take one viral senior moment for all his efforts to unravel.

If Biden can stop sounding senile, he wins. If Trump can stop sounding crazy and self-obsessed, he wins

As for Trump, Hillary Clinton put it best in an article for the New York Times. ”If he doesn’t literally light himself on fire on Thursday evening, some will say he was downright presidential.” Even so, Trump could find it hard to contain his rampant narcissism. Their head-to-head encounter — no third parties allowed — is taking place ridiculously early in the electoral cycle, nearly five months before America goes to the polls on November 5 (debates usually don’t start till the autumn). Our own general election, by comparison, is taking place at a formidable gallop even if it feels like a yawn.

The debate is a coup for CNN, now run by former BBC director general Mark Thompson, which managed to bypass the official commission on presidential debates and set its own rules. After CNN caused a rumpus by losing control of a town hall event with Trump last year, there will be no live audience for the 90-minute debate and the candidates’ microphones will be muted, mainly to avoid Trump trying to talk over his opponent. No props or prompt sheets will be allowed.

The danger is that these conditions will remove all excitement from the debate, leaving the two ageing combatants struggling to inject pace. Nor will there be much chance to correct any disinformation. David Chalian, CNN’s political director, admitted as much, saying the debate was “not the ideal arena for live fact-checking”. This will take place afterwards, if anybody is still watching.

As ever, Trump has sought to play the victim by claiming the odds are stacked against him. “It’s probably a one-on-three,” he griped to a conservative talk show host, arguing that the two CNN anchors, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, are bound to be on Biden’s side. Some of his own allies, such as the incendiary Steve Bannon, have urged Trump to cancel the debate rather than take part in such a biased, liberal forum.

Conveniently for Trump, however, a gag order relating to his $130,000 hush money guilty verdict in New York was partially lifted yesterday, leaving him free to lash out in the forthcoming debate against witnesses such as the porn star Stormy Daniels and his former lawyer Michael Cohen.

In the event that Biden sounds halfway vigorous and sentient on stage, Trump has got in his excuses early by predicting his opponent will have a received a “shot in the ass” and be “jacked up” on drugs. Republican congressman Ronny Jackson, who served as Trump’s White House doctor, echoed these claims, telling Fox News, “I’m going to be demanding on behalf of many millions of concerned Americans right now that Biden submit to a drug test before and after this debate, specifically looking for performance-enhancing drugs.”

More recently in the US Trumpstalgia has set in, nostalgia for the apparent good times under Trump

It would have been better for Trump, who turned 78 this month, if he could remember his own doctor’s name: he called him Ronny “Johnson”, just one of an increasing number of senior moments that Trump also suffers from. And it’s worth recalling that at the first presidential debate in September 2020, it was Trump who arrived at the studio too late for a Covid-19 test even though he had tested positive three days earlier, according to Mark Meadows, his ex-chief of staff. At that debate, Trump memorably called on the far-Right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and was widely considered to have lost to Biden.

More recently, however, Trumpstalgia — nostalgia for the apparent economic good times under Trump — has set in. This is despite the fact that the stock market has reached all-time highs under Biden, unemployment has been historically low and it emerged this week that Trump ran up twice the national debt as Biden during his term of office ($4.8 trillion to $2.2 trillion respectively, not counting Covid-19 relief). Be that as it may, White House aides are urging Biden not to dwell too much on his proudest policy achievements, such as the infrastructure act, which haven’t hit home with the public.

“He wants the credit, but it’s not working,” a top Democrat told CNN. “He needs to stop.” They would rather Biden provoked Trump into losing his rag. The slogan that put paid to Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president in 1964 could apply equally well to Trump: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” Will it outweigh the fear that, in their bones, voters know Biden’s too old? Tomorrow may provide an answer.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting