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Time to kick out the jams in a battle of Joe vs. the moronic inferno

As the first presidential debate looms, it’s time for Biden to take care of business

Head-to-head debates with Donald Trump will be a huge risk for Joe Biden. Image: The New European/Getty

It is central to quantum mechanics that two versions of reality can co-exist, and that light can be particle or wave: the so-called principle of “complementarity”. This precisely captures the present condition of American politics.

In the first place: it is obvious that Donald Trump, twice impeached, facing 88 felony charges and already found liable by a jury for rape, should not be anywhere near mainstream politics, let alone the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency.

On this basis, as David Frum argued in The Atlantic last month, Joe Biden ought not to demean the office he holds by agreeing to debate against his insurrectionist predecessor. As Frum put it, the White House should have simply issued a statement to the effect that “[t]he Constitution is not debatable. The president does not participate in forums with a person under criminal indictment for his attempt to overthrow the Constitution”.

Frum is a wise citizen of an America that still regards the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their contest to represent Illinois in the Senate as the gold standard of US political argument: a dialogue that, as Allen C Guelzo puts it in his definitive history of the exchanges, posed the question: “what was the American experiment about?”

That’s one version of the republic. The other is the debased, populist, polarised pit into which US politics has mostly tumbled, a fall personified by the furious persistence of Trump; it is a world that owes more to reality shows, the WWE and UFC fighting franchises and momma-cussing rap battles than the classical rhetoric of the Lincoln-Douglas debates or the vision of the Founding Fathers.

This is the moronic inferno that will be the backdrop to the two presidential debates unexpectedly announced last week: the first hosted by CNN on June 27, and the second by ABC News on September 10. 

Biden’s team did consider denying Trump the limelight that he so obviously craves. But that was never really an option. As Alan Schroeder argues in his book on presidential debates, they have long been regarded as “a public entitlement”. 

More to the point, perhaps, Biden badly needs the adrenaline shot to his campaign that these direct encounters could conceivably deliver. The economic recovery over which he has presided is simply not translating into popularity. Crucially, he is trailing Trump in five of the key battleground states. 

And the opinion polls are revealing some unsettling trends. According to a New York Times/Siena poll published last week, only 28% of 18- to 29-year-olds trust Biden on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No surprise there. The shock is that – on this matter – 52% of young people trust Trump (whose principal criticism of Israel’s strategy is that it has been insufficiently aggressive). 

Truly, we are through the looking glass. For a start, both candidates regard themselves as the incumbent president (though only one of them actually is). I agree with George Stephanopoulos, ABC host and former adviser to Bill Clinton, who said last week that the first question should be: “Who won the last election?”

In the negotiations, Biden secured some important wins. First, there will be no studio audiences for Trump to entertain with his maniacal shtick. Second, the microphones will have mute buttons, which means that he cannot interrupt Biden whenever he likes. Third, Fox News is not involved (though Trump has already demanded that the vice-presidential debate, if there is one, be hosted by the right wing cable channel).

Even so: the debates are a huge risk for the president. In his State of the Union address in March, he showed that he can still rise to the occasion and punch hard. 

But reading feistily from a teleprompter is very different to squaring off with a deranged sociopath who appears to believe the “late, great” Hannibal Lecter was a real person; who suggested that “we nuke” hurricanes; who intends to be “a dictator for one day”; and who, lest we forget, incited an insurrection. 

Because he respects no guard-rails, cares not a jot for the republic he wants to rule once more, because he will say and do anything, Trump is dangerous in a debate, as in any other setting. He promises order, but trades in chaos.

He will call Biden “sleepy” and “crooked”. He will needle him about his son Hunter’s addiction and business dealings. He will mock the president for his stiff gait and the tumbles he has taken. He will tell lie after lie after lie. Nothing will be off limits.

All of which presents Biden with a dilemma. The conventional wisdom is that behaviour of this sort is best treated with lofty disdain; the statesmanlike reserve that Barack Obama turned into something like an art form. But a lot has changed in the seven years since Obama was president.

In the 2020 debates, Biden was at his most effective when he selectively let loose what he calls “my Irish temper”. Few now remember the substance of the argument that he and Trump had in Cleveland, Ohio about the Supreme Court. But many still recall how the Democrat finally hit the roof: “Will you shut up, man!” – an instant viral clip and T-shirt slogan.

This was Biden the street fighter from Scranton, Pennsylvania, rather than Biden the public servant of distinction, who first became a senator in 1973. He didn’t stoop to his opponent’s level; but he stood his ground. This was a grown-up who had finally had enough of Trump’s infantile nonsense and said as much. It worked.

Will it work again? It would be idle to deny that Biden is a much-reduced figure today. Visibly frail, given to cognitive lapses, sometimes outright confused. Can he last 90 minutes, twice, against 300lb of high-octane crazy?

The answer is: he has to. It would be nice if the debates were going to be enlightened Socratic dialogues – but we know they will be no such thing. Time to kick out the jams, Joe, and take care of business.

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