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Charen: Biden can’t blow the debates

By Mona Charen - | May 25, 2024

Courtesy Kendra Best

Mona Charen

Until he challenged Donald Trump to debate, President Joe Biden seemed in denial about the state of the race. He’d been saying for some time that the polls were wrong. This was disturbing for a couple of reasons, the first being that, if anything, the polls have underpredicted, not overpredicted, Trump’s support. That was true in 2016 and 2020. This year, the polling aggregate over the past several months has shown an incredibly tight race with Trump narrowly in the lead. Biden’s implied message of “Relax, nothing to see here” was alarming.

Debates with a “f—ing moron” (to quote a former secretary of state under Trump) are not ideal, but there aren’t a lot of good choices at the moment. Our fate as a country depends on getting the attention of voters who would rather not think about politics. Debates, as stupid and dismaying as they have become, may be the best vehicle to secure their eyeballs.

Trump and his allies have way oversold the Biden-is-senile message. A fair share of voters have come to think that he is not just old but drooling and unable to function. The truth is that, though his voice is getting croaky, he messes up words and names sometimes, and he walks quite stiffly, he is very much compos mentis. He has demonstrated this again and again — as when he traveled to Kyiv or to Jerusalem. Biden was so sharp at the SOTU that Trump accused him of being drugged. A live debate will be a crucible.

This is not to suggest that all Biden needs to do is stay vertical for 90 minutes. If Biden has a serious brain freeze or incoherent digression, he and we are in terrible trouble. If the same happens to Trump, the consequences for him would likely be less dire because his cult is fanatical, though it would remind undecided voters that Trump is only three years younger than Biden — and it is Trump who had a parent with Alzheimer’s disease.

This rare moment of voters’ attention cannot be squandered. An April Pew survey found that 42% of voters overall rated Trump as a good or great president, while 11% said he was average. By contrast, only 28% said Biden was good or great, with 21% rating him as average. The debate is a chance to remind viewers of how disastrous Trump’s first term was and to warn them about his threats to “terminate” the Constitution in a second. It’s a chance to show the sort of dangerous and criminal associates Trump has surrounded himself with, from Michael Flynn to Marjorie Taylor Greene to Nick Fuentes to Stephen Miller to Jeffrey Clark to Richard Grenell.

In the first debate in 2020, Trump attempted a psyop on Biden. He planned to be so provocative and bullying that Biden would be reduced to stuttering. (He may also have been trying to infect Biden with COVID.) It backfired. Now Biden has his own psyop opportunity — to remind voters that Trump has promised to pardon all the Jan. 6 defendants, and to remind Trump and the country of all the former Trump hires who’ve said he is unfit. This will make Trump angry and vengeful. He’ll probably say things that reveal his pathological vanity. He’ll say they are “overrated” or losers or part of the deep state — to which the obvious retort is, “Really? You seem to hire a lot of incompetent people!” Or, “Out of 44 Cabinet members you hired in four years, only four are supporting you.” Biden needs to inform voters about something important — Trump’s own people call him dangerous to the nation.

Above all, Biden needs to have some better responses ready for the inevitable questions about the state of the economy. Instead of acknowledging what people are experiencing at the supermarket and in their monthly rent or mortgage payments, Biden argues with the facts. He denied on CNN that the economy is a problem, suggesting that while Americans may say the economy is poor, “they’re personally in good shape.” This isn’t true. According to CNN, 53% of Americans say they are dissatisfied with their personal financial situation. And then he resorted to the “greedy capitalists” canard, declaring in February that there are “still too many corporations in America ripping people off. Price gouging, junk fees, greedflation, shrinkflation.”

Corporations are no more greedy than they were before the pandemic. Besides, if the problem were greed, how is another Biden term going to eliminate one of the seven deadly sins? Biden needs to acknowledge how tough inflation has been and then tell a story about supply chains, stimulus (yes, even admitting that both the Trump and Biden administrations pumped money into the economy — because it seemed necessary to avert an even worse outcome), and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He needs to show how much progress we have made since 2022, when inflation really did reach 9%. He should boast that we’ve reduced it to 3.4% without triggering a recession.

The majority of the American people have never liked Trump. Biden has given himself two opportunities to convince them that granting Trump another term, however tepid their feelings about the incumbent, would be a disaster.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her new book, “Hard Right: The GOP’s Drift Toward Extremism,” is available now.


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