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28 June 2024updated 02 Jul 2024 4:09pm

Joe Biden’s last debate

After his disastrous performance against Donald Trump, the Democrats need a new nominee. Urgently.

By Katie Stallard

Two things are clear after watching last night’s debate: Donald Trump should not be the next American president – and nor should Joe Biden.

For months now, the Biden team’s theory of victory has been that this election will ultimately come down to a choice. Despite the ominous polls that show Biden trailing Trump in the battleground states that will decide this election, and the increasingly vocal concerns that the 81-year-old president is too old to serve another term, they have clung fast to the conviction that once voters are fully reminded who his opponent is, they will come home. As Biden himself is fond of saying, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

During the campaign’s first presidential debate on CNN, he got his wish. It did not go well.

From the moment Biden walked on to the stage – slowly and stiffly – he looked uncertain. When he started to speak, his voice was hoarse and weak. He cleared his throat. He mumbled his words. He struggled to finish his thoughts. At times it was difficult to follow what he was saying.

Biden has never been a great public speaker. He has struggled with a stutter since he was a child, and is well known for his tendency to ramble and misspeak but this was of an altogether different magnitude. When he debated Trump during the 2020 election, Biden appeared confident and forceful, as though he relished sparring with his opponent. But that candidate was nowhere to be seen. The man on stage last night looked frail and diminished. You had to wonder what his advisers were thinking in allowing, even encouraging, him to go out there.

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It was the Biden campaign that pushed for this debate to happen now – the earliest in an election race that a televised presidential debate has ever been held. They wanted to lay to rest the persistent murmurs about his age – roughly 70 per cent of voters in a 20-25 June poll said he was too old to be an effective president – and to frame the choice and the stakes in this election. They wanted the split-screen showdown between the elder statesman and the convicted felon, the vigorous defender of democracy and the Maga chaos merchant.

Instead, the split-screen image that viewers will remember is Biden standing, mouth agape, staring into the distance, while Trump looked confident and assured. There are only three years difference in age, but they looked a generation apart last night.

At one point, during an answer on the national debt, Biden trailed off, appearing to lose his train of thought and concluding, “we finally beat Medicare”. (Medicare is the health insurance programme for Americans over-65.) Asked about immigration, he stumbled over his words, offering a barely comprehensible response. “I’m going to move until we get the total ban on the – the total initiative relative to what we’re going to do with more Border Patrol and more asylum officers.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either,” responded Trump calmly. It was the moment that will stick with many viewers, and it will haunt Biden if he continues with this campaign, which must now be in serious doubt.

When the debate ended and CNN cut to its reaction panel, there was visible dismay among senior Democrats. “There was a sense of shock at how he came out at the beginning of this debate,” said David Axelrod, who served as Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “He seemed a little disoriented… I think you’re going to hear discussions… about whether he should continue.” Van Jones, another former Obama adviser, said it had been painful to watch. “I love that guy,” he said of Biden. “He’s a good man. He loves his country. He’s doing the best he can… But I think there are a lot of people who are going to want to see him consider taking a different course now.”

“My job right now is to be really honest,” said former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill on MSNBC.  “[Joe Biden] had one thing he had to accomplish. And that was reassure America that he was up to the job at his age. And he failed at that tonight.” Democratic activist Jay Surdukowski told Politico: “Biden is toast.”

The real loser of last night’s debate was America. It was a tawdry spectacle: two elderly men trading insults, bickering over their golf handicap, and whether one of them had slept with a porn star. Trump is a convicted felon who attempted to overturn the results of the last election. True to form, he brazenly lied his way through the debate. He is not fit to be president.

But on the strength of last night’s performance, Biden is not the man to stop him. If you believe, as his campaign has continually insisted, that American democracy is on the line in this election, then the Democrats need a new nominee. Urgently.

[See also: Nato’s Mark Rutte era]

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