U.S Election

‘You’re the sucker, you’re the loser’: 90 miserable minutes of Biden v Trump

Author: Editors Desk Source: The Guardian
June 28, 2024 at 10:32
‘The mutual animosity and contempt between the men exuded through the screen.’ Illustration: Sam Kerr/The Guardian
‘The mutual animosity and contempt between the men exuded through the screen.’ Illustration: Sam Kerr/The Guardian

Ninety miserable minutes of Biden v Trump

That sickening thud you heard was jaws hitting the floor. That queasy sound you heard was hearts sinking into boots. That raspy noise you heard was a US president embodying what felt like the last gasp of the ailing republic.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

The first US presidential debate in Atlanta on Thursday was the night that Democrats went from “Don’t panic!” to “OK, time to panic!” After months of preparation and expectation, they got to the altar and suddenly realised they were marrying the wrong man.

In 90 miserable minutes, Joe Biden achieved two things that had seemed impossible. He lived down to expectations that were already rock bottom. And he managed to make Donald Trump sound almost coherent. Trump did not win the debate but Biden certainly lost it.

There was a suitably funereal silence as the president, wearing blue tie and flag pin, and Trump, wearing red tie and flag pin, entered CNN’s red, white and blue studio. This was the first presidential debate without an audience since John F Kennedy v Richard Nixon in 1960 (those two candidates had a combined age of 90; this time they had a combined age of 159).

Journalists in Atlanta were forced to watch on TV like everyone else. But the mutual animosity and contempt between the men exuded through the screen. It was clear neither was even thinking about shaking the other’s hand.

US elections 2024: a guide to the first presidential debate

Democrats had been lulled into a false sense of security by Biden’s high energy performance at the State of the Union address. They expected Superman again. Instead they got Clark Kent in his dotage.

The crisis was clear almost as soon soon as Biden opened his mouth. His voice was hoarse and hard to hear. Clear your throat, man! His team later claimed that he had a cold. Or had he over-prepared?

Early on, he bumbled: “We have 1,000 trillionaires in America – I mean billionaires in America.” Then: “ ... making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the – with – with – with the Covid. Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with ... ”

His voice trailed away. “Look, if – we finally beat Medicare.”

Trump pounced: “Well, he’s right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.”

Trump is only three years younger, but is a creature of television. When Biden spoke, the former president, hair hovering above his head like a shiny cloud, could be seen frowning, pursing his lips or revving up for a reply. But when Trump spoke, the white-haired Biden stared into the middle distance, his mouth open, looking as feeble and frail as the democracy that now rests on his shoulders.

It was a Greek tragedy because the Biden campaign pushed for this debate, the earliest in history, to “drag Trump into Americans’ living rooms” and wake them up to the threat. They set rules, including muted microphones and no studio audience, that seemed to backfire and work to his opponent’s advantage.

The restrictions helped Trump stay relatively controlled and disciplined, at least by his own epically low standards. He did not constantly interrupt as he did in the first debate in 2020. He did not play to a crowd and get carried away with unhinged stories about sharks.

Not that Trump should be let off the hook. This was an unwatchable debate between an old man who could not finish a sentence and an old man who could not tell the truth. It was Rip Van Winkle versus Pinocchio.

Biden failed to push back on Trump’s lies. But so did CNN’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. This gave the impression of Trump’s falsehoods carrying just as much weight as Biden’s facts, especially to viewers who are just tuning in to the election. Expect Democrats to use this argument to deflect attention from their own man’s failings.

More than an hour after the debate, when most people had turned off and gone to bed, CNN factchecker Daniel Dale came on air and said Biden made nine false claims while Trump made 30. Trump’s included some Democratic states wanting people to execute babies after birth; the US currently having the biggest budget deficit ever; Biden getting a lot of money from China; no terrorist attacks during Trump’s presidency; Biden wanting to quadruple taxes; the US providing way more aid to Ukraine than Europe; Nancy Pelosi turning down Trump’s offer of 10,000 national guard troops on January 6; “ridiculous fraud” in the 2020 election; Nato going out of business before he became president; Biden indicting him; his tax cut being the biggest in history.

First impressions – and viral clips – are everything, so voters will forget that, as the debate wore on, Biden gradually became stronger on style and substance. He went for Trump’s character: “The only person on this stage who is a convicted felon is this man I’m looking at right now.”

Angry and glowering, Biden insisted: “My son was not a loser, was not a sucker. You’re the sucker, you’re the loser.”

And again: “How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for molesting a woman in public, for doing a whole range of things, of having sex with a porn star on the night – and while your wife was pregnant? I mean, what are you talking about? You have the morals of an alley cat.”

Trump shot back: “I didn’t have sex with a porn star, number one.” An immortal line, never before uttered in a presidential debate. Carve it in marble!Biden and Trump debated which of them is the worst president in history. And which is the better golfer. Trump boasted: “I just won two club championships, not even senior, two regular club championships. To do that, you have to be quite smart and you have to be able to hit the ball a long way. And I do it. He doesn’t do it. He can’t hit a ball 50 yards. He challenged me to a golf match. He can’t hit a ball 50 years.”

Biden retorted: “Look, I’d be happy to have a driving contest with him. I got my handicap, which, when I was vice-president, down to a six. And by the way, I told you before I’m happy to play golf if you carry your own bag. Think you can do it?”

Trump: “That’s the biggest lie that he’s a six handicap, of all.”

Biden: “I was eight handicap.”

Trump: “Yeah.”

Biden: “Eight, but I have – you know how many ... ”

Trump: “I’ve seen your swing, I know your swing.””

As Bash tried to interject, Trump said: “Let’s not act like children.” Biden shot back: “You are a child.”

Tellingly, once the horror show was over, it was Trump’s surrogates who flooded the “spin zone” at the media centre. Standing on a bright red carpet on what is normally a basketball court, former housing secretary Ben Carson said of Biden: “I really felt sorry for him. He struggled to come up with answers. He was trying to remember the things that they’d told him.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said: “I think President Trump was strong and coherent and I think President Biden was weak and confused most most of the time. What started out as a policy debate is turned into a capability debate ... It’s pretty hard to believe that President Biden can continue in this job.”

After a while, Biden’s surrogates emerged, including California governor Gavin Newsom and his beaming smile. It is still highly, highly unlikely he will be the Democratic nominee in November. But a little less unlikely than it used to be.

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