Biden stumbles; Trump establishes dominance in presidential debate | World News - Hindustan Times
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Biden stumbles; Trump establishes dominance in presidential debate

Jun 28, 2024 12:39 PM IST

In a 90-minute debate on CNN, Trump contrasted what he painted to be his presidential record of safe borders, a thriving economy and an America respected by the world with Biden’s alleged failure

Former American President Donald J Trump stamped his political dominance in the US presidential elections as President Joe Biden’s age-related vulnerabilities came into sharp focus in an unprecedented presidential debate where the two candidates traded personal insults, accused the other of being the worst president in history, and fought over domestic and foreign policy.

On the substantive elements, Trump blamed Biden for an increase in illegal immigration. (AP photo)
On the substantive elements, Trump blamed Biden for an increase in illegal immigration. (AP photo)

In a 90-minute debate on CNN on Thursday, Trump contrasted what he painted to be his presidential record of safe borders, a thriving economy and an America respected by the world with Biden’s alleged failure on all these fronts. Biden contrasted what he painted to be his record on employment creation, infrastructure, and an America standing strong with allies against adversaries with Trump’s pro-rich economic policy, anti-abortion social policy, and a foreign policy that antagonised allies. Biden also termed Trump a convicted felon and questioned his morals.

But beyond the substance and barbs, the debate hinged on how the two candidates addressed voter concerns about their personal traits. In the case of Biden, these hovered around his age and fitness given that the President, already the oldest in American history, would be 86 by the end of his second term if re-elected.

But Biden’s wobbly walk-up to the stage, hoarse voice (the President later said he had a sore throat), frequently meandering responses, incomplete sentences, confusion on figures, and inability to effectively defend his record and counter Trump, even when the former president was engaged in falsehoods, left many, including Democrats, startled. An example of this came early in the debate when Biden struggled to finish a point about his economic record, paused and then ended it with, “We finally beat Medicare”, a point that had no connection to the preceding sentence nor have any internal logic on its own. Trump immediately latched on it to say, “Yes, he beat Medicare to death”.

Also Read: Trump slams ‘manchurian’ Biden’s military policies as ‘insane’, claims China ‘killing US as a country’

When asked about his concerns about his age later in the debate, Biden said he had spent most his career being criticised for being the youngest one around and spoke of his competence and record. In response to concerns about his age, Trump, who will be 82 by the end of his second term if re-elected, claimed that he felt fitter than he had done 25 years ago, and said that he had aced cognitive tests and won club championships. In another unusual moment, both candidates then engaged in a debate on who was a better golfer.

Vice President Kamala Harris later acknowledged in an interview that Biden had a “slow start” but then claimed he had a “strong finish”, and asked that he be judged for his record in office and not 90 minutes on the debate stage. A CNN flash poll suggested that 67% voters who watched the debate believed Trump had won. News reports in the American media suggested that a debate had broken out in Democratic ranks — among Congressional leaders, strategists, donors and fundraisers — about whether it was time for the party to rethink its nominee and persuade Biden to step aside. Even sympathetic columnists began asking the President to withdraw from the race. Biden rejected the premise and in a brief conversation with reporters at an Atlanta waffle house after the debate, and said, “It is hard to debate a liar.” The party’s convention is scheduled in the third week of August in Chicago where delegates will formally pick a nominee.

On the substantive elements, Trump blamed Biden for an increase in illegal immigration and accused him of allowing people from “prisons and mental institutions” to flood America — Biden rejected the charge and pointed out that Trump had torpedoed a bipartisan border security legislation in the US Congress since he did not want Democrats to get credit.

Trump held Biden responsible for persistent inflation, while Biden blamed Trump for handing him an economy that had been decimated. Biden also took credit for job creation and manufacturing investments, while slamming Trump for his tax cuts to the rich and warning that his proposed tariffs will increase costs for the middle class.

Trump said America had become a “third world nation”, and called the withdrawal from Afghanistan the “most embarrassing day” in the history of the US while Biden claimed credit for being the only president “in this century” under whom US troops weren’t dying on foreign soil. Trump drew a direct line between Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan to Vladimir Putin being encouraged to attack Ukraine, claiming this would never have happened if he was president. He also claimed he would end the war before he took office next January. Biden warned that, under Trump, Russia would first have its way in Ukraine and then come for other European nations, including NATO members, and this is what would lead to a wider war.

Trump evaded questions on his specific role on January 6, 2021, blamed the security failure on the then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and called those who marched to Capitol Hill to block the certification of results “patriotic”. Despite being asked repeatedly, Trump refused to unequivocally commit to accepting the results of the 2024 election and said he would do so if it was “free and fair and legal and good”. Biden questioned Trump’s commitment to democracy by referring to the former president’s encouragement of the mob that proceeded to the Hill on January 6 and lack of any action for three hours even as the mob attacked the Capitol.

Biden slammed Trump’s judicial appointments that led to a reversal of the national protections on abortion, and alleged that Trump would sign a national ban on abortion; Trump claimed that the Supreme Court had restored the right to decide on abortion to states and that’s what he would support.

The debate was unprecedented in many ways. It was the earliest a presidential debate has happened in an election year, largely because both candidates -- Biden and Trump -- were dominant in their parties and they became presumptive nominees earlier than usual. The two candidates decided to bypass the commission that organised presidential debates, and instead directly dealt with each other and agreed on debate rules with the relevant television networks. This was also the first debate between a serving and former president in what is already a unique election given the age of both the candidates, and Trump’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the last election and his criminal conviction.

Jake Tapper and Dana Bush of CNN moderated the debate where each candidate was allotted two minutes to respond to a question, a minute for rebuttal, and an extra minute based on the discretion of the moderators -- and the mic was turned off beyond the stipulated time limit. There was also no live audience. The format was expected to be a struggle for the generally indisciplined Trump, but he largely kept focused and the time limit forced him to keep his responses more crisp than usual.

Biden walked into the debate confronting grim news. A New York Times-Sienna poll on Wednesday showed that among resigned voters, 48% said they would vote for Trump while 42% opted for Biden; while 35% strongly or somewhat approved of how he was performing as president, 61% strongly or somewhat disapproved of his performance. A Washington Post poll showed Trump leading in five of the six swing states, with more voters even trusting Trump to deal with threats to democracy than they trusted Biden, who has made democracy a key issue. After the debate, the grim news may have just got more grim for Biden.

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