Please Joe (and Jill) Get Real

By now you’ve read opinions and analyses of Joe Biden’s debate performance. I add my views from the perspective of being almost exactly Biden’s age and having been a competent platform speaker for half a century.

Of this there’s no doubt: Biden tanked. He looked and sounded frail and uncertain. Where he should have countered Trump’s blasts of lies and invective with a clever mix of humor, anger and facts, he mumbled statistics. There was an appalling lack of energy and conviction in his voice. The debate was not a debate; it was a Sound and Light show in which style, posture, and tone were far more important than facts, and Biden either did not understand that or could not cope with it.

We’re now told that he had a bad cold. What BS! We’ve all had to play hurt from time to time. In perhaps the most important presentation of his life, Biden should’ve popped an Advil, sucked it up, and soldiered on. Laryngitis? Well, the next day he sounded just fine.

Poor debate prep? He and his staff had weeks to prepare. They knew Trump would direct a firehose of lies and insults at Biden with the hope of throwing him on the defensive and undermining his responses. As expected, Trump’s lies were so obvious that most of them should’ve been home run balls that Biden could knock out of the park with a mix of facts and nasty jabs, wrapped in Biden’s inimitable humor.

Surely the Biden team knew that what Trump hates most is to be laughed at, so Biden should’ve had plenty of jokes and one-liners ready to prompt unforced errors by humorless Trump. Biden could’ve had a field day, for example, continually referring to Trump as a convicted felon and using Jon Stewart-ish laugh lines to respond to absurd statements like Trump’s depiction of January 6 rioters as a few rude tourists. But Biden inexplicably failed to score any of these easy points.

The spine of Biden’s’ campaign has been to call out Trump as an existential threat to American democracy. But Biden barely mentioned this core theme and he did so without energy when he should’ve been hitting Trump over the head with it for 90 minutes, inserting it in every answer from immigration to childcare. Trump had no problem ignoring moderator questions and Biden should’ve done the same. His mention of swastikas was too polite. He should've called Trump a fascist and compared Trump’s own words and actions to those of Hitler and Mussolini.

Trump clearly understood that this evening was hardball theater and that his Alpha Male act would play. Biden didn’t get the memo. Absent a teleprompter and a venue he could control, Biden simply couldn’t handle even the format that his team had helped design, one matching him against a loud, tough, and unscrupulous opponent who would benefit from a Mad Max evening.

Biden allies have been quick to say that his performance was a one-off; he was simply having a bad night. I don’t buy that for a second. Neither does a growing chorus of other people who’ve had recent face-to-face dealings with Biden—including European leaders during his recent trip to the Continent—who confirm the problem 50 million Americans saw with their own eyes Thursday night. This is Old Joe now, and Old Joe isn’t the same as Young Joe and never will be again.

And it’s not just about this campaign. Even if Biden were to win, he’d be in charge of the country for four more years and he shouldn’t be. His first term will go down as one of the most important and consequential presidencies since FDR—he needs to quit while he’s ahead. He needs to accept the realities of his decline.

Biden should announce that he’s stepping down now and he should release his pledged delegates. Sure, that will make the months between now and November chaotic, but is that bad? The Democratic Party is blessed with remarkable bench strength and there are three or four senior leaders who have both President-level chops and a better chance to defeat Trump in November.

I think that an open Democratic convention is the GOP’s worst nightmare.

Replacing Biden will energize a Democratic base that’s been threatening to take a nap. And it will help diffuse the anger of many of the young people now railing about Biden’s policies toward Israel and Gaza.

Without Biden’s mental acuity to obsess about, MAGA Republicans have lost a leg of their stool. They’ve relied so long on a Joe Biden punching bag as the core of their electoral strategy that they’ve failed to develop policy options other than those deeply unpopular with a majority of voters.

A short campaign anchored in substantive discussions on the issues will favor the Democrats because a majority of voters overwhelmingly prefer Democratic policies to those of the radical right. And without attacks on “Sleepy Joe and his Crime Family” flooding the airwaves, Democrats will have an easier time persuading voters to take harder looks at Trump’s huge list of negatives, including his own bizarre mental processes, his mendacity, his criminality and the existential threat he poses to democracy.

Of course switching candidates is a gamble, but I think trusting that Joe Biden will run a smooth, energetic and error-free campaign for the next four months is a far greater gamble. I just don’t think he’s up to it. And I don’t think he’s up to another four years in the White House, even if he managed to win.

Please Joe (and Jill) get real.