The 2024 campaign in a day: Biden’s acuity vs. Trump’s alleged criminality

A single day rarely sums up the fundamental issues of a presidential campaign, but Thursday's events came close. For 12 hours, the 2024 election was clearly presented as a choice between a candidate accused of criminal misconduct and subversion of democracy, and another battling public concerns about his age and mental acuity.

That's one reason why most Americans tell pollsters they are unhappy with the likely prospect of former President Donald Trump and President Biden being the two nominees. Both are old and given to verbal gaffes. Both are disliked by most Americans. Both seem to represent the past more than the future. Still, they're heading into another 2020 election, and by November, unless something changes, voters will have to choose.

With Trump heading toward the Republican nomination and the Biden campaign eager to focus on November choices, it has been clear for many weeks that the 2024 general election would be the longest in history. After Thursday's events, it also became clear, as if it hadn't been the case before, that this campaign would run almost entirely on negative ground, a daunting prospect for an already bitter electorate.

Negativity is still Trump’s way – a campaign of invective, grievance, victimization and insults. But Democrats increasingly agree that Biden's best hope of retaining office must go beyond emphasizing accomplishments. Instead, he will be asked to attack, to draw contrasts with Trump as sharply and relentlessly as possible, while projecting an aura of fitness and competence to counter deep concerns about his age and acuity.

Thursday could have been the day the Biden campaign gained political traction. It started at the Supreme Court, where the justices heard oral arguments on whether Trump should be disqualified from voting in Colorado. The larger question looming over the proceedings was whether the former president was an insurrectionist.

It is extraordinary that someone who did what Trump did in the aftermath of the 2020 election – who did what he did before the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, who continues to falsely claim that the election was stolen and talk of a second term in retaliation — fits into what now appears to be a race against Biden. In fact, many recent polls give Trump a limited advantage.

Hours after the judges finished questioning lawyers for Trump and the state of Colorado, a second shoe dropped. The Justice Department released the special counsel's report on Biden's retention and handling of classified documents after he left the vice presidency in 2017.

Fundamentally, the report was useful to Biden. Special counsel Robert K. Hur concluded that, despite what Biden had done, he would not be prosecuted. In the report, he drew contrasts between how Biden and his team had handled the entire issue and how Trump had handled the same issue. Trump, of course, was indicted for mishandling classified documents and obstructing government efforts to recover them — all things considered, an apparent victory for Biden.

In the end, however, the picture was completely different – ​​overall, a bad day for the president. As it turned out, the justices generally sidestepped the issue of Trump and the insurrection. Instead, they cast serious doubts about the Colorado Supreme Court's decision to exclude Trump from the ballot. Even some of the Court's most liberal justices indicated in their questions that they believed Colorado had overstepped its bounds. The Supreme Court justices appeared poised to rule, potentially with a strong majority, in favor of Trump.

Far more embarrassing, however, were the damaging details of Hur's report of his cognitive problems during five hours of interviews last October and earlier with a ghostwriter working on Biden's memoir, “Promise Me, Dad.” for Biden. The special prosecutor painted a portrait of an elderly president suffering from severe memory problems, including forgetting when he was vice president and the year his beloved son, Beau, died.

The Hur Report's lawyer concluded that even if what Biden did regarding the classified documents warranted an indictment after he left the presidency, a jury would be reluctant to convict “a sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a bad memory “. The special prosecutor's decision not to prosecute Biden could not have had a more damning political impact.

Biden's advisers protested, saying the findings and details about Biden's memory problems were gratuitous and beyond the scope of the special counsel's investigation. Democrats attacked Hur as a Republican seeking to help Trump by inserting irrelevant material damaging to Biden. Nonetheless, the report stoked the already smoldering age problem facing the president and has brought new attention to a weakness that Biden and his team have struggled to overcome.

On Thursday evening, the White House hastily convened a press conference in which Biden sought to forcefully refute the special prosecutor's report. He was obviously angry at Hur's characterizations and particularly upset that Hur even addressed the issue of his son's death. As for his general characterization in the report, Biden said: “I mean well, I'm an old man and I know what I'm doing. » Later, when asked about his memory, he said: “My memory is good. »

Biden suggested the issue of his age was only sparked by the press; in fact, public polling and plenty of anecdotal evidence show that it concerns many Americans. He also mistook the Egyptian president for the Mexican president, the third time in a week he had made a mistake in identifying a foreign leader.

Earlier, he told the public about conversations he had as president with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand, both of whom died before Biden took office, Kohl in 2017 and Mitterrand. in 1996. He confused Kohl with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mitterrand with current French President Emmanuel Macron.

Trump, of course, regularly makes similar mistakes. White House officials were quick to note that Trump had recently confused Nikki Haley, his latest challenger for the Republican Party nomination, with Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic Speaker of the House – something Haley reminded crowds at her rallies as she tries to make the case that Trump and Biden are past their prime.

It is perhaps an oversimplification and a disservice to candidates to suggest that the election is a choice between someone who has violated constitutional norms while in office and someone who is struggling to overcome the fears, even among those who will support him in November, about his ability to handle the stress of the presidency until the mid-1980s.

The election will not be free of other questions and choices. Biden and Trump present a stark contrast on how they would approach the question of America's role in the world. Trump has appointed judges who helped end the constitutional right to abortion; Biden will defend the right to abortion. Trump threatens mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. Biden is struggling to control the influx of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Biden will prioritize safeguarding democracy and democratic institutions against the threat of authoritarianism.

But at the center of it all will be questions of character, skill and fitness. The cascading events of Thursday made that clear.

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