The 2024 campaign in a day: Biden’s competence vs. Trump’s alleged criminality
A single day rarely encapsulates the fundamental issues of a presidential campaign, but the events of Thursday came close. Over a period of 12 hours, Election 2024 was vividly displayed as a choice between one candidate accused of criminal misconduct and the subversion of democracy, and another battling public concerns about his age and mental acuity.
These are among the reasons most Americans tell pollsters they are unhappy with the likely prospect of former president Donald Trump and President Biden as the two nominees. Both are elderly and given to verbal gaffes. Both are disliked by most Americans. Both seem to represent the past more than the future. Yet they are hurtling toward a rerun of the 2020 election, and by November, unless something changes, voters will have to choose.
With Trump cruising toward the Republican nomination and the Biden campaign eager to shift the focus to November’s choices, it has been clear for many weeks that the 2024 general election would be the longest in history. After Thursday’s events, it was also clear, as if it weren’t before, that this campaign will be fought almost entirely on negative turf, a dispiriting prospect for an already sour electorate.
Negativity is always Trump’s way — a campaign of invective, grievance, victimhood and insult. But there is a growing chorus among Democrats that Biden’s best hope of retaining office must go beyond accentuating accomplishments. Instead, he will be urged 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 might have turned out as a day when the Biden campaign gained some political high ground. It began at the Supreme Court, where the justices heard oral arguments about whether Trump should be disqualified from the ballot 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 ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, who still claims falsely that the election was stolen and who speaks of a second term as retribution — is in what now seems to be a toss-up race against Biden. In fact, many recent polls show Trump with a narrow edge.
Hours after the justices concluded their questioning of the 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.
On the basics, the report was helpful 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 whole matter and how Trump dealt with the same issue. Trump, of course, has been indicted on a charge of mishandling classified documents and for obstructing efforts by the government to get them back — all told, a seeming win for Biden.
By the end of the day, however, the picture looked entirely different — overall, a bad day for the president. The justices, as it turned out, generally skirted the issue of Trump and insurrection. Instead, they raised serious doubts about the ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court to keep Trump off the ballot. Even some of the court’s more liberal justices indicated through their questions that they thought Colorado had overstepped. The Supreme Court justices appeared headed to a decision, with potentially a strong majority, in Trump’s favor.
Far more troublesome for Biden, however, were the damaging details in Hur’s report about his cognitive issues during five hours of interviews last October and earlier with a ghostwriter working on Biden’s memoir, “Promise Me, Dad.” The special counsel drew a portrait of an elderly president beset with serious memory problems, including forgetting when he served as vice president and the year his beloved son Beau had died.
Hur’s report counsel concluded that, even if what Biden had done with respect to the classified documents warranted an indictment after he leaves the presidency, a jury would be reluctant to convict “a sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” The special counsel’s decision not to prosecute Biden could not have been more damning in its political impact.
Biden advisers protested that the conclusions and details about Biden’s memory problems were gratuitous and went beyond the purview of the special counsel investigation. Democrats attacked Hur as a Republican out to help Trump by inserting non-germane material harmful to Biden. Nonetheless, the report stoked the already smoldering age issue facing the president and generated another round of attention on a weakness that Biden and his team have struggled to overcome.
On Thursday evening, the White House hastily called a news conference in which Biden sought to forcefully rebut the special counsel’s report. He was palpably angry with Hur’s characterizations and especially upset that Hur had even touched on the issue of his son’s death. As for the overall characterization of him in the report, Biden said, “I am well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing.” Later when pressed about his memory, he asserted, “My memory is fine.”
Biden suggested that the issue of his age was one prompted only by the press; in fact, public polling and lots of anecdotal evidence show that this is on the minds of many Americans. He also confused the president of Egypt with the president of Mexico, the third time in a week when he had made a mistake identifying a foreign leader.
Earlier, he had told audiences of conversations he had as president with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand, who both died before Biden took office, Kohl in 2017 and Mitterrand in 1996. He had mixed up Kohl with former German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mitterrand with current French President Emmanuel Macron.
Trump, of course, routinely makes similar mistakes of his own. White House officials were quick to note that Trump recently confused Nikki Haley, his remaining challenger for the GOP nomination, with Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic speaker of the House — something Haley reminds crowds of at her rallies as she tries to argue that both Trump and Biden are past their prime.
Perhaps it is an oversimplification and a disservice to the candidates to suggest that the election is a choice between someone who has violated constitutional norms while in office and someone who struggles to overcome fears, even among people who will back him in November, about his ability to handle the stresses of the presidency into his mid-80s.
The election will not be free of other issues and choices. Biden and Trump present a sharp contrast on how they would approach the question of America’s role in the world. Trump appointed justices who helped end the constitutional right to abortion; Biden will champion abortion rights. Trump threatens massive deportations of undocumented immigrants. Biden struggles to bring the surge of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border under control. Biden will prioritize safeguarding democracy and democratic institutions against the threat of authoritarianism.
At the center of all this, however, will be issues of character, competence and fitness. Thursday’s cascading events made that clear.