Tue, Jul

Worse Than You Can Imagine, a Debate Quandary


COURT OF THE LAND - The Supreme Court gives Donald Trump immunity for whatever he did as president. Here's what law professor Paul Campos has to say about the latest decision: "It's not only worse than you imagined, it's worse than you can imagine. This is worse than Dred Scott. This is the darkest day in the long and infamous history of this institution. Richard Nixon's claim that if the president does it it's not illegal is now official Supreme Court doctrine." 

There may be a little wiggle room for prosecutions based on actions that are not strictly within the purview of the presidency, but this decision means that the January 6 case that was filed in federal court in D.C. will have to be pre-litigated as to whether Trump's actions were presidential or outside his presidential authority. And this guarantees that Trump gets to go through the election before the trial that might not happen. 

Trump's ability to corrupt the federal judiciary has been at least partly achieved, as this decision, the Dodd decision, and the actions of the federal judge in Miami make clear. 

It's been a long weekend 

Between Thursday night and Monday morning, the big news was Biden's debate disaster. It's still up there at the top of the list, except for this one point: The Supreme Court decision making presidents into kings ought to be one more reason for the voters to worry about a new Trump presidency. 

The Debate and the Aftermath 

Top Democrats say that anyone can have a bad debate. This was not a bad debate. A bad debate is when the candidate gets caught up on a trick question and gives a politically damaging answer. "If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you still be against the death penalty?" The candidate gave an answer that may have cost him the election, but he was awake and speaking clearly when he made it. That's a "bad debate." 

This was something else. One colleague described it as "mental illness (Trump) vs physical decline (Biden)." At the time, I was wondering whether Joe Biden was having a stroke or, at best, was over-prepped and totally sleep deprived. It may not matter, because -- as everyone with a critical bone keeps saying -- you can't unsee what you just saw. 

And what we saw was a guy who seemed easily confused, had trouble putting a whole English sentence together, and kept closing his eyes. 

It turns out that the semi-official explanation is now pretty much what I guessed: The candidate had been over-practiced and didn't get enough sleep. You might compare it to going into the night before the final exam and staying up all night cramming. With only half a brain, the candidate had trouble putting together all the material he had been coached on. 


Where to go from here? 

There are two possibilities, exactly opposite. The first is to hope that Biden can get past this debate, even though the bulk of watchers consider it to have been a disaster. A couple of snap polls taken after the debate showed Biden doing as well as he had done coming into it, and perhaps a percentage point better. 

It is barely possible that a substantial number of viewers saw through Donald Trump's incessant bragging and lying and found him just as distasteful as they found Biden questionable. 

This is a possible strategy, but pretty much what I have been calling the "whistling past the graveyard" approach. 

It was a multi-faceted disaster 

Let's consider some of the important points that were missed outright by Mr. Sleepy. 

First, given the way this debate was trumpeted as the most important in recent history, it was the best available opportunity to confront Republican supporters with the argument that they are living in a bubble -- that by watching and listening only to Fox and its right-wing allies, they are missing out on reality. In short, they are being fed a diet of lies and distortions, everything from global warming to the situation on the border. This opportunity was available, but it was dropped. 

Second, there was the question about global warming, a nice fat hanging curve right over the middle of the plate. When Trump first ran for president, he claimed that he was not convinced about global warming because he didn't think the science was there. It's a remarkably obtuse answer from somebody who is as ignorant of the infrared spectrum -- and presumably every other part of science -- as I am of classical Greek verbs. The right wing have been selling their brand of global warming denial for the past 30 years, and we've thereby lost a lot of time to do something. Biden had a chance to define the modern political approach to global warming even as he made mockery of Trump's deference to the oil and coal companies. Global warming is now real -- more than obviously real -- and Biden failed to make the argument. 

Third, Biden had a chance to offer a cogent response to Trump's signature piece, which is his screaming fit about our being overrun by terrorists and other bad folks at the border. There are plenty of statistics showing that whatever else the situation is, it's not what Trump says it is. If nothing else -- and this would have been a strong argument in the hands of a non-somnambulant speaker -- Biden could have made a clear argument about the bipartisan bill that was recently negotiated, the bill which the House Republicans quietly killed because it would have undercut Trump's position. And the bill would have undercut Trump by doing something for the American people and for national stability. Instead, Trump was allowed to get away with belittling the bill. 

If you were to look carefully at the content of Biden's answers, you would notice that there were some points being made. The problem was that Biden was not able to deliver those points through clear, complete sentences much of the time. 

Biden actually won on the abortion question 

Trump probably did as much harm as it was possible to do to his own campaign when he doubled down on his ownership of the recent Supreme Court decision to reverse the Roe v. Wade decision. Biden got off his best line of the night when he stated simply that he would restore Roe v. Wade. 

This may actually be the reason that Biden held his own in those two most recent polls. (The alternative is that Biden will be found to have lost support in subsequent polls.) 

Alternative Two: Doing the Unthinkable 

It is true that the Democratic Party insiders have been circling the wagons and trying to come out with a unified response to support the Biden candidacy. They offer every sort of reason and rationalization. I do understand what they are trying to say. I can remember when even a small change (the replacement of Vice-Presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton) was disastrous to the McGovern presidential campaign. 

But it is painfully obvious that this situation is different. It's not a question of whether the VP was wisely chosen, but whether the president -- the guy who is supposed to take those emergency telephone calls at 2 AM -- is up to the task. 

So suppose Biden were to make the decision to drop out of the race.  Who would replace him, and how would this be accomplished? 

Let's start with a bit of advice given by Chuck Todd on Sunday's episode of Meet the Press. Todd said that there is no other candidate than Vice President Kamala Harris, and we should be prepared to deal with that immediately. I think Todd is coming from an old and debatable position. It's essentially the conventional wisdom which demands that there is total loyalty to the pecking order. Todd's pronouncement also seems to be based on the idea that failing to move Harris up a notch would anger a large number of woman voters. 

There is a counterargument, which is that Harris is not particularly popular with the large mass of American voters. There is the other argument that when she ran for president in 2019, she did not do particularly well. In fact she dropped out of the race before Iowa. If electoral legitimacy is the issue, Harris has not really shown any. 

You might say that inasmuch as Joe Biden is being asked to take one for the team by dropping out as a presidential candidate, Harris could take one for the team by agreeing to remain as the VP candidate. 

It could happen. 

I begin with this discussion of Harris because of a comment made by a colleague when we were discussing the Biden debate performance and the possibility of Biden being replaced. 

Who would you replace him with? 

"Gavin Newsom." 

It's an interesting proposal, but there is the pesky problem that Harris is from the same state as Newsom. She could theoretically change her state residence (the same way Dick Cheney changed from Texas back to Wyoming in order to run with George W. Bush) to deal with Constitutional limitations. 

There is also the problem that several polls which matched Newsom against Trump in a theoretical presidential contest show Newsom behind. But these are interesting times (as the saying goes) and if we are to consider alternatives to a Biden candidacy, then Newsom has obvious positives, including his early attempts to challenge the right-wing nonsense coming from Ron DeSantis and others. 

Yes, Newsom would have a chance against Trump, as long as the Democratic voters and the bulk of us independents don't form a circular firing squad. 

Cold Hard Politics 

There is finally the question of whether Newsom or Harris would do well in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Either one would immediately be seen as an outsider, very much unlike Biden. Neither of the Californians would be able to talk about Scranton very much. 

On the other hand, either candidate solves one problem, the one that has been referred to in the press as the "double haters." These are the voters who didn't want either of the present candidates to run, and are annoyed that they are being asked to make that choice. Give them a candidate who is 56 (Newsom) or 59 (Harris), and at least the age problem is settled. 

Yes, we do live in interesting times, and there are just 4 months and a few days until the next presidential election. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]).