Age may be election’s defining issue as Trump and Biden count down to TV debate

WASHINGTON DC – Ten days away from the first – and perhaps only – television debate this year between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the two wizened veterans of the race to the White House are psyching each other out like a couple of ancient prize-fighters.

Some Washington commentators are still dubious that the 90-minute 27 June encounter hosted by CNN will really happen, or that a second scheduled debate on ABC will take place in September. But neither candidate yet evinces any sign of dropping out. And on Friday, Biden – channelling his inner Mohammed Ali – tweaked his rival with a birthday greeting designed to get under Trump’s skin.

“Happy 78th birthday, Donald,” wrote the President on social media. “Take it from one old guy to another: age is just a number. But an election is a choice.” The posting was accompanied by a fast-cut video showing Biden in a variety of statesman-like poses, with Trump depicted like a glowering, overweight goon.

Trump has spent the last week insisting that Biden, 81, is a “brain-dead zombie” whose conduct at the G7 summit last week meant “millions of people around the world woke up to headlines about Crooked Joe Biden’s cognitive display on full decline”.

Certainly, many American voters woke up to those headlines on Friday morning. The New York Post, in a shameful front-page spread, blasted Biden as the “Meander In Chief”, saying that the President engaged in “confused wanderings” during a skydiving demonstration in Italy on Thursday. Fox News and other right-wing outlets engaged in similar claims, based on a series of viral images suggesting Biden was lost and confused during the event. In fact, the images were deliberately cropped to remove evidence of a second group of parachutists with whom Biden was actively engaging.

age may be election’s defining issue as trump and biden count down to tv debate

French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pose for a photo at a flags ceremony with the skydiving display team at Borgo Egnazia Golf Club San Domenico during the G7 Summit (Photo: Marco Ravagli/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

“The Murdoch outlets are so desperate to distract from POTUS’ record that they just lie”, wrote White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates on Twitter. With justification, he accused right-wing media of using “an artificially narrow frame” to hide the truth from voters, and claimed the images were “selectively edited” and “cheap fakes”.

But by the time the White House hit back at the misinformation, the damage was already done. The images spread across pro-Trump media outlets like wildfire, building on earlier misleading visuals to suggest that Biden is losing his marbles. A video taken at D-Day commemorations last week in Normandy purported to show a hesitant Biden attempting to sit down in a chair that didn’t exist. In fact, the chair was present, but can only be seen when the video runs at length and Biden sits down in it.

To be sure, the President has had his slow moments over the past couple of weeks. At a holiday concert at the White House earlier this month, Biden appeared to freeze while revellers around him – including Vice President Kamala Harris – enthusiastically danced and sang along with the music. At a 4 June event where Biden announced a crackdown on illegal migration into the United States, he appeared unable to find his way out of the East Room of the White House until an aide came to his assistance.

So the stakes in the upcoming debate could not be higher. Biden – who took the initiative to accept CNN’s invitation before Trump – has no margin for error. He must show that he is not only in command of the country, but in control of his faculties as well.

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Trump will seek to make Biden’s cognitive abilities a central thrust of the campaign. But he will need to prove that he can get past the generalities he voices on the campaign trail (the country is “going to hell”, the last election was “rigged”, the Bidens are “corrupt”) and answer potentially probing questions about his own plans. Will he accept the outcome of the election if he loses? What guarantees – if any – will he offer about safeguarding American democracy? And how can Americans trust him, given that he is now a convicted felon?

The rules for the debate appear to favour Biden (one reason why some observers still question whether the event will really take place). There will be no live audience, and the candidates’ microphones will be muted, except when questions are directly posed to them. That could leave Trump on the back foot, given the proclivity he demonstrated four years ago for bluster and interruptions whenever Biden spoke.

Biden, back from Europe and a weekend dash to California for a fund-raising event with George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jimmy Kimmel, is expected to hole up at Camp David this week for several days of debate prep. The Trump campaign says their man is going to “wing it”, though that may not be entirely true. There are reports of rehearsals taking place at the Republican Party’s headquarters in Washington last Thursday, with Trump in active attendance.

However by this point, with a mere 10 days to go, there may only be so much the two candidates can do.

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