Emily Maitlis: I was scared by Joe Biden’s debate performance

US President Joe Biden reacts as First Lady Jill Biden speaks during a post-debate rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 28, 2024. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)He meandered and he withered. He began one sentence, and ended up in another far, far distance phrase. His voice shrank - weedy and weak (Photo: Mandel NGAN / AFP / Getty)

How do you lose a debate to a 34-times convicted felon[1]?

How do you lose a debate to a man found liable for sexual abuse and fraud - in completely separate civil trials? How do you lose a debate[2] to a 78-year-old serial liar and fornicator, who refused to acknowledge the democratic will of American voters in 2020, and who threatens to do so again? How?

Last night, Joe Biden showed us how[3]. Let me explain how I came to this debate: live, in the middle of the night, after setting an alarm I almost didn't need to set. I have long resisted what I thought was a lazy narrative about Biden's years; that people who talked up the age of one candidate without mentioning the rambling senility of the other, just four years younger, were not being candid with themselves.

Let me admit that I have been surprised and impressed by Biden as a legislator: that his Inflation Reduction Act, which combined green energy, job creation and a quiet sense of protectionism for those Americans wary of China, was bold and brilliant. And let me now admit that even I felt scared by what I saw last night. Here was a man who'd prepped his figures and his talking points.

Who'd holed himself up with his advisers till he could recite and rebut. Who'd even put a golfing joke up his sleeve, should an opportunity ever arrive. Everyone has a plan, as Mike Tyson so memorably put it, until they get punched in the face.

Trouble is, Biden wasn't punched. He was barely tickled. And yet he fell apart on that stage with the whole world watching.

He meandered and he withered. He began one sentence, and ended up in another far, far distance phrase. His voice shrank - weedy and weak.

And the train of thought he lost halfway through his answer suddenly reappeared minutes later as the response to a totally different issue. It was, at times, like watching a toddler set out across a five-lane motorway: fatalistic and unbearable in equal measure. And Trump?

How was Trump? That's the question no one is really asking today. Trump was Trump. He lied and invented, he bragged and denied[4].

But no one even raised an eyebrow. Because he always does. That was factored in.

Biden's performance was not. The toughest watch of the night came when the former president turned to the moderator and said - without artifice - "I didn't really understand what he just said". It hit my solar plexus with a thud.

Because none of us had. Suddenly, the man we were agreeing with on that stage was Donald Trump. This was a bad, bad night for the Democratic campaign.

Saved only perhaps by the genius who made it happen so early. There is still time to replace Biden. The Democratic Convention, where the candidate is formally nominated, is still seven weeks away.

The delegates aren't appointed until after that moment. So the technical space is there for the party to act[5]. But here's why it may not: Biden sits in a unique position.

He is the only Democratic candidate ever to have beaten Trump. And he genuinely believes that's a position he cannot squander.

Britain is broken - because Nigel Farage broke it

In America there is no equivalent of Tory grandee Graham Brady. No committee of backbenchers.

No letters of no confidence. No menacing knock on the door. Only the president decides if the president wants to run for another term.

There is no party structure to bring him down. America has long struggled to articulate just how great the president's power should be. As I write, the Supreme Court is ruling on whether to allow Trump immunity from criminal prosecution for his role in the 6 January riots.

The court may well argue that failure to guarantee immunity for certain acts while in office could set a blueprint for how future presidents feel able to govern. What it tells us is just how sacred the space is - at least for this Supreme Court - around the role the US president inhabits. American presidents are not monarchs, but they are so much more than a PM.

They are not executors so much as avatars, a fantasy projection of everything Americans wish America to be. And that's why this debate mattered so much. Up there on that stage they want to see a leader who can project strength, integrity, competence and compassion to the entire world.

Not a bloke who looks like he could need the help of a kindly, unflappable nurse. There are plenty of potential leaders waiting in the wings - a whole generation of them, you might say. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Governor, would be an impressive choice.

She would be the first female president if elected, and is a governor with an impressive track record and a key swing state. Gavin Newsom, California's Governor, is another possibility, combative and loyal to Biden but driven and ambitious nonetheless. Raphael Warnock, the black preacher and Georgia Senator whose election delivered the Senate to Biden in his first term, would make an excellent VP to either.

The list goes on. But before that conversation can ever happen, Joe Biden and his wife Jill have to acknowledge one thing: that the candidate who in 2020 may have saved American democracy could well be the candidate who risks losing it if he stands again. After the debate voters were reflecting on the choice before them.

The words of one echo around my head: "When I think of Trump I think 'Hell no!' When I think of Biden I think 'oh no'." Democrats must know the risk that now lies before them: that anyone who saw that debate may well not give Biden a second chance to do it better. His favourite warning to voters has long been this one: "Don't compare me to the almighty.

Compare me to the alternative." But for many younger Democrats, the alternative is not Trump, it's their own sofa. They've seen this debate from their own homes.

They may simply choose not to leave them.

Emily Maitlis is a journalist, broadcaster and host of the podcast The News Agents

References

  1. ^ 34-times convicted felon (inews.co.uk)
  2. ^ a debate (inews.co.uk)
  3. ^ Joe Biden showed us how (inews.co.uk)
  4. ^ He lied and invented, he bragged and denied (inews.co.uk)
  5. ^ the technical space is there for the party to act (inews.co.uk)