One of the depressing features of the current election is the mounting evidence that the two major-party candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, are not just deficient men to start with, but — with Trump just turned 74 and Biden turning 78 in November — that neither man is as mentally sharp as he once was. If you watch video of them talking today and video of them talking 30 years ago when they were in their forties, the contrast is striking. Both were already full of blarney and blather back then, but at least it was not so obviously halting and disjointed. We’ve reached the point now where Trump is bragging about passing a cognitive test for dementia and challenging Biden to do the same. Have our expectations for American leadership really gotten this low? At least Kanye West, who seems to be having something of a manic episode in public, can sometimes get from one end of a sentence to the other without getting lost along the way.
Each man has his own issues. In Biden’s case, one of the things that is really noticeable lately is how often he stumbles verbally even in taped advertisements shot and paid for by his campaign. The defense newly raised in 2019-20 for this is to point out that Biden overcame a youthful stutter in the early 1950s, and that this still infects his speech patterns today. Here’s the thing, though: Nobody had to make this argument for Biden when he ran for the Senate in 1972, or when he ran for president in 1988 and 2008, or when he chaired the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in 1990, or when he ran for vice president and debated Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012. The Biden we saw throughout those years was a gaffe machine, in part for having a reputation for running his mouth far faster than his brain could keep up with. His penchant for never-ending opening statements at Senate hearings was legendary. He prevailed over Ryan in debate entirely by the force of his verbal ability to shout over Ryan’s answers, cutting him off whenever he called Biden out on anything. In the 2020 debates, Biden repeatedly cut off his own answers to comply with time limits and avoid interruptions. Biden was always hard to fact-check because of his ability to generate newly-minted fabrications on the fly at high velocity, many of which were new to the listener, such as this notorious fusillade of inventions about his intellect and academic attainments:
Biden just is not the same man anymore. True, the Trump team seems to be unwisely going overboard to lower expectations for Biden in advance of the fall debates, knowing full well that their own man is not exactly Demosthenes. But you can’t watch Biden today and fail to notice the decline — which seems to extend to the decline in his ability to master a stutter he suppressed 60 years ago.
Trump, at least, has one thing going for him: If he ever left the job (voluntarily or otherwise), he’d be replaced with the reassuring, experienced presence of Mike Pence. Biden will face a challenge in selecting a running mate of whom anyone but the most hardened partisans and zealots could say the same.