Thursday was a strange day in American politics, which means, I guess, it was like every other day.
And yet, somehow worse.
On Thursday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court justices, to no one’s surprise, made clear they would do whatever is necessary to reject the fairly solid constitutional case for kicking Donald Trump off the Colorado ballot. The expected ruling will be a win for pragmatic concerns about the state of our politics over 14th Amendment constitutional concerns about the danger of electing insurrectionists.
Then late Thursday afternoon, a special counsel investigating Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents decided to gratuitously kick the president in a, uh, most vulnerable spot, describing him in his report as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
That might as well have been written by whoever — sorry, can’t remember his name — is running Trump’s campaign. Certainly, by the time this campaign is over, everyone will know those eight words by heart, even though, of course, Trump is the one facing multiple federal indictments for mishandling highly classified documents.
And on Thursday evening, when an angry Biden held a brief news conference in defense of his mental acuity, he made a typically cringeworthy Bidenesque flub, calling the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the “president of Mexico” when answering a question on the war in Gaza.
Never mind that Donald Trump couldn’t name the president of Egypt if you gave him a multiple-choice quiz — let’s face it, Trump can’t even name the correct current president of the United States — and never mind that Biden gave an otherwise cogent answer on the Gaza situation and that Trump’s only answer on Gaza is his evidence-free claim that Hamas never would have attacked Israel if he had been president because, hey, he’s Donald Trump. The damage was done.
And it’s real damage.
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The age issue is all too real. Despite the fact that Americans seem to be happily nominating two older people to run for president, they keep telling pollsters they don’t want this repeat matchup and that they would prefer candidates who are younger.
Meanwhile, Biden, who has always been gaffe-prone even in his prime, is now sufficiently prone to gaffes that his campaign doesn’t even want him to do the annual softball presidential interview during the Super Bowl.
Look, if Biden loses in November, it probably won’t be the economy, stupid. The economy is clearly improving and people are actually starting to notice.
And it probably won’t be the mess on the border, which has been a mess forever. Biden can thank Republicans for doing him the favor of killing a bipartisan border bill they insisted they wanted, one that was heavy on border enforcement and quiet on immigration reform, because Trump demanded they kill it.
What, you naively wonder, was wrong with the bill? It seems Trump was afraid that it might actually work, meaning it would be good for Biden and, therefore, bad for Trump. Seriously.
But the issue that could definitely defeat Biden — and with that defeat allow Trump to make good on his promise to continue his assault on American democracy — is his age.
The economy might be improving, but Biden is 81, and there’s nothing he can do about it. In fact, according to my math, Biden will only get older.
Yes, Trump is 77. Yes, if he wins, Trump would become the oldest person ever sworn in as president. Yes, Trump, like a lot of people as they grow older, also flubs names and places and events.
But as the never-Trumpers over at Bulwark point out, this is a country that could very well decide “that one senior citizen mixing up words has dementia, but another senior citizen who mixes up words but says them louder is vigorous.”
Is the issue, as Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last asks, cognitive decline or cognitive dissonance?
Biden doesn’t have dementia. I’m not a doctor, but I did live side by side with my late wife as she descended into the hell that is the disease. I learned some things along the way, things I can’t forget. For instance, that forgetting names and events is a symptom of dementia. But that cognitive decline is the real feature.
Someone with dementia can’t stand up and give an hourlong State of the Union address or engage in negotiating a border bill or dive deeply into the details of the Israel-Hamas war.
But someone like Biden, who once introduced Barack Obama as President America, now mixes up the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, with a former president, François Mitterrand, who died nearly 30 years ago. That was a few days after he mixed up one former German chancellor with another former German chancellor.
It’s not an issue that’s going away. An NBC News poll released earlier in the week showed that 76% of Americans have “major or moderate concerns” over Biden’s mental and physical health — including half of Democrats — while just 61% have major or moderate concerns over the many criminal and civil charges Trump faces.
Of course, Trump confuses Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and says Victor Orban is the president of Turkey. Just listen to one of Trump’s rallies, and see how many sentences you could actually diagram. The thing is, those who oppose Trump worry less about his mental acuity — I mean, he can apparently identify a number of animals on a well-known cognitive test, even if it turns out he misremembers a few — than about the pro-authoritarian, anti-democratic MAGA movement he leads.
That’s a question the Supreme Court justices were apparently ready to ignore. The most significant findings from Colorado courts was that Trump was obviously involved in an insurrection. Most of the justices during Thursday’s oral arguments never even broached the insurrection issue. Instead, they were stuck on whether the office of president was an actual office and whether an insurrectionist might, in fact, not be eligible to hold office, but might still be eligible to, uh, run for the office he couldn’t hold.
You can understand what the court did. There are political considerations. Red and blue states could try disqualifying candidates simply because of political party.
But you might have more problems understanding why Robert Hur, the special counsel appointed by Merrick Garland to look into classified documents Biden possessed, would report that Biden couldn’t remember when his son Beau died or that he had “diminished faculties in advancing age.”
Democrats are calling it a hit job while noting that Hur is a registered Republican and that Trump appointed him to be a U.S. attorney.
But the question isn’t whether the report, which concluded that no charges would be pursued against Biden, was politically motivated. And it’s not even whether, at this point, Biden once said when he ran in 2020 that he’d serve as a “bridge” to a new generation of Democrats, implying that he might serve only one term.
The question is whether Biden is sufficiently fit to make the case that returning Trump to office might just mean the end of America’s small-d democratic project. I know Biden is old — I’m old myself — but I think he’s fit enough.
In fact, if I were Biden, I’d call back CBS now and say I was ready to do that Super Bowl interview. It would be a chance for 100 million Americans to judge whether he’s mentally fit. He’d just have to hope nobody asks him if agrees with Taylor Swift when she sings she doesn’t wanna live forever.
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