During his interview last weekend with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, President Trump repeatedly questioned former vice president Joe Biden’s mental fitness for office. “Biden can’t put two sentences together,” Trump said. “They wheel him out. . . . He reads a teleprompter and then he goes back into his basement.” Asked whether he thought Biden was senile, Trump replied “I don’t want to say that” but then challenged Biden to take a senility test. “Let him take the same test that I took,” he said. “I’ll guarantee you that Joe Biden could not answer those questions.” Trump added that Biden could not endure the grilling Wallace was giving him: “Let Biden sit through an interview like this, he’ll be on the ground crying for mommy. He’ll say mommy, mommy, please take me home. . . . He can’t do an interview. He’s incompetent.”
Trump may be right that the presumptive Democratic nominee is “not competent to be president” — but it is politically unwise to mock him for it.
First, Trump is lowering the bar for Biden in the debates. That is the opposite of what successful candidates do. Trump should be raising the bar for Biden, talking about what an experienced debater Biden is, having participated in so many debates during his more than four decades as a politician in Washington. If Trump continues to dismiss him as incompetent, all Biden will have to do to win is string together a few coherent sentences.
Second, mocking Biden’s decline is offensive to seniors. In 2016, Trump won seniors by nine points, but today, Trump is losing among seniors by six points in key battleground states. His push to reopen the economy has many older Americans spooked, because they are most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus and least concerned about bringing back jobs quickly since most are retired. Instead of helping win these voters back, making fun of Biden’s mental functions further alienates them. Many struggle with memory problems themselves. And while they may not want someone who can’t remember his potential running mates’ names as commander in chief, they also don’t want a president makes fun of someone’s cognitive struggles.
This is not to suggest that Biden’s mind is off-limits. Quite the opposite, it may prove to be decisive this November. Biden would be the oldest president in American history — older on the day he takes office than Ronald Reagan was on the day he left office. And Biden’s string of mental errors during the 2020 campaign is troubling. He has said that “150 million people have been killed [by guns] since 2007” (which would be nearly half the U.S. population); claimed that his economic plan would “put 720 million women back in the workforce”; said that “have over 120 million dead from COVID” and that the pandemic had “cost us more than 85,000 jobs as of today.” He has forgotten the office he is running for, the state he is in, the names of world leaders and the words to the Declaration of Independence. There have been multiple instances in which he has failed to make an intelligible point, leaving viewers with little more than an incomprehensible word salad. Some of his media supporters even have urged Biden to put conditions on the debates — which they would not be doing if they thought he was capable of going toe to toe with Trump.
So, what should Trump do? Instead of telling people Biden is not competent, let Biden continue to show it. The former vice president will misspeak a lot in the coming weeks and months. Let the American people see by his words and actions that he’s not all there. Leave it to surrogates to draw attention to his gaffes. They should do so with sadness rather than ridicule. The message should be: We’ve all seen loved ones struggle with memory loss as they age. No one likes to see it, or point it out. But in Biden’s case, it can’t be ignored. Because our loved ones aren’t asking to be given the nuclear codes. Biden is.
Indeed, Trump will need to prepare carefully for how to handle it if Biden stumbles during the debates. If Trump mocks him face to face, it could backfire and create sympathy for Biden. Trump also has to prepare for the possibility that Biden will be rested and able to put together a competent performance, or that Biden will be ready (like Ronald Reagan was in 1984) with a killer comeback line that puts concerns about his age to rest.
But Trump has to stop making fun of Biden’s mental lapses. Because if he doesn’t, Americans may very decide that they prefer a gaffe-prone president to one they decide is callous.
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