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"Please tell me why I should care whether Joe Biden is declining mentally when Donald Trump bottomed out morally long ago.
I’m serious. I’d rather drink milk past its expiration date than arsenic.
In case you’ve missed it, Trump and his minions are getting more and more aggressive — shameless is the better adjective — in their portrayal of Biden as a demented wreck.
This peaked last week with an interview that President Trump gave to Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner. He not only told Zito that Biden “has absolutely no idea what’s happening.” Trump also said: “He doesn’t know he’s alive.”
This wasn’t some off-the-cuff dig. This is Trump’s re-election strategy — well, much of it — in one nasty quip. “I’m rubber, you’re glue” becomes “I’m egomaniacal, you’re incoherent.” Which is rich, coming from the kook who mused about ingesting household bleach.
Team Trump has been at this for months. I happened to be watching a lot of Fox News in early March — it’s necessary research, though it feels more like flogging oneself — and barely an hour went by without a host or guest asserting that the Democratic Party had rallied around Biden precisely because they detected a cognitive void where a vice president once existed.
In other words: Because Biden is out to lunch, unprincipled Democratic power brokers can put whatever they want on his plate. He’ll docilely sup on it and then ask for more.
The Fox News regular Brit Hume said flat-out that Biden was “getting senile.” Rudy Giuliani, throwing stones from his glass house, sputtered that Biden was exhibiting “obvious signs of dementia.”
And that message is now a fixture of the Trump campaign’s social-media efforts. As Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman wrote in The Times on Friday, “The campaign’s ads on Facebook have taken their own dark turn. Its videos on the platform declare ‘Geriatric Health is No Laughing Matter’ or ‘Joe Biden: Old and Out of It,’ then use selective edits of Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and meandering soliloquies to make less-than-subtle suggestions about his mental acuity.”
It’s an ugly tack, but familiar. As the Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen observed, media coverage of President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign included references to his apparent confusion, questions about his mental alertness and mentions of the prevalence of dementia and senility among people in their mid-to-late 70s. Reagan was then 73.
Biden is 77, but would be 78 at his inauguration. If he’s elected, Thiessen wrote, “He’ll be older on the day he takes office than Reagan was on the day he left office. So, yes, his mental fitness is a legitimate issue.”
I agree. There have been moments aplenty when Biden’s stumbles have made me wince — particularly a doozy from a few days ago, when he seemingly confused lost jobs with lost lives and upped the Covid-19 death toll to “millions of people.”
But Biden’s bumbling isn’t the defining issue, not even close, and we shouldn’t let Trump use it to do in 2020 what he did in 2016, which was to portray his opponent — then, Hillary Clinton — as so enormously unappealing and recklessly unacceptable that, to many Americans, Trump looked ever so marginally better in comparison, which is to say that he looked endurable.
There’s negative campaigning and then there’s what Trump engineers and allows, which is in another grotesque league altogether. On Saturday, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., took to Instagram to insinuate — without a whiff of substantiation — that Biden was a pedophile.
Last time around, the Trump operation’s scorched-earth approach encompassedRussia, Wikileaks, the parading of Bill Clintons’ accusers, the fanning of ludicrous conspiracy theories, chants of “lock her up!” and the suggestion that somebody might someday need to take a shot at Hillary. This is what I mean about a moral bottom.
In anticipation of November, he has already tried to extort political help from the president of Ukraine. Remember impeachment? I sometimes get the sense that it has faded from consciousness. (A pandemic can have that effect.) Don’t forget Trump’s “perfect” phone call, because it’s not history. It’s harbinger. There are surely dirtier tricks to come.
To hold on to power, this president will do whatever it takes. And in the middle of all of this dying and impoverishment, it’s going to take a lot.
It’s going to take the transformation of China into the most nefarious global menace ever, of Gretchen Whitmer into a communist dominatrix, of the Obama administration and the F.B.I. into a deep-state cabal and of Biden into a doddering, drooling imbecile who’d be tucked away in some attic if he hadn’t already taken refuge in the basement.
Put another way, Trump has to make himself just slightly less awful than everyone and everything else. He has to get a crucial number of voters who are either genuinely wavering, considering a third-party candidate or looking for an excuse to vote for him to say what many of them did four years ago: “The Democrats haven’t given me any real choice. There are no good options.”
It was a false equivalence then and it’s an even falser one now that we know what a Trump presidency looks like, now that we’ve been subjected to the endless lying and the baseless bragging and the self-pity and the self-dealing and the grandiosity and the corruption and the incompetence and Jared and Ivanka and the whole wretched crew of delusional opportunists.
Two flawed candidates don’t add up to a jump ball.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Biden has lost a few steps. Let’s posit that while he was always a font of gaffes, he’s now a geyser of them. Let’s assume that his herky-jerky conversational gait betrays a herky-jerky intellectual one.
It nonetheless remains true that he got through a two-person, two-hour debate with Bernie Sanders in mid-March without embarrassing himself in the slightest. Besides, the precise agility of his mind has nothing to do with the fundamental decency of his values. At the end of the day, Biden can be trusted to do what Trump didn’t and won’t: stock his administration with qualified professionals. He could compensate for any supposed cognitive deficit with a surplus of talent.
Trump can’t fill his moral vacuum. By its nature, it prevents him from recognizing or caring about it. Confused is fixable. Rotten isn’t.
So let Trump tweet and bleat to his heart’s content about Biden as some blithering idiot. It’s not just over the top; it’s irrelevant.