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July 1st , 2024                   Len’s Letter #71  The Presidential Debate that I desire

2024                                      General Election


Today’s Letter is an alternative version to a draft of a Letter I wrote before the debate. The draft was a suggestion for a better kind of debate.

I am a year older than Joe Biden and understand a little of what it means to grow old.  I do not see as well as I used to. (Cataract surgery should help.) I do not hear as well as I used to (Hearing aids help, but not enough.) I have trouble with my tooth implants.  (As Mikhail Gorbachev said about himself, I have a hard bite.). And when I forget a name, which I do with alarming frequency, I can look it up.  (As I did with Gorbachev’s first name.).

As we all know, Joe Biden had a terrible debate.  So terrible that many have urged him to withdraw from the presidential race.  Readers asked me what I thought Joe Biden should do. I said we should wait.  Let’s see if the debate was an aberration or an indication of a serious physical infirmity – a stroke or some disease.

As many of us know, Donald Trump also had a terrible debate. The press has become so inured to Donald Trump’s lies and egocentrism that only a few noted that.  One newspaper, an exception, the Philadelphia Inquirer said that Trump’s behavior over the last eight years was so terrible that he should drop out.

It now seems clear that Joe Biden’s debate performance was not a product of some new physical infirmity.  Donald Trump’s debate was no aberration.  What is true for both Joe Biden and Donald Trump is that, like most of us elderly, we have grown more like ourselves as we have grown older.

Joe Biden has been an extraordinarily effective president.  Consider his leadership in getting us out of the pandemic, his leadership in ensuring an economic recovery, his leadership in ensuring that our neglected infrastructure is being and will be strengthened, his leadership in ensuring that the modern world – from Europe to Asia – now has a, more or less, collective defense against the totalitarians.  Furthermore, Joe Biden has done this without putting American servicemen at risk.

Some argue that Joe Biden should stay; others that he should withdraw because of the impact on the House and Senate. I don’t think so.  When Harry Truman chose not to run in 1952, a Republican was elected president.  Eisenhower was probably unbeatable by any Democrat, including Truman.  The House changed hands along with Eisenhower’s election – but not because Truman was not on the ticket.  When Lyndon Johnson chose not to run in 1968, a Republican was elected president.  The divided Democratic party hardly effected the distribution of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.  When GHW Bush ran for reelection as President after vomiting and fainting in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister at a banquet in his honor, he lost the presidential race.  The control of the House and Senate did not change.

The House and Senate are closer now than they were in any of the elections mentioned above.  The effect on one Senate race, a few House races could change control and the history of the country.  The core issue is the effect on the presidential election of Joe Biden staying in the race or not.

We know that, despite the debate debacle, Joe Biden feels capable of continuing as president.  We also know that he chose to run in 2020 because he saw Donald Trump as a dangerous man – dangerous for the country, dangerous for the world. He still believes that.  Furthermore, he believes that he can continue to provide the nation’s leadership, leadership that has been more than successful.

Can he envision doing what he needs to do to continue running the country.  Can he envision the possibility that he can run a vigorous campaign, challenging Donald Trump, demonstrating his competence through frequent press conferences?  If he is anything like me, he would forget too many names and be embarrassed about it.  It is not so important, but it is.  The president needs to look competent as well as be competent.

He might remedy the problem by doing the press conferences, doing the campaigning, with his vice president.  They are a team, after all. She can answer the questions before Joe Biden demonstrates what he has forgotten.  Not good enough?  Maybe.  But he may need to do that to stay in.

Let me offer two more scenarios.

If Joe Biden is to step down, he needs to ensure that he does that in a way that avoids chaos.  He should buy some television time. Tell us all he has an announcement.  Announce his withdrawal for the presidential race in favor of Kamala Harris.  He might even step down from the presidency so she could run as president.  If he took that step, she would need to be prepared with her vice presidential candidate and have the process for that appointment well in hand. Otherwise, we one person closer to a Michael Johnson presidency.   Joe would call on all of his delegates to support her candidacy at the convention. And he would have to be active to ensure they stay loyal to him under those peculiar circumstances.  In other words, to avoid the chaos of a compressed competition for the nomination, Joe Biden would have to act presidential.  He would be doing be ensuring that Kamala Harris is his successor and that there is little or no dissent from Democrats for the good of the United States of America. He would be undertaking this extraordinary activity even though he is convinced that he is capable of winning in November and governing for four years.  That is a lot to ask.

The second scenario presumes Joe Biden’s preference for staying in the race and his original reason for running. He would have to be as bold and dramatic as the debate was awful.  He would buy some television time.  Tell us all he has an announcement.  He would announce that he would step down, but only  if Donald Trump steps down as well. He would point out that, in addition to being a convicted felon, Donald Trump lies so often and so glibly he appears not know the difference between truth and falsehood.  He might even promise to pardon Donald Trump if, as part of his stepping down, he committed himself to staying out of American politics.

If Donald Trump does not take the bait, as he will almost certainly not, Joe Biden should announce a change in plans for the next debate.

The next debate would reflect the characteristics of the Lincoln—Douglas debates, debates that are embedded in our understanding of American history and serve as the inspiration for the debates that we now conduct.  In addition, addressing the questions raised about physical and mental capacity, he would also propose a contest regarding those qualities.

Below is a plan for a modified Lincoln-Douglas style debate conducted in a reasonable length of time 

Focus on two questions.  One proposed by each candidate, a week before the debate, perhaps two weeks before the debate.  Flip a coin to see who goes first. The debate might:  Retain some of the rules agreed upon for the Biden-Trump debates.  No audience.  Turn off the mic of the person not speaking.  And the debate might  change some rules:  Allow notes, maybe even a teleprompter for the opening presentation.  This abbreviated and modified Lincoln-Douglas style debate would have:

  • A thirty-minute presentation
  • A fifteen minute response
  • A five minute re-response.
  • A 10 minute fact check by an independent assessor.

Reverse the process for the second half of the first debate.

We would learn whether or not each candidate can outline a proposal or describe an achievement and explain the complexities, the obstacles, how the obstacles can be or were achieved, and be coherent over a period of time.

Below is a plan for tests of physical and mental capacity conducted, not at a single moment but conducted over a two or three week period.  (Some activities resembling what I propose were actually referred to in the June 27 debate and are derived from those references.).

Call this a five event Pentathlon. We might consider Trump’s proposal for a drug test.  We might include a weigh in, as in a championship fight.  What is the candidates’ height and weight?

Begin with an area of Joe Biden’s strength.

            A bicycle race – I don’t know for how long, 2 miles maybe.  Let the candidates’ staffs sort that out.

Follow up with another physical test – one which might be challenging for both men.

            A 40 yard dash/walk.  Or some other distance.  Let the candidates’ staffs sort that out.  (As one of my sons cautioned: I am a year older than Joe Biden and I would have trouble running 40 yards. I might look so ill at east attempting to hurry for 40 years no one would want to vote for me.)

During the June 27 debate, there was a kind of side conversation about golf. Here are a couple of golf events that might be included in the pentathlon.

            3 holes of golf   Golfers carry their own bags.  The golfers are sufficiently scrutinized so they do not cheat. Let’s see who is capable of winning a club championship.  Let’s see who was capable of having a 6 or 8 handicap. Let’s see who can drive more than 50 yards.

            Driving Range competition.  Joe Biden had actually referred specifically to such a competition in the debate.  Perhaps a game of “Keep it in the Fairway” would work.  Ten swings, minimum length of the shots, and mandatory staying within agreed upon boundaries would be one kind of test.  The winner is the golfer who has the most total distance for his drives. Drives outside the boundary would not count toward the total.

For the final event, a test of mental acuity.  Whether the Montreal Cognitive Assessment for people tested for dementia that Trump likes to explain he has Aced or the BMI 5 minute IQ test, or something more serious, leave that to the candidates’ teams with the help of psychologist to sort out.

Those teams better clear those proposals with their candidates.  The candidates have to feel confident they can do what their teams are asking them to do.

I have no illusions that the candidates will agree to this new kind of contest. But I am confident that Joe Biden has to respond to the current conditions with something dramatic if he is going to win the election.

Thanks for reading this lengthy piece.  Keep on helping Joe Biden.  DONATE