Sun, 14 April 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Press releases

Biden and Trump: the enfeebled versus the unhinged?


5 min read

Two political bombs have exploded in the United States. On 5 February the special counsel Robert Hur, investigating the cache of classified government documents in Joe Biden’s house, released his report.

He recommended no further action, but commented that the President was a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory”, adding that Biden couldn’t remember when he’d been vice-president or even when exactly his son had died. 

On 10 February, at an election rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump said as president, he “would encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they wanted” to any Nato country which did not meet the two per cent of GDP guidelines for defence spending.

Every time Biden appears on camera, he looks every day and more of his 81 years

Both episodes have created global headlines. Hur’s comments appeared to offer independent validation of an accusation that the Republicans have been hurling at Biden for months – that he is in mental and physical decline and not up to a second presidential term. Biden surrogates reacted furiously, highlighting Trump’s frequent onstage muddles, and accusing Hur, a registered Republican, of a political hit job. But the problem they face is that every time Biden appears on camera, he looks every day and more of his 81 years, compounded by a tendency to muddle names and dates. In short, Hur reminded the electorate of what they were already thinking.

As for the Trump story, for long-term Trump watchers, it wasn’t that surprising. It is common knowledge that during Trump’s first term he disliked Nato and disparaged Article 5, the commitment to collective defence. Indeed, according to German officials, Trump once handed Angela Merkel a bill for more than $350bn for supposed decades of underpayment of German contributions to Nato. But Trump hadn’t previously said that he would actually encourage Russia to act against underpayers; by any measure a shocking disavowal of America’s allies. 

The comment reminded the world of his profoundly unilateral approach to foreign policy: his disdain for alliances, his determination to stop US support for Ukraine, his admiration for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, his ambition to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change deal and impose tariffs on all US imports.

So satirists might conclude that it’s a contest between the enfeebled and the unhinged, inviting the question: how did it come to this? And it seems that the American people agree. Opinion polls suggest that close to 70 per cent of Americans would like two different names on the ballot paper. So does it have to be like this? Is Biden versus Trump: the rematch already set in stone? Well, yes and no. Yes, because there is no chance of other names emerging from the primaries: both have their respective nominations sewn up, barring personal catastrophes. But no, because stuff can happen.

In Trump’s case, the stuff is legal: 91 indictments spread through four criminal cases, with three scheduled to come to trial before the Republican convention in July. Polling suggests that over 20 per cent of Republican voters would consider changing their vote if Trump was convicted – not to mention the impact on unaffiliated voters and the undecided. 

It would be difficult for the convention to dump Trump: they would have to re-write their rules on the spot. Trump has been brilliant in portraying these legal troubles as the Democrats “weaponising the justice system” to deny voters their vote for change. But are the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush, really going to choose a convicted criminal as their candidate for the presidency? Or will they find another way?

Biden is perhaps even more at risk. Democratic Party strategists are already seriously concerned about the viability of his candidacy, compounded by his underwater personal approval ratings and Trump’s lead in the national opinion polls. David Ignatius, the doyen of political columnists, wrote recently in the Washington Post that Biden should stand down. The New York Times pointed out that Biden had been more sheltered from the media than any president in recent history and needed to restore confidence by doing more interviews, press conferences and town hall meetings: sound advice except that most of Biden’s public appearances feature gaffes, flubs or mix-ups, reminding voters of why they have doubts.

So what might happen? If Biden is determined to stay the course, that’s it: it would be almost impossible to oust him at the Democratic convention in late August. But just imagine if he suffers a significant illness between now and then, or a succession of public mental lapses – and the men in grey suits, or more likely his wife Jill Biden, persuade him to go gentle into that good night. What then? The answer is a free-for-all at the convention. Candidates would declare themselves and then, probably through a series of votes, would try to win a majority of the more than 4,000 party delegates assembled at the conference centre.

It has happened most recently at the 1968 convention. The then president, Lyndon B. Johnson, had pulled out of the race at the end of March after a disappointing result against the then sole challenger, senator Eugene McCarthy, in the New Hampshire primary. Robert Kennedy then joined the race and looked likely to secure a majority of delegates until he was assassinated on 5 June. So the convention became a bitter battle between the ‘establishment candidate’, vice-president Hubert Humphrey, and the candidates of the anti-Vietnam War movement, McCarthy and his fellow senator George McGovern. In the event, Humphrey won comfortably, but outside the hall, in front of a horrified television audience, there were four days of teargas-filled pitched battles between anti-war demonstrators and police. The city where this happened? The capital of political fixes in smoke-filled rooms, Chicago. And where is this year’s Democratic convention? Of course, Chicago. 

Could history repeat itself? I hope not: in 1968 Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon. 


Lord Darroch, crossbench peer and former United Kingdom ambassador to the United States

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.


Foreign affairs