analysis

US Presidential debate analysis: Trump 3.0 is a candidate at his most dangerous — a calm alternative to Biden

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
CNN US Presidential debate with Joe Biden and Donald Trump
CNN US Presidential debate with Joe Biden and Donald Trump Credit: CNN/CNN

The bar was set low for US President Joe Biden. The leader of the free world simply had to stay awake, string coherent sentences together and appear in control of his faculties for 90 minutes.

His opponent Donald Trump, an unpredictable brawler and showman with a loose relationship with the truth, had to avoid coming off as a dangerous mad man.

From the earliest minutes of this pivotal and precedent-setting debate, the oldest US president was clearly struggling at times. While on the whole he managed to hold it together, Biden, 81, had some senior moments that saw his thoughts meander and his final speech wandered and failed to draw a solid line under his appearance.

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After a solid week of debate prep at the presidential retreat Camp David, Biden’s voice was quiet and at times shaky and there were several brief instances of the now familiar sight of him appearing confused, wide-eyed and spaced-out.

Trump in contrast was at his most dangerous: Calm, controlled and quick with a cynical slapdown.

It was along the lines of what we’ve already seen of Trump 3.0. Where in 2016 he stormed around the stage and leaned over Hillary Clinton and in 2020 his constant aggressive interruptions of Biden worked against him, here he kept his temper.

There were no attacks thrown at the moderators, few attempts to talk out of his allotted mic time and simple shrugs and eye rolls in response to most of the insults rather than yelling, finger pointing and hectoring. True to form for an infamously vain man, the one time he almost lost his control was when Biden mocked claims he made as president about his “impressive” height and weight.

His enemies will hope that this version of Trump was thanks perhaps to a lack of a studio audience to energise him, because the alternative — that Trump has learned from his mistakes and can overcome his worst instincts — is a bigger threat.

This was a debate of firsts: The earliest ever held in the election cycle, the first between a former and sitting president, the first without a studio audience since the 1960s standoff between JFK and Richard Nixon.

There were flashes of the authentic, folksy Biden such as early references to his working-class childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania and a dismissive: “I’ve never heard so much malarkey in my life” to one of Trump’s early claims about the economy.

He was at his best and sharpest when attacking Trump over the January 6 insurrection, quoting a line the former president used in March that it would be a “blood bath” if he did not win this time.

CNN US Presidential debate with Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Biden was at his sharpest when attacking Trump on January 6 and Roe vs Wade. Credit: CNN/CNN

Trump’s refusal to accept his election loss in 2020 and framing of it as the “big lie” is a weak flank for voters and Biden returned several times to calling him a “whiner” for his behaviour.

When asked by moderator Dana Bash if he would properly concede defeat this time around, Trump avoided a direct answer until he was pushed on the point.

This did draw a sharp, finger-pointing response that contained the same equivocations that coloured the darkest days of post-November 2020: “If it is a fair or legal or good decision, yes. I would have accepted... but the fraud and everything else was ridiculous”.

Polls put the candidates neck and neck nationally but US elections are won in the states and Trump has recently been firming in six key battlegrounds.

CNN US Presidential debate with Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Both candidates are deeply unpopular. Credit: CNN/CNN

This was the first of two televised debates the candidates have agreed to and for many of the six-in-ten Americans who were expected to tune in it was the first opportunity to make a substantive judgement of how the two very familiar candidates are faring.

The 2024 race is the first AI election for America and fake and doctored video grabs of Biden looking lost and confused have been flooding social media for months.

For different reasons, both candidates had wanted to roll out this early contest and agreed to rules set by host network CNN.

But how much will it matter?

This is an election defined as negative partisanship. With two deeply unpopular candidates, the winner will be the one who voters hate less and anyone paying close attention to the entire debate was left with the feeling that with the choice coming down to these two men, America is in deep trouble.

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