If Biden won’t step down, he’s still the better option.

Published July 4, 2024

By Jim Martin

(This column was first published in The News and Observer, July 2, 2024 and is republished by permission of the author.)

Thursday night’s encounter between the presumptive presidential nominees of the two major parties has been analyzed thoroughly. The staunchest defense of President Joe Biden’s performance came from Vice President Kamala Harris in a valiant show of loyalty.

A CNN Flash Poll of voters who watched found that 33% felt Biden outperformed former President Donald Trump and 67% said Trump outperformed Biden. Four years ago, it was the other way around. “Four more years” isn’t Biden’s best campaign slogan right now.

As a Republican who considers Trump a “clear and present danger,” it’s undeniable he was more energized, dominating the entire 90 minutes. With rules to prohibit his infamous interruptions, he only had to smirk at Biden’s struggles.

The silent microphone rule may have misled Biden into thinking all cameras, too, were locked on the speaker. Split screens often showed the silenced candidate as the other spoke. When Trump spoke, Biden looked lost, gazing slack-jawed.

Overall, the mutually approved rules worked to Trump’s advantage. He even got the last word, yet could have waived it with “no comment” after Biden mumbled his closing remarks. Trump was free to be Trump. The rules didn’t prevent him from lying, but did prohibit live fact-checking during the debate.

It was a brief reprieve. Within minutes afterwards, CNN had documented more than 30 false or misleading claims by Trump versus at least nine by Biden. One can argue that a handful of half-truths and rhetorical excesses were counted among Trump’s lies, but he was still the undisputed champion liar by a 26-to-9 margin.

If we count political hyperbole, CNN could have added one for Biden’s manly boast that his golf handicap was a 6. Translation: for an 81-year-old who can shoot in the 70s, he probably meant putt-putt.

Biden looked rejuvenated the next day in Raleigh, claiming “I know how to tell the truth.” Whatever. He was far outclassed as a competitive liar.

Grading the debate on policy issues, Biden’s views would please most Democrats. Trump’s would please most Republicans. Trump won among conservatives. Biden was the winner among progressives.

Some moderate centrists, however, might call it a substantive toss-up. The Biden campaign eagerly wanted this early debate so it would show the president at his best. It didn’t.

This doesn’t mean Democrats won’t stick with Biden. But they were worried enough to spend hours after the debate agonizing over who should tell him to withdraw so that their national convention could select another nominee.

This could blow over in a week, because the president will listen mainly to his family and White House staff, who are loyal to a fault. They may have a stake, with influence over day-to-day policy if Biden’s debate prep is any indication.

Afterwards, like a child who gets a participation trophy, Biden got cheers from First Lady Jill Biden: “Joe, you did such a great job! You answered every question, you knew all the facts.”

If I thought Trump could be a decent president without tearing the nation apart with a vengeance, I would want the Biden-Harris ticket to hang tough — even demand more debates. However, we know Trump will be Trump, and we’ll get the worst kind of faux-patriotic populism. His abuses will set authoritarian precedents for future presidents.

Trump has promised to pardon the unpardonable and release the Krakens of Jan. 6, 2021. If he’s elected, we will be willfully ripped apart. If Biden cannot recover and win, somebody fresh might — a moderate Democratic governor, senator, mayor. America can surely endure four years of a moderate Democrat.

Biden’s challenge is to save our republic from what it might not endure.

Jim Martin, a Republican, was N.C. governor from 1985-93. He is a regular contributor to The News and Observer pages