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A Tale of Two Very Different Debates: Biden and Trump’s Horror Show, Sunak and Starmer’s No Surprises

From lies, incompetence, porn, and golfing bravo in the US – to dull and boring, with a side of rude and shouty in the UK

President Joe Biden, right, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, participate in a presidential debate on Thursday. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
US President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump during Thursday’s presidential debate. Photo: AP/Alamy

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On Thursday night, we got a sharp reminder of why leadership debates, for all their staged awfulness, still matter.

On live TV, in front of millions of horrified American voters and viewers around the world, US President Joe Biden confirmed all the doubts about his fitness to serve a second term.

The first of two planned presidential debates with his rival, former President Donald Trump, was his to lose – and within 10 minutes he had.

Biden walked onto the stage looking frail and doddery, his face ashen, his voice a hoarse whisper. With his very first answer, he lost track of his thoughts, and rambled into excruciating, meandering nonsense.

First lady Jill Biden helps her husband, US President Joe Biden, walk off stage at the end of the first presidential debate on Thursday. Photo: AP/Alamy

Though his answers became a bit more coherent as the debate progressed, and certainly more accurate than the factually-challenged Trump, it is not ageist to conclude that Biden is far better suited for retirement to a nursing home, than another four years in the Oval Office. In fact, so dire was his performance, that I even wondered whether he was capable of seeing out his current term as President.

As a newly minted American citizen and voter, I also felt extreme anger that the President, his family, friends, and advisors had colluded in covering up the state of his mental and physical deterioration, and indulging his egotistical desire to run for office again.

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Biden claims to be a great patriot, whose whole life has been dedicated to public service, and whose main motivation to run in 2020 was to preserve American democracy against the dangers of a second Trump term. Yet, his decision to run again, reflective of preening self-regard and ambition, may end up being the single biggest factor opening the way back for Trump.


Biden Crumbles While Trump Lands Blows, Lies and Exaggerates

If expectations were low for Biden, they were even lower for Trump, whose consistent lying, wild exaggerations, and outlandish assertions are already baked into perceptions of the man.

But, while Biden crumbled on the stage, Trump managed to outperform himself – making crisp, punchy, points every time he took to the floor, no matter that they were riddled with inaccuracies, and often completely unrelated to the question he was asked.

While Trump was prone to lying and veering way off course, he battered Biden and landed many clean hits. Photo: AP/Alamy

While Biden waffled vaguely about his domestic achievements, Trump repeatedly hammered him on the state of the economy, and failure to control migration across the southern border, which he said had allowed millions of “criminals” to enter the US, facilitated human trafficking and misery, and enabled a drug crisis which was “destroying lives” across the country.

Trump even managed to claim that he had done far more for black people and Hispanics than Biden, was a champion of the environment, and had a nuanced position on abortion – which allowed for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is in danger.

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Trump also landed many blows on Biden concerning foreign policy – the realm in which Biden is, in theory, most accomplished.

Trump repeatedly attacked Biden on the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine (which Trump claimed would not have happened at all on his watch), and the emboldening of the regime in Tehran, which lay behind the current crisis in the Middle East.

He challenged Biden’s assertion that Hamas was the only obstacle to a peace deal in Gaza – arguing (with some justification) that Israel’s leaders don’t want to stop the war either. In fact, “Israel wants to keep it going, and they should be allowed to do so, and finish the job”. And he argued that, under Biden, America had never been so weak and disrespected, and that “the whole world is blowing up” and risked stumbling into world war three.


Crime, Porn Stars, and Who is Better at Golf

Meanwhile, Trump brushed off Biden’s attempts to remind viewers of Trump’s seamier side. He claimed that the insurrectionist uprising on January 6 was former Democratic US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fault, for failing to take up his offer to provide national guards to protect the Capitol.

Accused of being a convicted felon, Trump riposted that Biden’s son Hunter was also guilty of crimes, and that Biden probably was too.

Trump flatly denied having sex with a porn star (an unedifying first for a presidential debate), claimed that he was the victim of politicised justice, and said he would overturn the recent guilty verdicts against him in New York on appeal.

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Biden was left weakly saying that Trump was telling lies (“malarkey”; “nonsense”), and citing the conclusion by 159 presidential scholars that Trump was the worst President in history.

Biden also lamely observed that he had spent many years being criticised for being too young, and that while he was indeed older than Trump, he was at least more competent.

Trump – who actually looked vigorous and healthy on stage, especially when compared on the split TV screen with Biden – joked relatively engagingly about his golfing abilities. This led to one of the most embarrassing exchanges of the night, on who was better at golf. Is this really what the position of ‘leader of the free world’ has come to?

Trump’s most ominous remark was his hint that he would only accept the outcome of this year’s election, if it was fully “free and fair” – giving himself plenty of wriggle room to dispute the result.


Sunak and Starmer: Rude and Shouty Versus Safe and Dull

By comparison with the horror show on display in America, Britain’s final leadership debate on Wednesday night was a far tamer affair.

It was also far less consequential – given that the polls have barely budged in the UK during the past few weeks and, on many issues, the two main parties are not that far apart.

The debate was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s last chance to deliver a knock-out blow and change the trajectory of the race. Though he came out fighting, repeatedly arguing that under Labour, voters would be hammered with new taxes, he also came across as rude and shouty, repeatedly interrupting and speaking over the Labour Leader.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during Wednesday’s leadership debate. Photo: AP/Alamy

Keir Starmer’s task was much easier – not to screw up – which he managed to do by being safe and dull throughout most of the evening.

Sunak’s responses exposed the Conservative Party’s tendency to blame others for the UK’s problems – such as immigrants and benefit fraudsters.

By contrast, Starmer repeatedly stressed his party’s plans to support people back into work, for example by reducing NHS waiting lists; and partnering with businesses; and his desire to bring society together, rather than exploit divisive cultural issues.

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For me, the most revealing exchange of the night came when they were asked about their record on support for women.

Starmer mentioned the strong women in his leadership team: Rachel Reeves, Angela Rayner, Yvette Cooper, and Bridget Phillipson. Sunak referenced his two daughters. Starmer’s reply indicated that he regarded women as equals. Sunak’s smacked of patriarchy, of working for women, rather than with them.


Debating the Debate: From Formats to Moderators

After both debates, many commentators criticised the formats.

In the UK’s case, this centred on the selection of questions from the audience, including one boorish and attention-seeking one about the poor qualities of both leaders, as well as moderator Mishal Hussein’s failure to curb Sunak’s interruptions.

In the US, concerns were raised about the moderators’ failure to challenge Trump’s manifest lies and exaggerations, and provide fact-checks on both candidates.

But, if the purpose of such debates is to give viewers at home a chance to gauge the candidates, albeit in an artificial setting, then both succeeded.

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The UK debate did so by reaffirming the impression that the Conservatives are largely a spent force, and that Starmer is a safe pair of hands.

The US debate served to expose Biden’s manifest incapacity to run again as President. In that sense, it may have done not just the US, but the whole world, a huge favour, given what is at stake in this election, by forcing his team to come to terms with that fact, and increasing pressure on Biden to step aside for a candidate better able to defeat Trump.



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