Joe Biden
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, delivers remarks about the US Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia on Sept. 20, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

US President Donald Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden’s mental state are cruel, unsubstantiated and detestable.

But they’re also effective. With the president pounding the dementia message into voters’ heads steadily for months, it’s no surprise that many Democrats and independents are now secretly worried about what will happen when the two presidential candidates finally meet in person at Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland.

Perhaps the former vice president really has been in a decline! Maybe he has been hiding in his basement!

“Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing,” Trump has said repeatedly. The Democratic nominee “doesn’t know he’s alive.” He’s weak, he’s tired and if he wins in November, Trump says, “they’re going to put him into a home and other people are going to be running the country.”

Biden’s mental health

Trump’s attack dogs have amplified the message. Sean Hannity says Biden’s “in a rapid state of decline.” Tucker Carlson says he has “clearly lost it.” These are not empty taunts or throwaway insults _ they’re part of a concerted campaign strategy to frighten voters about Biden’s mental health.

The result? According to a Rasmussen Reports poll from the end of June, 38% of all voters and 20% of Democrats believe Biden has dementia.

But now, it’s time for the real test. At Tuesday’s debate, Biden’s cognitive condition will be on public display for all to see. He will not be scripted or protected by handlers, as he was during the convention. Trump will undoubtedly be on the attack, unburdened by either civility or honesty.

Let the show begin

Now I don’t want to be naive. Biden, 77, would be the oldest president ever inaugurated, and he has no doubt slowed down in recent years, whatever that means. He still stumbles over words (which defenders often attribute to the remnants of a childhood stutter) and sometimes gets numbers wrong. We’ve all seen the word flubs _ like the time he called himself an “O’Biden-Bama Democrat” instead of an “Obama-Biden Democrat.”

On the other hand, he’s acquitted himself well in the race so far. His performance at the Democratic convention was strong and effective, though most of that was following a script. He performed well in his one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders in March; that was heartening.

“I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against,” Biden said earlier this year.

I’m looking forward to it too. For one thing, I want to reassure myself. But I frankly find it hard to imagine that the Biden I’ve been watching will crumble under Trump’s jabs, no matter how far below the belt he hits.

Three additional points

First, as a matter of pure political strategy, Trump may have set the bar too low. If voters expect a candidate who doesn’t know where he is and belongs in a “home,” all Biden will have to do is walk unassisted onto the stage wearing his underwear beneath rather than over his pants _ and he will have passed the test set for him.

I’m not saying that’s what we want in a candidate. Just that the bar is low.

Second, let’s remember this isn’t a referendum on Biden but a comparative race. Plenty of voters would vastly prefer an ageing and even declining Biden to Trump operating at 100%. Biden has empathy, four decades of political experience, smart people around him _ and Trump, even at his intellectual zenith, would have been an abysmal president.

Third, Trump is the last person who should be calling anyone old or inarticulate or “out of it.” Only three-and-a-half years younger than Biden, he currently holds the record for oldest president ever inaugurated. Recently, he confused “herd mentality” with “herd immunity.” In speaking, he is digressive, babbling, imprecise, solipsistic.

Trump's 'experience' rambling

Consider this remarkable answer to a softball from Sean Hannity about his top priorities for a second term:

“Well, one of the things that will be really great, you know, the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word experience is a very important word. It’s a very important meaning. I never did this before _ I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington I think 17 times, all of the sudden, I’m president of the United States. You know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say, ‘This is great.’ But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan ... “

Joel Benenson, former chief pollster for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, says Biden doesn’t need to be on the defensive at the debate.

“Biden’s job is to drive the message that is the foundation of his campaign,” Benenson says. “In 2016, Trump was the anti-establishment candidate. Now he’s the owner of a pandemic that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans. Biden’s got to hold him accountable — as uncaring, lacking in empathy and compassion, and unable to unite the country at a time when people are hungry for that.”

God, would I love to see that. I believe it matters a great deal to voters to see Biden take on this president clearly, cogently and forcefully on the great moral, political and economic challenges that face our country. If he can do that, Donald Trump will be defeated.

Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and op-ed columnist

Los Angeles Times