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Nonstop attacks about Trump, Biden's mental acuity loom over the first presidential debate

Benjamin Oreskes and Faith E. Pinho, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

For those with questions about the leading 2024 presidential candidates' mental acuity, or those involved in stoking the increasingly heated spin online around such questions, Saturday night was a bonanza.

President Joe Biden appeared to "freeze up," as the New York Post put it, as he walked offstage at a downtown Los Angeles fundraising appearance with former President Barack Obama and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.

"A scene right out of 'Weekend at Bernie's,'" Chris LaCivita, senior Trump campaign advisor and chief operating officer of the Republican National Committee, told The Times.

The Biden campaign and its allies accused the Post and others who circulated the "freeze" meme of misrepresenting the footage. In other cases they went further, attacking media outlets and Republicans for sharing doctored video of the president.

"Rupert Murdoch's sad little Super Pac, the New York Post, is back to disrespecting its readers and itself once again by pretending the President taking in an applauding crowd for a few seconds is somehow wrong," White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said on X.

The same evening, former President Donald Trump called for his 2024 rival to take a "cognitive test," claiming he himself had "aced" one while in office — then botched the name of the doctor who administered it. "Ronny Johnson. Does everybody know Ronny Johnson?" Trump said, meaning Dr. Ronny Jackson, who is now a Texas congressman.

Next week's debate, which will be broadcast by CNN and simulcast on other networks, will be one of the few moments for the public to view the candidates side-by-side, unfiltered, for an extended period of time. Voters will be able to judge for themselves each man's vitality, energy and mental acuity.

Peter Reed, director of the Sanford Center for Aging at the University of Nevada Reno, said it's not possible to know a person's mental acuity based on video snippets. Cognitive and physical capabilities vary from person to person — and there's no way to tell just by watching a five-second clip, he added.

"It would be extremely difficult for me as a professional to watch either of the presidential candidates on TV, or see something that was posted on social media, and make an accurate assessment of their abilities. I just don't think that that's possible," Reed said. "And frankly, any nonprofessionals that are armchair diagnosing either of these folks are off base."

This potential inflection point in the campaign — one of two scheduled debates between the men — comes as the candidates and their allies grab hold of video moments of alleged or apparent slippage, circulating them for maximum outrage on TikTok, X and Instagram. In a race between an 81-year-old incumbent and a 78-year-old challenger, age has been fully weaponized.

Just days before the L.A. fundraiser, critics claimed video showed Biden wandering off during a G-7 summit. ("Meanderer in chief," the New York Post said.) In fact, he was walking over to greet some French paratroopers.

The political combat via video images further draws attention to the fact that the majority of the Americans say they are dissatisfied with the major parties' candidates for president — in part because they're both so old.

A February ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 59% of Americans think both Biden and Trump are too old to serve. Biden consistently fares worse on the age question than Trump — 63% of voters said they were not very or not at all confident in his mental capability to serve as president, compared with 57% who thought the same of Trump, according to a March poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

At the debate, "Biden has to be direct and frank and take it in a way that Trump can't, which is to acknowledge it," Democratic strategist Doug Herman said in an interview. "Trump won't acknowledge his age. Biden can and should. He should make light of it. He should refer to it in ways that are humorous and not defensive, and if he does that he'll win this debate hands down."

Amy Pason, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada Reno, said that assessing candidates' faculties in the context of age is not new in a presidential election. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scrutinized in 2016 for coughing. Trump countered by releasing a physician's note declaring him "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt projected a healthy persona, usually appearing seated behind tables to obscure the fact he used a wheelchair as a result of polio. In the first televised debate in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, many who watched thought the young, suave and freshly made-up Kennedy won, while those who listened on the radio believed the strongly worded, decisive-sounding Nixon did.

"All of these kinds of images and portraying yourself as someone who is healthy, vigorous, able to do the things that we think that you need to do as a president are always … a place for campaigns to naturally go to as an attack on their opponent," Pason said.

 

Democrats have been quick to pounce on Trump's repeated verbal miscues and what they say is his relative incoherence when it comes to talking policy. They've highlighted Trump confusing former President Jimmy Carter with tennis legend Jimmy Connors.

Progressive activist Brian Tyler Cohen invoked the mantra of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who told a journalist: "The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s—."

Cohen's point is that Democrats shouldn't stand by as Republicans disseminate misleading clips of Biden, whom Cohen has interviewed on his YouTube channel. Cohen's social media feeds are full of videos of Trump appearing addled or needing help walking off stage, though from another angle, it's clear that Trump is shaking the hand of one of his sons. For his part, Cohen says Democrats need to fight fire with fire.

"Here is a photo of Trump having to hold someone's hand to guide him off stage," Cohen wrote on X. "I'm sure this will get just as much coverage as the daily ["Biden old"] story gets."

Cohen attended the Los Angeles fundraiser and posted forceful denunciations of the New York Post and others who said Biden froze. He's said it's important that Democrats not "cede any ground" when it comes to a conversation about the candidates' mental fitness.

"The Republican Party has a mandate to make this election a referendum on age as a distraction from anything else that is more important," Cohen said in an interview.

He said that "Republicans know" that stories about Biden's achievements are not going "to stand up to the sexiness of some story about a purported physical gaffe on stage."

The Biden campaign has accounts on TikTok, Instagram and X, where staffers highlight videos of Trump sounding incoherent or bungling basics about policy.

The accounts have featured videos of Trump saying that if he were elected "it will be a bloodbath," and regularly highlighted Trump's unwillingness to protect NATO allies, among other topics. The Republican National Committee runs similar accounts, which have surfaced videos of Biden falling onstage at an event at the Air Force Academy and walking gingerly to Marine One.

Voters can expect these accounts to be steadily pushing out content during the debate and right after.

Both candidates have been prepping. Biden has been at Camp David with his former chief of staff, Ron Klain, and others. The New York Times reported last week that Trump had been meeting with staffers and certain Republican senators for policy sessions in advance of next week's showdown.

"This debate is going to be a great opportunity for President Trump to highlight his strength vs. Joe Biden's weakness," Trump press secretary Karoline Leavitt said on Newsmax on Thursday.

Jim Demers, a New Hampshire-based Democratic strategist, said the debate will be a great moment for Biden to highlight the extent of Trump's legal troubles and how he doesn't have voters' best interests in mind.

"Donald Trump couldn't get a job working for almost any company in America because he couldn't pass the background check," Demers said.

"There are people who would have liked to have seen two younger candidates, but that isn't the case. This race really has now taken full shape and voters are going to have to make up their mind based upon reality, and the reality is that we have two candidates who are older."


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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