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The voters’ dilemma

Americans are being asked to choose between two unappealing candidates as their next president, writes LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

LAST Thursday, the campaign to re-elect incumbent US president Joe Biden received a devastating slash across the Achilles’ heel. President Joe Biden, a special counsel report said, would not be criminally prosecuted for “willfully retaining” and improperly sharing classified materials from the Obama era at his home.

The reason? The case would not be winnable because Biden would come across to a jury “as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” the report concluded.

Even before Biden’s backing of Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza eroded his support on the left, his greatest vulnerability was always the perception that, at 81, he was simply too old — and possibly too forgetful — to serve a second term as US president. It’s a theme that has already been pounced on by Biden’s lead Republican opponent for the presidency, Donald Trump.

And now here it was in black and white, the very image the Biden team was desperate to dispel: an old albeit likeable man who could not even remember the date his beloved son Beau Biden died or when he served as US vice-president.

The Trump campaign rejoiced. But US voters didn’t. There is nothing to celebrate about being faced with the choice, in November, of a doddering dotard versus a despotic dictator.

Not that Trump is any spring chicken. He will turn 78 in June, but as recently as a January campaign stop in New Hampshire, continued to brag about how he “aced” a cognitive test four years ago, which involved identifying different animal shapes including a whale. 

However, creators of the test, known as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, say it does not include images of a whale and that despite Trump’s claim that it measures intelligence, it is in fact a very rudimentary test used to detect mild cognitive impairment and early signs of dementia.

Nevertheless, polling in the US consistently shows more concern about Biden’s advanced age than Trump’s. This has prompted Republican Trump challenger, Nikki Haley, 51, to suggest that Americans want someone younger as their next president. 

Trump is of course facing similar charges as those now dismissed against Biden — 40 to be precise — over the private retention of classified documents. The significant difference here is that while Biden immediately handed his collection over to federal authorities, Trump refused to do so, prompting raids on his luxury Mar-a-Lago property where some classified documents were found stashed in a bathroom.

Trump’s response to Biden’s free pass was typically petulant and Miss Piggyesque. On his social media platform, Truth Social, he demanded that special counsel Jack Smith “drop all Litigation against Joe Biden’s Political Opponent, ME.” 

Smith is overseeing the US Department of Justice investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents. He is also the attorney in charge of criminal investigations into Trump’s role during the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Biden also came out swinging, and despite his Catholic faith, scattered his response with invective. “I know what the hell I’m doing,” he told reporters at a press conference after the special counsel report went public. “It wasn’t any of their damn business,” he remonstrated at having been asked when his son Beau died. “How in the hell dare he raise that.”

Perhaps this display of brio will hearten those Democratic voters who fear Biden is too old and infirm. Trump supporters, on the other hand, don’t seem to care about their candidate’s missteps. Even when he flubs facts —which are anyway few and far between in Trump speeches — they scarcely notice.

On the campaign trail in Iowa, Trump welcomed himself to Sioux Falls, a city 80 miles away in another state, South Dakota, when he was actually in Sioux City. During an October 2023 stop in New Hampshire, Trump asked the audience if they had heard of Victor Orban, “the leader of Turkey,” suggesting Trump himself had never heard of Orban either, who is the leader of Hungary.

The Democrats will be hoping that the very real prospect of a totalitarian-leaning Trump with aspirations to despotism will help especially younger voters overlook Biden’s age and that they will give him their vote to preserve democracy. 

But with the age factor now making headlines, and compounded by Biden’s unpopular support of Israel, the already mountainous climb to a Democratic victory in November just got a whole lot steeper.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the founder of the non-profit Beyond Nuclear (BeyondNuclear.org).

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