Local experts: Biden-Trump showdown a debacle

This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday,  in Atlanta.

This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, in Atlanta. AP

The first 2024 presidential debate is seen on TV between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump, hosted by CNN.

The first 2024 presidential debate is seen on TV between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump, hosted by CNN. TNS

By ALEXA LEWISand Domenic Poli

Staff Writers

Published: 06-28-2024 5:04 PM

Modified: 06-29-2024 11:08 AM

Lawyer and former college professor Stewart “Buz” Eisenberg had a blunt reaction to Thursday night’s history-making debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump: “‘Go find a flask and start drinking’ were my initial thoughts.”

He said he “suffered” through the 90-minute debate because he believes the future of American democracy is at stake.

“I was demoralized,” said Eisenberg, an Ashfield resident who is a professor emeritus at Greenfield Community College. “One candidate was spewing lies and self-serving diatribes, and the other candidate was showing signs of his advancing age that were impossible to ignore — the first one being Trump and the latter being Joe Biden.”

Eisenberg’s reaction was echoed by other local political experts who watched the debate, who described the showdown as “tedious” and the “worst” debate in presidential history thanks to a litany of misinformation, personal jabs, and responses with hard-to-parse meanings.

During the debate, Trump confidently delivered his claims, many of which were false, while Biden faltered even with truth in his corner.

Immediately after the debate, late-night headlines surfaced noting the poor performances by both candidates. Much of the criticism has been directed at Biden, whose campaign has since said that his raspy responses were the result of a cold, according to the Associated Press.

While local experts agreed that the debate was hard to watch, many are split on the impact it will have on votes come Election Day.

“A president versus president debate is unprecedented,” said Amel Ahmed, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts who researches elections, voting systems, and party development. “There was nothing new to learn ... my biggest impression was just how tedious it was.”

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Ahmed said that she was “surprised” by the strong reactions to Biden’s debate performance, which she found to be typical of his usual public speaking.

“I don’t know what people were expecting, he’s not a strong debater … he got much stronger at the end though,” she said, noting that there were many “missed opportunities” on both sides. “Trump did not have a strong performance either.”

The stance that Biden’s performance improved as the night wore on is one that his campaign voiced in a memo following the debate. Current Vice President Kamala Harris made a similar statement in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, saying “I thought it was a strong finish.” However, Biden’s stumbles in his closing statement led some observers to disagree.

When asked about potential repercussions among voters following the debate, Ahmed said she thinks it “will have very little impact.”

“I interpret this debate as both parties sort of testing the waters and giving themselves a long time to recover,” she said, emphasizing the “short attention spans” of the public and the unusually early debate. “Neither campaign has really figured out its message,” she said.

Adam Hilton, an assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College who researches the relationships between social movements and political parties, had other thoughts.

“I would say it was probably the worst debate in American presidential history,” he said. “Donald Trump is an incoherent speechmaker, but that’s normal for him … whereas Joe Biden’s decline was quite apparent.”

For Hilton, the debate exemplified two “polar images of what a president should be,” with Trump delivering responses of “pure bluster” and “pure persuasion,” whereas Biden became “mired in the details.” He believes that, consistent with what political scientists have reported in recent years, most voters will continue to be “deeply dissatisfied” with the choice they are presented with.

In contrast to Ahmed’s commentary, Hilton believes that the early debate date has potential to make waves in this year’s election.

“[Debates] don’t usually impact the general election because they’re so late … in a sense we’re in uncharted territory here,” he said. “Where I think this debate really matters is it could diminish excitement from the Democratic Party.”

In the wake of Biden’s debate performance, some commentators imediately begain raising the idea of Biden stepping aside as the Democratic Party nominee. While Hilton believes that this outcome is highly unlikely, he said he would “encourage the Democratic Party to try it” if Biden’s numbers see a significant decline following the debate.

“If Joe Biden stepped aside … that throws the doors open,” he said. “From a political science perspective, nothing could be more thrilling.”

However, Hilton thinks it is very unlikely that Biden will decline the nomination, and therefore unlikely that anyone would risk seeding discord in the party by standing against him.

Eisenberg, who co-hosts “Talk The Talk” with Bill Newman on WHMP, said he thinks Biden is competent to govern, but his debate performance potentially gave ammunition to critics who say his cognitive skills are rapidly declining. But he said Biden can campaign on his infrastructure improvements and on guiding the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic’s homestretch.

Trump, on the other hand, continued with his lies, Eisenberg said.

“As a former professor, they get very low grades — barely passing, if passing at all,” he said. “It was a terrible performance by both.”

Howard Gold, a professor of government at Smith College who teaches about elections and public opinion, agreed that the debate as a whole was disappointing. As someone who has watched every American presidential debate, he said assuredly that “this was easily the worst quality debate I’ve ever seen.”

On the one hand, he said Trump “spewed nothing but lies,” and on the other, Biden “couldn’t put together a coherent sentence.”

Gold said that while he agrees somewhat that Biden’s performance was at its worst early on, that his improvement as the debate moved along “doesn’t really matter,” because he failed to assure voters that his age is not an issue.

“I do expect the polls to move in Trump’s favor — just a little bit, not a whole lot — in the next few weeks,” he said.

But Gold also believes that the early date of the debate could actually be “the one saving grace” for the Biden campaign after Thursday’s performance.

“It’s almost as if they anticipated this problem and wanted to give themselves time to recover,” he said. “I think Biden sees himself as being able to come back from this setback.”

Gold thinks that this “scrappy” mentality that Biden has makes it unlikely that he will step aside as the Democratic nominee, but he also believes “there are going to be serious conversations about it in the Democratic Party.”

The second debate is scheduled to be hosted by ABC on Sept. 10, but Gold, like others who question whether the Trump campaign will go for a rematch after a favorable first round, said he is “not sure” whether it will happen.

Greenfield Recorder staff writer Domenic Poli contributed to this article. Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com.