‘Debate’ turns into a doddering gish gallop against democracy

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INDIANAPOLIS — The “debate” between Joe Biden and Donald J. Trump was nothing less than an unfolding disaster for voters and the future of American democracy.

For President Biden, his frail, lilting voice and ghostly appearance dominated the crucial sounds and optics, while he drifted in and out of his most salient talking points. The earliest debate in presidential history was designed by the Biden campaign to change the trajectory of a tossup race and allay fears about serving a second term at age 82.

Instead, his halting performance set off a wide array of angst from Democrats, never-Trump Republicans and independents.

As for Trump, historian and author Heather Cox Richardson likened his debate tactic to a “gish gallop.”

Richardson explained on her “Letters from an American” Substack site: “It’s a rhetorical technique in which someone throws out a fast string of lies, non-sequiturs and specious arguments, so many that it is impossible to fact-check or rebut in the amount of time it took to say them. Trying to figure out how to respond makes the opponent look confused, because they don’t know where to start grappling with the flood that has just hit them.”

Trump used the gish gallop during a 2020 debate, only that time both candidate mics were live and Biden responded with his famed, “Will you shut up, man?”

During Trump’s 90-minute gish gallop, CNN counted more than 30 lies and misstatements. He engaged in denialism about the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection and declined to clearly state that he would accept the results of the November election.

It left both Republicans and Democrats reeling. Even the normally blustery Donald Trump seemed shocked by Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance. And the former President played it perfectly, landing blows but not overdoing it.

The new central message of the 2024 Presidential race is not about democracy, abortion, Trump’s many controversies and his 34 felony convictions, or, for that matter the Biden and Trump one-term records. It will be, for the next four months, about Joe Biden’s fitness to serve.

SurveyUSA conducted a post-debate poll, in which Trump had a 45-43% lead over Biden in the head-to-head matchup. Just 29% of all voters say Biden is up to the job; 57% say he is not. As for Trump, just 48% of all likely voters say he is “up to the job” of being President for the next 4 years; 45% say he is not.

On this front, the presidential race looks like an unmitigated disaster.

Then throw in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on presidential immunity and what we have here is an emerging worst case scenario.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the Long Beach, Ind., native writing the majority opinion, said, “A former president is entitled to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions within his conclusive and preclusive constitutional authority. There is no immunity for unofficial acts.”

But in a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the country, and possibly the world. When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution. Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune.

“The relationship between the President and the people he serves has shifted irrevocably,” Sotomayor continued. “In every use of official power, the President is now a king above the law.”

In the hours after the SCOTUS decision, Trump – who has suggested the U.S. Constitution be “terminated,” that he would only be a “dictator on day one” and that former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley be executed – suggested on his Truth Social platform that he wants “televised military tribunals” for former Vice President Mike Pence, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, and former congresswoman Liz Cheney.

With this SCOTUS ruling, there is no longer any applicable punishment for a rogue president. The three most recent impeachments of Presidents Trump and Clinton have defanged that process. Now presidents have sprawling immunity for “official acts” that did not exist for 248 years until Monday.

The conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig called that ruling tantamount to the “unsouling of America” in an MSNBC appearance Monday.

“America’s democracy and rule of law are this country’s heart and soul,” Luttig said.

“Today, the Supreme Court cut that heart and soul out of America, holding that the former president is immune from prosecution for any of his actions in and around January 6th.

“No longer can it be said that in America no man is above the law,” Luttig said. “Today, our Supreme Court held that the President of the United States and particularly the former President of the United States is in fact above the law.”

Trump promises what Axios is describing as an “unabashedly imperial presidency,” augmented by a perversely corrupt Supreme Court (Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito did not recuse themselves despite the insurrectionist sympathies conveyed publicly by their spouses), while weaning power away from Congress with the support of a supplicant Republican Party.

What could possibly go wrong?

Howey is a senior writer and columnist for State Affairs/Howey Politics Indiana. Follow him on X @hwypol.

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