Oh, yes, perhaps you’ve heard, these two men leading the long parade of people trying to win the presidency in 2020 are both rather old — between them, 148 years of experience on the planet.
And of those 148 years, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have had careers on the public stage for roughly 90 them, a fact that might at first blush call into question the whole premise of their showdown Tuesday in Iowa, where they were in separate locales but spent the day talking very directly to and about each other: What can either man hope to tell voters about the other that they don’t already know?
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The answer, of course, is, of course. It made for an arresting few hours in the narrative wars on which modern presidential campaigns are waged — an exercise that seemed as much about psychological intimidation as political persuasion.
In both cases Biden and Trump with their mockery and insults seemed determined to get in each other’s heads as much as much as in voters’. And in both cases the message was a variant of, It’s getting late in the day for you, old man.
When asked Tuesday about Trump’s comments regarding his stamina and age, Biden leaned into the reporter who queried him.
“Look at me and answer the question,” he said. When pressed to answer the question himself, Biden said: “It’s self-evident. You know it’s a ridiculous assertion on his part. But anyway, look, people have a right to question all of our ages. It’s a totally legitimate thing. All I can say is watch me. Just watch me.”
Biden said he welcomed being in Iowa on the same day as Trump as a “clarifying event.” His argument essentially was that Trump’s whole act has gotten old, exposing the president as a fraud not just as politician, but as a man.
“The truth is he’s scared,” Biden planned to say in Davenport. He was referring specifically to the effect Trump’s trade tariffs could have in Iowa and critical midwestern swing states but signaling his broader theme — that Biden frightens Trump because he alone has the standing to strip away the illusions behind his presidency.
Biden taunted Trump’s inability to deliver on his boasts to overturn Obamacare. (“Now he’s got his tail between his legs and barely mentions it.”) He said he lacks the dignity to represent America overseas. (“He gets up in the middle of the night to attack Bette Midler….a stunning display of childishness for the whole world to see.”) Above all, he said Trump is too self-absorbed to care about ordinary people. (“Donald, it’s not about you — it’s about America.”)
For his part, Trump didn’t stop at saying Biden’s message is old and tired. He said the Democrat’s physical and mental faculties are the same, dispensing almost entirely with euphemism or indirection.
“He’s a different guy,” Trump said of Biden. “He acts different than he used to. He looks different than he used to.”
“I’d rather run against, I think, Biden than anybody,” Trump told reporters. “I think he’s the weakest mentally and I think Joe is weak mentally. The others have much more energy.”
Subtle stuff, no?
It is folly, surely, to analyze Trump’s words too literally: If he really thinks Biden is so weak that he hopes he wins the Democratic nomination, why would he say so, and then simultaneously say that he thinks Biden is about to get beat by more liberal and energetic rivals in his party?
On the other hand, it is probably equal folly to look too hard for hidden motives and stratagems in his remarks: Trump mocks his leading opponents because that’s what he has always done, giving no more thought than a shark does about whether he prefers to bite first in the swimmer’s thigh or torso.
Even so, the day in Iowa did unmistakably show Biden and Trump both tackling strategic imperatives.
The most important involved taking well-known life stories and presenting them in the most favorable light. Biden and Trump both can appear either commanding or vulnerable depending on the frame of reference.
Biden, in one light, can be seen as latter-day Harold Stassen, still at it after all these years, a guy who always thought he would be a good president but never convinced many voters of that. It was this interpretation that Trump seemed very purposefully trying to amplify.
“I call him ‘1% Joe’ because until Obama came along he didn’t do very well,” Trump honked, in remarks on the White House South Lawn as he departed for Iowa.
At the same time, it is possible to view Biden’s autumnal moment in almost Churchillian terms — a man who spent decades in preparation, whose moment has come round at last. Biden suggested something like this in his first appearance of the day in Ottumwa. He said he would run his 2020 campaign in the same humble and persistent fashion that he first ran for Senate in 1972 at the age of 29: “My name is Joe Biden. I’m running, in this case, running for president of the United States. Look me over….”
In Trump’s case, he knows that he can look weak or formidable from different angles. From a conventional perspective, he is a president who never commands majority support in polls and is losing in head-to-head match-ups against Biden and other top Democrats in key states. From another perspective, though, Trump is the guy who has confounded expectations and successfully caricatured rivals in his own party and among the Democrats time and again.
The relish with which he came to Iowa (ABC News morning anchor George Stephanopoulos was on board Air Force One for the trip) and showered ridicule on Biden was as if he was trying to signal to Democrats:I’ve still got it, and will do to your 2020 nominee what I did to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Beyond atmospherics, the day had Trump and Biden both doing clean up chores on some substance.
During a visit to Iowa last month, Biden appeared to discount the competitive threat posed by China, in remarks that were widely criticized. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!” he said in May. “They’re not competition for us.”
On Tuesday, Biden clarified: “We need to get tough with China. They are a serious challenge to us, and in some areas a real threat. And every single step that Donald Trump is taking is only exacerbating the challenge.” He said Trump is mishandling the trade competition with China, and generally weakening the United States‘ position with allies in ways that China will exploit.
Trump has his own issue vulnerabilities with Iowans. His trade battles with China and other countries have imposed high costs on domestic agriculture. While he has pushed successfully for farming relief subsidies, the day was an effort to further mend fences. He brought his Secretary of Agriculture along with him. He toured the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy facility, an ethanol plant in Council Bluffs that relies on Iowa corn. Among the participants for the tour: Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig and Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.