The Biden-Trump debate made clear: both parties need a new nominee

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

The Biden-Trump debate made clear: both parties need a new nominee

While Americans can take satisfaction in their still-functioning democracy and the free-wheeling airing of issues exemplified by last week’s Biden-Trump debate, the candidates themselves are not a source of either national pride or international respect. 

That two elderly men who are clearly showing their age and their cognitive limitations should be put forward by the Democratic and Republican parties as the best America can offer for leadership of the free world is a source of embarrassment and even shame. 

Joe Biden, at 83, the oldest man ever to serve as president, demonstrated at the debate his now-customary flubs, brain freezes and memory lapses. Donald Trump was not far behind, with his repetitive and often-juvenile attack lines, denials of reality and shallow understanding of international affairs. He seemed competent only by comparison to Biden. 

Anxious Europeans join worried Americans in dreading the prospect that the nation could soon be governed in these extremely perilous times by one or another of two deeply flawed octogenarians. 

While not all men of advanced age show signs of physical and/or mental decline, even the younger Biden and Trump manifested failed judgment on critical national security issues. 

Biden’s decades-long record of foreign policy mistakes was famously recounted by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The updated list includes, among other errors, his shifting positions on the two Iraq wars; his calamitous abandonment of Afghanistan; his failure — first as foreign policy guru for President Obama, then as president — to deter Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022; his hesitant and inadequate support for Ukraine’s defense; and his failure to recognize the dangerous national security implications of his open-door policies at the U.S. Southern border. 

Trump did not do quite as much damage to the nation’s security during his four years (not for lack of trying), thanks to the restraining influence of his superb foreign policy team. Virtually none of those experts, unfortunately, are likely to be included in a possible second Trump term because of their disenchantment with his behavior after his 2020 loss.  

A possible exception is Robert O’Brien, who served as Trump’s last national security adviser and who has just published a sweeping and incisive defense of Trump’s foreign policy record — and critique of Biden’s. O’Brien was one of several members of the Trump foreign policy team who prudently guided him away from his more destructive instincts, such as withdrawing from NATO and undermining alliances in Asia

Though Biden has largely followed the Trump team’s transformative approach to relations with China, O’Brien urges an even tougher policy, including a complete economic decoupling if Beijing continues its aggressive trade practices. He does not delve deeply into Taiwan-related issues, but in an interview last year he supported the revival of Taiwan Strait transits by U.S. Navy carrier battle groups. For years, it has made only single or dual passages with smaller combatant ships, while China routinely sends its carriers through that international waterway. 

If O’Brien were to return as national security adviser, or even as secretary of State or Defense, it is far from certain that he would be able to curb Trump’s isolationist instincts and ego-driven transactional approach to foreign policy. He could have more decisive influence as vice president, however, and in that role perhaps also make Trump more acceptable as commander in chief than many of the people currently being touted for the No. 2 position. 

One area where O’Brien would need to talk sense to Trump is on Ukraine, where Trump recited in the debate the same isolationist nonsense heard in the 1930s — that an ocean safely separates America from Europe and that defending freedom costs too much. 

O’Brien grasps the moral and strategic reality, and would need to educate Trump. “[T]o see people fighting for their freedom — not asking for U.S. troops, not asking for NATO troops, asking for us to be the arsenal of democracy, as we have been in the past, and going out to take on these Russian invaders … inspires all of us,” he said in 2022. “And I think we need to be behind them 100 percent.” 

The ultimate solution to the Trump problem is for the Republican National Convention this month to persuade the former president to withdraw gracefully — or, in his case, triumphantly — and for the Democratic National Convention in August to do the same with Biden. The country will breathe two sighs of relief. A mutual strategic withdrawal is in order. 

For the GOP, O’Brien could be the substitute nominee, which would be acceptable to most Trump supporters and unobjectionable to moderates. Nikki Haley, the last active challenger to Trump in the Republican primaries, who has still managed to garner up to 20 percent of the vote in some states despite suspending her campaign, might be less favored by Trump devotees but more acceptable to independents, moderate Republicans and some Democrats. 

Whoever would replace Trump and eliminate his political baggage would have far better prospects of defeating Biden or any substitute Democratic nominee. If Republicans make the change first, it would motivate Biden and the Democrats also to do the right thing by the country, if only because they would be facing a candidate stronger than Trump. For Biden, with his political bete noire gone, his professed reason for running will dissolve as well. 

If none of these changes materializes and the nation is left with the Biden-Trump nightmare, No Labels may finally be motivated to fulfill its promise to come to the nation’s rescue It could try to persuade Nikki Haley, Robert O’Brien or another respected figure to become a candidate and either actively campaign under its banner or agree to have her or his name entered as a write-in candidate. The political stars are aligned for either approach to succeed. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.