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Díaz and Boas: Biden-Trump debate proves America is in decline

This combination of photos shows former President Donald Trump (left) and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN on Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
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, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Last week’s debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump has led to a lot of discussion about whether Biden is up for the job and whether Democrats should look to replace him at the top of the ticket.

It’s also led to a lot of discussion about the number of lies Trump told and whether or not he should have been called out on them.

But the debate has also led to some concern for the country.

Phil Boas, columnist for the Arizona Republic, wrote about the future of American leadership in the current climate.

He joined The Show along with Republic editorial page editor Elvia Díaz to talk more about this.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: Phil, let me start with you about the column you wrote, and you looked at the debate through the lens of what it meant for the country. And in your mind, it was not a good thing.

PHIL BOAS: Yeah. When I looked at this, I didn’t see a victory for either of the candidates. What I saw was American decline. And I was thinking about if you could go back 40 years and you took the Americans who watched the Reagan-Mondale debate and immediately after that, in 1984, you you gave them a look at the future, and you let them watch the presidential debate that would happen 40 years from now between a guy named Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who they knew back then. They knew Trump as well.

But if they could watch that, they would have just been appalled at what they saw. It was appalling. It was a symbol of American decline. And we don’t have the luxury to be this silly and trivial. We have real threats that are gathering on the horizon, and this country has to sober up very quickly.

BRODIE: Elvia, did you see this the same way? Did you see the debate as a sign of American decline?

ELVIA DÍAZ: Yes, on so many levels. I mean, I don’t think there should be any disagreement here, not only from the performances of of the candidates — so you have one, Joe Biden who, you know, clearly it was a brutal night for him. There’s no denying what happened there.

I mean, he just couldn’t do it. And you could see his agility and mental decline right in front of our eyes. So that was very painful to see.

On the other hand, you have another candidate who was much better at delivering lies, essentially. And that’s what is the decline. I mean, with Donald Trump doing better performance-wise but spewing one lie after another. And then with a format that validated all that, validated President Biden’s mental decline and also validated the lies without calling them out right on the spot.

Elvia Díaz and Phil Boas
The Arizona Republic, Phil Boas
Elvia Díaz and Phil Boas

BRODIE: Phil, you referenced the Reagan-Mondale debates of 40 years ago and how how what happened last week did not look like that. But I’ve got to ask, the last few cycles at least, people have been saying you don’t get much out of the debates. Four years ago, a lot of folks were saying nothing came out of the debates.

And even if you think about eight years ago between former President Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the debates, it seems recently have become more about one memorable one-liners and attacks against the other person. Not so much a great debate of ideas. So I’m curious, what about last week’s signaled decline when some of the others in recent cycles haven’t?

BOAS: Well, decline has been happening for a while. And so presidential debates have been getting further and further away from ideals and policy — and turning more into this sort of modern smashmouth that we have today. It’s just tribal and it’s just going for each other’s throats.

And I found it amazing that there were Republicans who thought Trump did great in that debate. Trump was terrible in that debate. Trump was one superlative after another. He stretched the truth. He lied, made bald-faced lies about all kinds of things. The man can’t command facts. He is not literate in any way. And it was just a mess.

And my point is we can’t do that now because we have adversaries out there who are incredibly dangerous. And that’s why I started that piece with a quote by Robert Gates, who was defense secretary for both (former President George) W. Bush and also for (former President Barack) Obama for a while. And he said, “The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever.”

And we are in a cold war right now with China. And China is not like the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was an economic basket case, and it was a nuclear power. It was a nuclear superpower. China is a military nuclear superpower. And it’s also an economic superpower. And it is a real threat to our future and our way of life.

And the threat of a great powers war is around the corner. And we’ve got to get serious as a country. And it’s not going to happen with the two guys we’ve got right now. So it was very disturbing to watch.

BRODIE: Phil, given the fact that one of those two will either become again or continue to be president come January, what does all that mean? And how do we, as you say, sober up, get serious about this given that what we saw last week, one of those two people will be commander in chief?

BOAS: Well, the good news here is that underneath the president are a lot of serious people. The Council on Foreign Relations launched a China initiative last week with a program with a lot of smart, literate, highly intellectual people who were speaking intelligently about the big issues that confront us in ways that Biden and Trump are incapable of doing.

And so there is a layer beneath them of smart people who know that we have to be concerned about what is on the horizon, and they’re talking about it in intelligent ways. But it is very troubling to know that whoever the person at the top is going to be sort of disabled in ways. They don’t have the capabilities to make important decisions that will have to be made from the Oval Office.

BRODIE: Yeah. Elvia, I’m curious what in your mind this all means for American foreign policy, for American defense here, given this country, as Robert Gates said, is facing the greatest threat it’s faced in quite a while.

DÍAZ: That’s it. That’s the bottom line of everything. Not only foreign threats that were facing but domestic as well. So we are a very huge country and incredibly complex. So you do need a commander in chief who is going to be at the top of his or her game, and we just don’t have that.

So I do believe that we are in a crisis mode as a nation, domestically and again internationally in the kind of debate that we’re having. To Phil’s point, it’s so devastating on so many levels, not not only the the debate performance — which has become just an entertainment TV show, Then you go back to what Phil was saying: clearly Biden has a lot of competent people around him.

And it begins with us as well. Something that we haven’t discussed, the three of us, is our responsibility as media, right? I don’t know what has been more brutal to me, watching that debate or watching the debaters talk about it later.

BRODIE: Elvia, is it too naive to think that at some point presidential debates could go back to what they were? I’m not even talking like Lincoln-Douglas. But Phil referenced the Reagan-Mondale debates ’80s. Is it possible to get back to that, where the candidates aren’t really just trying to attack each other and score one-liner points, but to actually express what they think about issues and what they’d like to do?

DÍAZ: I wish I knew, because it speaks to the state of journalism as well. As I mentioned, it’s an entertainment show. That’s that’s all it is. And we just witnessed that. So it’s up to us — to the American people — to see what kind of media we want, what kind of candidates, the quality of the candidates to be to begin with.

And it’s not just TV. But as of right now, unfortunately, I wish I knew what the future holds in terms of presidential debates. Right now it’s just not looking great.

BRODIE: Phil, obviously this is a very different ecosystem, political ecosystem, media ecosystem than it was even a decade or so ago. Is it possible to go back to a time when candidates discussed issues, maybe got a few personal jabs in there as well, but we left the debates really having a sense of what the candidates thought about particular issues and what they would do?

BOAS: I think this is a temporary departure from American seriousness. I think we’ll get back because we’ll have to, because the Chinese are going to force us to be much more serious about how we run this country and how we conduct our politics.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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