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Post presidential debate: it's a remarkable moment in American politics


Can you believe it was only one week ago this morning that Americans were absorbing the news of a presidential debate? President Biden dismayed many of his own supporters and raised concerns about his ability to win or serve four more years. President Trump came off better, it seems, although he repeatedly ducked when asked to answer voters' concerns growing out of his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat. We talked through this moment with two former White House speechwriters who were with us before the debate and come back now after. Mary Kate Cary wrote speeches for President George H. W. Bush, is now at the University of Virginia. Good morning.

MARY KATE CARY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And Paul Orzulak was a speechwriter in the Clinton administration and co-founded West Wing Writers. Good morning to you.

PAUL ORZULAK: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Paul, we'll start with you. How are Democrats talking through the possibility of a change at the top of the ticket?

ORZULAK: Well, can't we just talk about Labour beating the Conservatives a little bit longer?


INSKEEP: Good for your side on a global scale, but there is the matter of the 2024 election in America.

ORZULAK: Well, the conversation we're having is this, that Donald Trump is a weak candidate. He's a twice-impeached convicted felon who lied 50 times in a 90-minute debate who wants to be a dictator on day one. And the Supreme Court just removed the guardrails around his presidency. And we need to see that President Biden can make the case against him and for us. And that's what we're all watching for right now. And it's a big day.

INSKEEP: Do you mean to say that he can't make that case?

ORZULAK: I'm saying that most people who watched the debate would - were concerned that he could make that case, and I think we all agree with that because it was a tough night, as he has said.

INSKEEP: Is there a separate concern? One is winning in November. The other is being able to serve four years from now.

ORZULAK: Well, that's the - one of the problems now is that this moment has taken away a talking point that we've had. This is about the last 3 1/2 years and the incredible record. He's been an incredible president. And the retort now is, well, it's about the last three years; it's about the next four years. We need to put the focus back on Donald Trump and not on the question of the next four years. And the president needs to do that tonight in the interview with George Stephanopoulos and in the rally he has today in Wisconsin.

INSKEEP: Thanks for the reminder that the president is doing that interview that'll be on a primetime special this evening. Mary Kate Cary, as a Republican, what do you think about this?

CARY: Well, as a Republican, of course, I want Biden to stay in office because Trump's poll numbers the last two weeks, he's been up in 13 polls straight. The entire 2020 race, he was only up in five polls the entire time. So as a partisan person, yeah, I want him to stay in office. But more importantly, as an American, I think most of us saw history being made last Thursday night, and it was not good. And we're all worried about the message that Biden's condition is sending to our enemies. He looks vulnerable. And as a result, our nation looks vulnerable. And so to counter what Paul just said, I'm worried about the next four years. I'm worried about the next four months. I'm worried about the next four days as Biden stays in the office, and I think it's time for him to step down. But that doesn't...

INSKEEP: Oh, you want him...

CARY: ...Necessarily mean what the Republicans want. Yeah.

INSKEEP: You're urging him to resign, not just just step away from the ticket?

CARY: Correct. Yes.

INSKEEP: The most obvious replacement is Vice President Harris on the ticket, and, of course, if he were to quit his job, that's who would get the job. Is it presumed among political professionals that some other candidate would have an advantage? Because I can see it the other way.

CARY: Right now, the polling is showing that Democrats have a better shot at the White House without Biden, according to three-quarters of the - those polled by CNN this week. Harris is ahead in the polls over Biden right now in that CNN poll. And so as a Republican, I would say, don't underestimate her. She's got an advantage in the polls and better betting averages over the other replacements that are being floated out there. And my advice to her would be to appear as serious as she can and as loyal as she can. And I think she's got a chance.


ORZULAK: Can I add to that? She's a fantastic vice president. She's a terrific, loyal Democrat. She'll do everything that she needs to do to make sure that we win this election. And she is out there talking about making the case against Donald Trump and about what he wants to do in the second term, which we haven't talked enough about. He wants to put people in camps. He wants to pardon the insurrectionists. He wants mass deportations and a national abortion ban. He wants to obliterate NATO. These are the things that we need to see the president making the case for. We see surrogates making it for him. We need to see the president...

INSKEEP: Got to note a couple...

ORZULAK: ...Is out doing it.

INSKEEP: ...Of things there. We should note that former President Trump has denied that he wants a national abortion ban, and instead, he will leave it to the states. Although Harris, among others, has predicted what he would do. We should also note about Vice President Harris - she's been criticized a lot. She's been memed a lot for the way that she's spoken in some public appearances. She's got some vulnerabilities.

But I want to put a big question on the table here. It could be argued that on a global scale, this year is a year of change elections, almost without regard of which direction people go, they want to go somewhere else. There's a shift to the right in France. There's a shift to the left in the U.K. They clipped the power of the prime minister in India. We could name some other places. In the United States right now, we have two candidates who are choices from the past. Age maybe is only part of that. And so, let me ask you both, would either party get some benefit from a fresher face?

ORZULAK: Well, I would say that the Republicans thought Ron DeSantis was going to be a fresher face, but once he got exposed to the electorate, it was a different story. You never know about your - we have a very deep bench. We have fantastic candidates across the board. But introducing somebody in a national campaign, there's always a risk to it because people don't know the people that are running, particularly on the Republican side. And I would argue that we have time to make the case if that's the case, if the president makes a decision to drop out. But there are no guarantees.

INSKEEP: Mary Kate?

CARY: Yeah. I hear it in my classroom all the time from young people. There are a lot of voters who are not happy with the age of either one of these candidates, and I would make the argument that it's time for a new generation in both parties. And that's certainly what I saw a lot yesterday at Monticello with these new citizens being sworn in that I got to go see.

INSKEEP: Oh, tell me about that. What was going on?

CARY: Yeah. It was beautiful. If every American goes to see that, it would be great. Seventy-five new citizens were sworn in from something like 25 countries, and they passed the mic around, and they all got to talk about why they want to be Americans. It was - it brought tears to your eyes, and it was - the message is that our democracy is strong. And one person on either side of the aisle - 'cause they're both pointing the finger at the other - that each one's going to take democracy away from us. And the feeling is there are many Americans who can come forward and save our democracy. It's not up to one person. It's beautiful.

ORZULAK: Well, in two years we have the 250th anniversary of our country, and we - all the things that we've stood for in the world and that we hold dear as Americans, we wanted to see continue in this...

INSKEEP: All right.

ORZULAK: ...Country because it's the greatest country in the world.

INSKEEP: Beautiful thought to close on. Paul Orzulak and Mary Kate Cary, speechwriters for two different presidents from two different parties. Thanks to you both.

ORZULAK: Thank you, Steve.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND FAODAIL'S SONG, "ALL EQUAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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