By Decreasing the Debate Bar for Biden, Has Trump Set a Lure for Himself?
WASHINGTON – President Trump has set up the first general election debate as a test of his opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
At the same time, he has kept the bar so low for so long that many of his supporters – after seeing flattering, often rigged clips of Mr. Biden in ads for Trump campaigns or on Fox News – now expect the president to use an incoherent word wiping the floor of opponents in what resembles a WWE match.
Democrats – and even some Republicans – believe this isn’t likely.
The misleading notion that Mr Biden is too confused for the presidency has been driven by Mr Trump since 2018, when he started referring to the former Vice President as Sleepy Joe. Since then, Mr Trump has penned a narrative in speeches, interviews and at his rallies portraying the former Vice President as shrunken, both physically and mentally, hoping to lead voters to believe that Mr Biden is not fit for office.
It’s a message that Mr. Trump’s campaign spent millions of dollars reinforcing it, often in misleading, pieced-together clips that contrast an energetic Mr. Biden from the past with a supposedly barely-functioning one now. And the campaign asked voters, “Has something happened to Joe Biden?”
“It’s an awkward conversation, but voters deserve to be able to gauge Joe Biden’s abilities by seeing him and listening to him in his own words, especially when compared to a few years ago,” said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for the Trump campaign tweeted.
Most recently, the President had the unsubstantiated assumption that Mr Biden was taking performance-enhancing drugs. Trump allies have pushed the issue even further. North Carolina representative Joe Murphy made a direct claim last month that Mr. Biden had dementia.
All of this means that the tactic backfired if Mr Biden doesn’t appear weak.
Brett O’Donnell, a Republican strategist who trained candidates before the debates, said the Trump campaign might have given Mr. Biden an unintended gift.
“In attempting to report that Biden may not be eligible for office, the campaign may also have lowered expectations for his debate performance,” said O’Donnell.
The President’s advisors studied Mr Biden’s various debates and warned Mr Trump months ago that the former Vice President had successfully conducted a lengthy individual debate with Senator Bernie Sanders towards the end of their main fight in March. Outside advisors warned Mr Trump that he had to change the way he played the game of anticipation with Mr Biden.
This is why Mr Trump has tried to change his approach in his public comments and reluctantly acknowledged that Mr Biden did well in the two-man debate.
Given that Mr Biden’s performance could exceed low expectations set by the president, Mr Trump on Sunday morning tossed down a wild proposal of a “drug test” before or after the debate. “Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy,” Trump tweeted during Mr Biden’s debates, claiming the former Vice President’s debates were “UNEVEN, to say the least.”
Mr Trump couldn’t stop pointing out where Mr Biden struggled in overcrowded primary debates. And the set has been in the works for years.
“There’s talk of Joe Biden, Sleepy Joe, going into the race,” Trump said at the Gridiron Dinner in 2018. “Just trust me, I would kick his ass.”
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In March 2018, after Mr Biden said he would beat up Mr Trump if the two were still in high school (a comment he later apologized for), Mr Trump tweeted that the former Vice President was “both mentally and be physically weak “and claimed,” He doesn’t know me, but he would go down quick and hard and cry all the way. “
Mr Trump began to focus more on the intellectual deficiencies during Democratic Elementary School over the past year. “I’d rather run against Biden than against anyone,” said Mr. Trump. “I think he’s the weakest mentally.”
The president has often made projections and accused his political opponents of the same allegations they made against him. Mr Biden’s case was no different. In trying to portray Mr Biden as old and senile, Mr Trump has also been defending his own ability to drink water from a glass unaided and walk confidently down a ramp. Groups supporting Mr. Biden have posted clips of Mr. Trump blurring his words or speaking incoherently.
In the past few weeks, when Mr Biden cut his campaign schedule to allow time for debate prep sessions in Delaware, Mr Trump has been practicing mostly on the go. He and his election officials have talked about how to bring up the most uncomfortable subjects for Mr Biden, such as the sexual assault allegations Tara Reade has made against him, even casually bringing them up for debate, and personal attacks on Mr Biden’s son Hunter .
His staff put together a 30-page bulleted folder for him. Instead of regular, formal meetings, helpers who travel with him to rallies or official events have used the time on the plane to shower him with questions.
Sep. 28, 2020, 9:40 p.m. ET
He had a few meetings in the Oval Office where he spoke about the debate with advisers and aides, including former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his advisors Hope Hicks, Jason Miller and Stephen Miller, and his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, according to several People familiar with the meetings. At least one more preparatory session should take place at the weekend.
Mr Trump has never preferred to prepare a formal debate with mock-ups on lecterns. Instead, in 2016, he preferred to tell war stories and share his thoughts. His opponent that year, Hillary Clinton, received a bump in the polls after each of the three debates.
But Mrs. Clinton was known to be a strong debater. Mr Biden – even if he’s not what the Trumpian cartoon wants him to be – suffered from some very rocky moments of debate in the Democratic primary last year and may encounter them again. Mr. Biden regularly interrupted himself before his time to speak was up, and it sounded like he was having trouble getting his thoughts off. He sometimes says the opposite of what he means.
“I would get rid of capital gains tax – I would raise capital gains tax,” he said in a debate last year.
Karl Rove, who served as President George W. Bush’s chief strategist and gave informal advice to the president and his campaign, admitted that lowering expectations of Mr. Biden was “perhaps” an unintended gift.
But he said Mr Biden had bigger problems to solve than just exceed that low bar. “What I see on the battlefield in these Senate polls is that people know that Joe Biden was Obama’s Vice President and that he has been around long. You don’t really know the guy, ”he said. “The Biden voter is simply an anti-Trump voter. What if he doesn’t say what he is for and what is it about? “
The Biden campaign has now told people that no outcome of the debate will fundamentally change the contours of a race defined by the president’s handling of the pandemic since March, even if the president performs well on stage. According to someone familiar with the campaign’s strategy, Mr Biden’s hope on Tuesday evening is to continue the election on the president’s accountability for lives lost to the coronavirus while showing what it would be like to have a responsible leader Who doesn’t need real-time verification and who is trying to bring the country together?
Democrats are concerned that Mr. Trump may be able to bring control to Mr. Biden by talking about Hunter Biden. The president has spoken repeatedly about the younger Mr Biden over the past week, and Republicans have tried to encourage negative news media coverage of him.
In the past, Mr Biden struggled to provide definitive answers to questions about his son’s work abroad and whether any conflict of interest questions were raised while his father was in office. While Mr. Biden’s empathy and love for his children have called for cards for voters who like him, they have made it difficult for him to calm those questions.
Mr Rove accused him of trying to “defend the untenable”.
It is not clear, however, that the mere confusion of Mr Biden with gritty corruption allegations will necessarily have the intended effect on the audience watching at home. “Trump must try to change the public perception of him,” said David Axelrod, former top advisor to President Barack Obama. “It won’t do that.”
Mr Trump’s allies are also concerned that the president, generally made up of people who oppose him, cannot resist the temptation to defend himself face-to-face against criticism from Mr Biden.
Mr. O’Donnell reckoned that Mr. Trump would “try to put pressure on Mr. Biden” through tactics such as interruption, attribution, and a physically dominant presence on stage.
“Nobody figured out how to debate the president because he’s so unconventional,” said O’Donnell. “Because moderators never call him about any of these things, neither can the candidates.”
Still, Democrats said the person who needed a reset was not Mr. Biden.
“The pressure has shifted to Trump,” said Axelrod. “We’re late in the race; People are already voting. Biden’s lead was seven to eight points. This is his last best chance to shake up the momentum. “