Somewhere along the way, Donald Trump and his team looked at nearly four decades of presidential debates and decided on an unconventional approach. Going back to at least 1984, incumbents running for a second term have looked laconic during the first debate against their challenger.
Ronald Reagan looked tired against Walter Mondale, raising questions about his age. He bounced back in the follow-up. In 2004, George W. Bush admitted that he got his butt kicked. More recently, Mitt Romney swamped Barack Obama.
After four years of a cossetted, deferential lifestyle, rarely challenged in public, presidents find themselves in a bubble, unwilling to take a challenger seriously. Conversely, opponents have usually navigated a competitive primary with multiple debates. One is in fighting form; the other is not.
Perhaps Trump said, “That won’t be me. I’ll go after Sleepy Joe.”