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.”
Can you say “overcompensation”?
For all his many faults, Trump’s four years have hardly been characterized as a moment of quiet deference. To the contrary, he’s sought out dustups with the media and produced mutinies on an epic scale (who will be the next former staffer to cut an ad for Republican Voters Against Trump?). He revels in the conflict. He enjoys taking the fight to an opponent. If he doesn’t have an opponent, he creates one.
So, consider it rather ironic that the president who suggested that his opponent was using performance-enhancing drugs (you know, because Biden is in some sort of cognitive decline and if he’s doing well he must be on something) was the one who appeared like he was having a case of ’roid rage for 90 minutes.
From the moment he stepped on the stage, Trump was scowling, his facial hue was more red than orange. He rarely faced the camera — surprising for someone so well-versed with television.
Instead, he glared at Biden throughout. When not glaring at Biden, Trump’s fury was turned toward moderator Chris Wallace who struggled to get control of a debate that went off the rails within the first few minutes. But glares and scowls don’t translate too well on TV — especially in a split-screen format that presidential debates invite.
So, that basically explains what unfolded Tuesday night. A president feeling unconstrained, always on the attack, always interrupting, never hesitating to go below the belt in service of a win — most notable when Biden talked about his son Beau, an Iraq veteran whom he lost to cancer. Trump turned it around, ignoring Beau and bringing up (for the second or third time in the night) Biden’s more problematic son, Hunter, he of the drug troubles and the questionable financial deals.
But this is one of several places where Trump’s apparent need to make amped-up personal attacks undermined a strategic focus that might have served him better: How different things might have been if, instead of cheap shots against Hunter Biden, Trump reminded viewers (and voters) of his administration’s (not altogether poor) record against opioids?
Meanwhile, as social media noted that Biden never raised impeachment (remember that brief moment when it was the biggest story of 2020?). But, as Biden might say, here’s the deal: The former vice president essentially reimpeached Trump over his incompetent handling of the COVID crisis. He was most effective, not in telling Trump to “shut up, man” (as satisfying as that might have seemed for many viewers), but in repeating the stark stats: the number of deaths, the number of infected — 4% of the world’s population, 20% of the world’s coronavirus deaths. Cold facts can be far more brutal than hot posturing. But ignore not the kicker: “It is what it is because you are who you are.”
By constantly dwelling on Hunter’s service on the board of the Ukraine company Burisma, Trump sounded like he was the one stuck in a past that few Americans have time for in a time of COVID. Meanwhile, charges that Hunter took money from the mayor of Moscow — what was that about? Too often, Trump speaks in a clipped shorthand that fails to put in context his precise allegation. If you’re a Fox News viewer, maybe you got it. If you’re not, you didn’t. In short, he had barbs for his enemy, but precious little for the people at home.
Biden got combative when necessary, but in a critical way, he beat Trump on Trump’s own turf, the aforementioned cool medium of television. Contrary to the dementia slurs, Biden seemed scrupulously aware of his surroundings. Sure, he turned to Trump and acted dismissive of him. Sure, he called him a clown. But when it most counted, Biden’s body language focused on the audience at home. Rather than go down the rabbit hole of how much money Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka have made since Trump became president (SPOILER: It’s lots), Biden shut it down. He offered both a heartfelt defense of his son’s struggles with addiction and a declaration trained directly into the camera, “This is not about my family or his family. It’s about YOUR family.”
Indeed, several times, when Trump went off on a rant, Biden returned to the camera, smiled a great toothy grin (yes, the best veneers that money can buy) and acted like he wasn’t taking it too seriously.
As Napoleon (or was it Lee Atwater?) said, “Never get in the way of your opponent when he’s busy destroying himself.” Biden didn’t need Trump’s disturbing “stand back and stand by” wink to the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group, to pass the “which one on this stage looks more presidential” test, but it perfectly settled the question.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Robert A. George is a member of the New York Daily News Editorial Board.
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