LATROBE, Penn. — Person, woman, man, camera, TV.
After weathering months of insults and millions of dollars in advertising painting him as senile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden could likely just recite those five words — which President Donald Trump previously claimed proved his own cognitive acuity — and instantly exceed expectations in Tuesday night’s first debate.
“The president’s branding has ensured that all ‘Sleepy Joe’ needs to do to survive the debate is to stay awake,” said Terry Sullivan, a Republican consultant who ran Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid. “Not a real well thought-through strategy when you’re debating a guy who has a lot more experience.”
“Totally,” agreed David Axelrod, who was a top aide in former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “It is one of the only times, maybe the only time, that a candidate has so persistently worked to lower expectations for a debate opponent and build them up for himself. Usually, it’s the other way around.”
Trump and Biden are scheduled to meet in the first of three debates Tuesday night at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The second is set for Oct. 15 in Miami and the third on Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. Vice President Mike Pence and Biden running mate Kamala Harris are scheduled to debate on Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.
Historically, candidates heading into these encounters try to raise expectations for their opponents — the easier to cast their own performance as a great success afterward. Indeed, Trump’s professional campaign staff has been doing just that in recent weeks.
“He always can turn it on for debate night,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said of Biden. “He’s been a Washington politician for 47 years, spent decades in the Senate where all they do is debate, won two debates running for vice president, and bested two dozen opponents in 11 primary debates this time. He knows what he’s doing. That’s the Biden we expect to see.”
Yet Trump himself has undone those efforts at each turn, taking nearly every opportunity to ridicule Biden’s intelligence, cognitive abilities or both.
The president’s branding has ensured that all ‘Sleepy Joe’ needs to do to survive the debate is to stay awake.
Terry Sullivan, Republican consultant
At an airport hangar rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 3, Trump told his audience that Biden did not understand international trade back when he was in the Senate, and understands nothing at all today. “He never got it, still doesn’t get it. Now he really gets nothing, I am telling you. He didn’t get it in prime time. Now he really doesn’t get it,” Trump said.
Four days later, at a news conference on the North Portico of the White House, he repeated that insult, and added another: “Biden is a stupid person. You know that. You’re not going to write it. But you know that.”
Last week, at a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, Trump claimed Biden was too far gone to even understand the policies he is proposing. “Now Biden has put forward the most dangerous and extreme platform of any major party nominee in history. The bad news is he doesn’t even know what the hell it is,” Trump said.
Two nights later, at a rally outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Trump was back to the name-calling: “A dumb guy. He’s a dumb guy. Always known as the dumb guy.”
And on Sunday, Trump returned to a previous baseless claim accusing Biden of somehow improving his mental acuity by using performance-enhancing drugs. Challenged about the source for his information, Trump suggested he found it online: “You can check out the internet. You’ll see. Plenty of people say it.”
The president’s comments build on millions of dollars of television and digital ads — some dishonestly edited to make Biden seem incoherent or doctored to make him look infirm — that the Trump campaign has purchased over a period of months, making it one of the leading lines of attack against his opponent.
All of that, said Trump critic and longtime GOP consultant Rick Wilson, will be wasted if Biden shows on the debate stage that he can string even a few words together. “If your campaign has spent millions of dollars and done dozens of tweets, Facebook posts and earned media statements saying that Joe Biden is senile and he walks on stage and doesn’t drool on himself, you look like a damned fool,” said Wilson, who now helps run the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
How Tuesday night plays out could have an enormous role in the outcome on Nov. 3, if the debates in the two most recent elections that ended with the loss of an incumbent president are a guide.
In 1980, Democratic President Jimmy Carter was in a tight race again Ronald Reagan heading into their one and only debate. Carter had spent much of the year portraying the former California governor as a trigger-happy warmonger.
“Reagan came off as statesmanlike, not a right-wing radical,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “Reagan had to show that he could be calm, warm, tough but not be an extremist.”
With most of the country unhappy with Carter, Reagan wound up winning in a landslide. “Reagan allowed people to imagine him as a sane alternative to Jimmy Carter,” Brinkley said.
A dozen years later, Republican George H.W. Bush faced a similarly unhappy electorate, and this time, Democrat Bill Clinton was able to use the trio of debates to make himself an acceptable alternative. “Those debates were extraordinarily helpful to Bill Clinton,” Brinkley said. “Clinton sold the argument that he could empathize with people’s problems.”
Trump debated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton three times in 2016. She demonstrated at each encounter that she had a superior grasp of the facts and could lay them out more logically and coherently. Trump, nevertheless, won the election, and Brinkley said he cannot imagine Trump will back away from his scorched-earth tactic of attacking and belittling his opponent.
That approach, though, does offer Biden an opportunity to turn the tables and dress Trump down with pointed finger and outrage over Trump’s performance in office.
“Trump’s bully boy routine we see every day at press conferences,” Brinkley said. “But people could be looking at Biden school Trump on foreign and domestic policy.”
Trump has attacked Biden’s abilities despite questions about his own mental and physical condition. The president has, on several occasions, confused his father and his grandfather. He called Apple CEO “Tim Apple” instead of Tim Cook, and then later claimed he was using shorthand. He had trouble coming up with the word “origins” and continually pronounced it “oranges.” At a West Point graduation ceremony in June, he had difficulty walking down a ramp and needed two hands to drink from a glass of water.
And at the Latrobe rally, Trump on two occasions started to poll members of the crowd on their preferences — the first on which insulting nickname they preferred for Biden; the second on whether they liked “Keep America Great” or “Make America Great Again” as the campaign slogan. But he seemed to lose his place each time and never did poll the audience.
Further, Trump’s White House has never given a full explanation for the president’s sudden, unplanned trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on a Saturday last November. Trump subsequently has claimed it was both to start a physical and also to complete a physical — but the circumstances of the trip do not match any other he has made to the hospital.
Apparently sensitive to the questions about his health, Trump has taken to spending portions of interviews and speeches bragging about it. He showed off his ability to drink from a glass with just one hand at his lightly attended June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and spent long minutes in a Fox News interview in July explaining how well he did on a dementia screening test he took in early 2018.
“The first questions are very easy. The last questions are much more difficult, like a memory question. It’s, like, you’ll go: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. So they’ll say, ‘Could you repeat that?’ So I said, ’Yeah. So it’s: Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV,” he said. “If you get it in order, you get extra points.”
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