Trump’s Debate Strategy: ‘Sleepy Joe’ Is Now ‘Shrewd Joe’

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The current president thinks that the former vice president may be on drugs, and Donald Trump has asked that Joe Biden pee in a cup. He insists he isn’t kidding. “I’m not joking,” he clarified when asked about the seriousness of his public calls for toxicology screenings of his opponent. “I’m willing to take a drug test. I think he should too.” 

Trump insists that the signs of substance use are plainly visible, if the press would only look.  

He watched Biden clash with other candidates early on in the Democratic primary, “and I said there’s no way he could continue.” When he watched Biden go toe-to-toe with Sen. Bernie Sanders, “I said, ‘How did he go from there, with those horrible performances, to where he was, okay?’” 

Neither candidate has taken a drug test. No presidential candidate ever has because the Presidential Debate Commission doesn’t have a doping policy. But less than 48 hours before the first 2020 debate, Trump stood behind the White House podium and suggested that Biden might be cheating with performance-enhancing drugs that stave off mental decline and boost cognitive ability. 

He did not offer proof. He just asked that reporters “check out the Internet.” His debate coaches, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, sat nearby. They didn’t say a word.

Trump spent the summer questioning the mental dexterity of his opponent. He long-ago dubbed him “Sleepy Joe.” When that didn’t quite stick, the Republican began mocking the Democrat for shying away from public appearances during the pandemic and another nickname was needed. This time it was “Hidin’ Biden.” The terms work on different levels, and Trump will use one or the other — or both — to the delight of the MAGA faithful who turn out to his rallies.

But what happens when Biden doesn’t hide and when Biden is not at all sleepy? Some Republicans worry that the bar has been set so low that the challenger can easily exceed expectations. Ahead of the debate, the doping charges appear to be an attempt to explain why the candidate isn’t living up to Trump’s bad branding. Either way, Trump World is doing its best to manage expectations for Tuesday night’s match-up.

As first reported in The Hill, Trump’s campaign sent a list of talking points to congressional Republicans and their staffs. “Biden’s alertness may be suspect,” the document reads, but — it warned in bold and red and underlined letters — “DO NOT underestimate his abilities in a debate.”

It isn’t that the campaign fears Trump will perform poorly. Instead, officials caution that the president may not be as polished as his interlocutor because, while Biden has been cramming for the debate, Trump has been dealing with an unprecedented pandemic and foreign affairs. “Joe Biden has had nothing but time to prepare for the debates as he’s hidden in his basement and avoided accountability from voters and the media,” Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso told RCP before adding that “rehearsed, canned responses” will fall flat when compared to Trump’s track record. 

The Trump team is right on at least one undeniable point: Biden’s camp does call “lids” early and often. Journalist jargon for when a politician ends travel and press appearances for the day, lids have been called by the campaign with increasing frequency as the debate has approached, so much so that even mentioning the topic elicits an audible groan from Biden’s campaign staff. 

“A lid is when you put out word you’re not going to be campaigning today. So, he does a lid all the time,” Trump told a crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., last Thursday. Meanwhile, “I’m working my ass off! I’m in Ohio. I’m in Texas. I’m in Florida. I’m in Michigan. I’m in Wisconsin.” 

Between political travel and regular presidential duties, there has been little room for traditional debate prep. Even if the incumbent hasn’t had much time to work on his delivery, campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh insists Trump hasn’t lost a step. “The president prepares for debates by being president,” he told RealClearPolitics, “and by his regular engagement with the extremely hostile Washington press corps.” And while the nicknames for Biden have evolved, Murtaugh said no one is taking the opponent for granted: “He is a master debater — there’s no question.”

But which is it? Is it Biden-the-slightly-senile, as the president suggests and the campaign has spent millions arguing in ad buys? Or is it Biden-the-shrewd-political-operator? Murtaugh suggested it could be both and cited his numerous debate outings as a three-time presidential candidate and two-time vice-presidential nominee.

“It’s clear that Biden has his good days and his bad days,” the spokesman explained. “But when the cameras come on, and it’s time to debate, he has always been able to turn it on, and that’s the Biden we expect to see.”

“He knows when it’s show time,” he concluded. 

The Biden camp was somewhat taken aback by the lately offered respect and not a little amused. “There are probably a lot of Tim Murtaughs out there. Is this the same one who’s been shouting from the rooftops for months that Joe Biden is mentally incapacitated and is going to withdraw from the debates in fear?” a senior Biden aide told RCP. 

“If so, I have questions,” the aide added. 

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper also had questions. Ahead of the debate in Cleveland, he told RCP that Trump cannot have it both ways. “Why they are moving the expectations all over, I don’t know,” he said. “They apparently think he’s gonna need some kind of wonder drug that makes you good at debates now that they think he’s already amazing.”

Campaigns always try to manage public and press expectations to either capitalize on the subsequent boom or avoid the bust. High expectations can sink an underperforming candidate while low expectations provide a cushion regardless of the outcomes. “You want to go into any debate with your expectations as low as possible,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer told RCP.

Spicer was also careful not to downplay Biden’s debating abilities. Even then, he predicted that the media would “declare him the winner purely by him just standing up straight.” But he also suggested another way to look at the contest, which will be watched by tens of millions of voters: It might not matter. 

Spicer points back to the 2012 debate between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama. The Republican seemed to win the first round, and the GOP was ecstatic. But then they learned the hard way that most of the audience had already made up their mind who would get their vote before the debate. 

“Say you’re a Patriots fan and they play the Jets, who have a good game,” Spicer said, borrowing a football metaphor. “Acknowledging that [the Jets] had a good game doesn’t mean you’re no longer a fan of [the Patriots].” The same goes for the debates, he continued. “In theory, you can be a Trump supporter and acknowledge Biden had a good debate. It doesn’t mean you’ll vote for him and vice-versa.” 

Erik Smith, an Obama-era operative who served as a senior adviser for message development on that successful reelection campaign, said after such a tumultuous, unprecedented year where so many Americans have suffered from the pandemic and the economic shutdown, the entire expectations-setting exercise is a throwback to a different time, one in which the stakes were much lower. 

“While ‘working the ref’ might be a fun in normal campaigns, the likely debate focus on the more than 200,000 Americans who died from COVID make those parlor games seem quaint and dated,” he told RCP.

And things were simpler just four years ago. There was no pandemic, no global economic downturn, no widespread effort to defund police. One constant remains, namely that Beltway politicos and cable news analysts expect a poor outing from Trump. They panned his performance. They said Hillary Clinton the winner. He won the election anyway, and a source familiar with the president’s thinking said that’s one of the reasons Trump is sticking with his own method.  

Traditional debate prep? “We don’t engage in it,” a Trump campaign source said.

“It was much more conversational. We would throw out ideas, and we would throw out a question and he would answer,” the source explained, recounting the last debate cycle. “We never attempted to fill him in with specific language that we wanted him to say. We want Donald Trump to be Donald Trump.” 

Few moments were more off-the-cuff and genuine for Trump than when Clinton questioned if her opponent possessed the temperament needed to be president. “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she said. He retorted: “Because you’d be in jail.” 

The back-and-forth “was never rehearsed,” the source recalled, “and it was never discussed.” The zinger came from a freewheeling candidate who made his name in the entertainment industry. “He felt that he was being attacked, and so he dropped that line, and people were like, ‘Oh, my God.’ The place erupted,” the source said. “That’s what you can expect.”

This time around, Biden’s legislative record and his propensity for gaffes are likely targets. “Trump is not going to be afraid to remind the people watching that Joe Biden called black men ‘predators,’” the source said in reference to the then-senator’s 1994 crime bill. “Trump is not going to be afraid to remind people that Joe Biden said that a black reporter was on crack,” the source added, citing a recent testy interview. 

Republicans close to the president have been studying each of Biden’s debates going back to 1972 when he first ran for Senate. The early conclusion, the source said, is that “this is not the Joe Biden who crushed Paul Ryan eight years ago. This is a very different Joe Biden, and our ability to get him off topic is going to be important.”

To throw the former vice president off track, the source has suggested that Trump will answer a question from the moderator and then pose his own. “I don’t think Joe is going to want to answer questions direct from the president. So look, the more Joe stutters and stumbles and makes mistakes and says things that just don’t resonate or make sense, the more we’re winning.” 

Come Tuesday evening, Biden will try to do what no Republican or Democrat has managed to achieve so far. He will try to survive 90 minutes in prime time with a punch-happy populist. The one thing he certainly won’t do is entertain the idea of a drug test. 

“Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said in a statement Sunday. “We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop COVID-19.”

Murtaugh took that “as a ‘no.’” He added, “If there is an explanation for why we see different Joe Bidens all the time, I think voters should have access to the reason.” 

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.





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