During the first presidential debate on September 29, President Donald Trump appeared to have two distinct strategies. First, he clearly wanted to prove Democratic nominee Joe Biden could not hold his water, that his cognitive decline would not allow him to keep up with Trump. Trump also wanted to get Biden to tie himself up in knots by lurching toward the center and rejecting the radical left faction of the Democratic Party.
The extent to which Trump succeeded in these dual goals should paint his strategy for the next two debates. So, how did he do?
To the second strategy, Trump scored the biggest body blows of the match. On the two most important issues to the far left, Trump got Biden to sell out the radicals, thereby fracturing his base. Trump got Biden to say that he would not de-fund the police, and that he didn’t support the Green New Deal. Bernie Sanders had called Biden’s campaign the most progressive in history, in an attempt to shore up the far left base of the Democratic Party. Biden completely squandered that faction, and did real damage to his campaign. Without the far left, which has increasingly dominated Biden’s party, he can’t grow his support into a groundswell. That’s what base voters are for, and Biden blew it.
With his first strategy, however, Trump did not achieve his goal. Biden came off as lucid, and kept his cognition together for the hour and a half or so the debate lasted. In fact, Trump’s attacking style seems to have backfired. Trump wasn’t trying to win the debate as much as he was trying to break Biden. His constant attacks, interruptions, and abrasive style had a purpose. He hoped to confuse Biden with multiple lines of attack, and get him to start punching at shadows.
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The first time it became clear that it wasn’t working was when Trump launched his attack on Biden’s son, Hunter. Biden became visibly riled up and even angry. Instead of causing Biden to become confused, the adrenaline rush and a father’s righteous anger in defending his son seemed to snap him into better focus.
Trump may have had the opposite of his intended effect by stimulating Biden to react instead of losing track of the conversation. The line of attack over Hunter Biden is an important issue for American voters to consider. The consistent favors he received because of who his father is, on top of the obvious connections to Russia and China, require deep scrutiny. The campaign should continue to raise those questions for the remainder of the campaign.
When it comes to revealing any cognitive decline by Biden, however, Trump needs to take a different tack in the next two debates. Trump’s campaign staff should take a lesson from tonight. Biden got fired up. Getting fired up got him focused. The adrenaline of the moment galvanized his lucidity.
Instead of attack dog mode, Trump should be the Trump who delivered the nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. In that speech, he was steady, measured, and he laid out a strong case for reelection. He never raised his voice, and in fact at times spoke almost in a monotone. He projected strength and stability.
This approach in the next two debates may actually be more effective in challenging Joe Biden’s lucidity, especially if Trump radically changes strategies from the first debate. Biden would be on his heels, wondering where that other Trump went, and when the attacks may come. He would also be more likely to lose track of the conversation, without the sensory stimulus of constant attacks and emotionally charged accusations against his son.
Trump absolutely should repeat what worked in the first debate. Get Joe Biden to tie himself in knots over whether he will govern as a moderate or a progressive, further eroding his base.
Instead of attacking and interrupting, however, Trump should present a calm, steady message that doesn’t engage Biden emotionally.
As it stands, the first debate was a draw at best for Trump. He made good points and landed some heavy blows, but the most important point of this campaign is whether Joe Biden can do the job. At least for tonight, America saw a Joe Biden they might be able to imagine in the Oval Office. Using a different strategy could effectively cause Biden to reveal his inability to continue.