Yes, that debate was everything everyone has already said it was: “a disgrace,” (Jake Tapper), “a s—show” (Dana Bash), “a train wreck” (Ari Fleischer), “The Clusterf— in Cleveland” (a POLITICO colleague).
But why? Why did Trump come into the first debate against Joe Biden, down by six points in the polls and facing his last chance to turn things around, with a strategy — if that’s what it can be called — of blowing up the event with 90 minutes of bullying, interruptions, and ad hominem provocations?
It’s not as if Trump is new to this or hasn’t previously had more canny approached to these events. In 2015 and 2016 during the Republican presidential primaries, when there was an enormous field of candidates, Trump use theatrics, name-calling, and a populist pitch on immigration and trade to make himself the center of every debate. He went almost wire-to-wire as the polling leader and won his party’s nomination.
In the fall of 2016, he shrewdly used the policy issues of immigration, trade, and Obamacare, and the personal issues of alleged corruption, against Hillary Clinton. That formula yielded an Electoral College victory by taking three Midwestern states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — that had long voted for Democrats in presidential elections.
Those debate performances were always studded with Trumpian misinformation, gratuitous personal attacks, and the strategic deployment of disrupting the proceedings. But Trump always had a core message and a well-honed argument about his opponents.
Tuesday was different for three reasons.
First, Trump, the king of powerfully simplistic political branding, no longer seems to have a message. In 2016 he had his four pillars of immigration, trade, Obamacare, and corruption. He had slogans that were effective: “Make America Great Again,” “Build the Wall.” Quick, what’s Trump’s message in 2020? Nothing really leaps out. There is no Trump legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. He was asked recently by The New York Times what he wanted to do in a second term and the paper noted he talked about cutting regulations and taxes, appointing conservatives judges, and border control. But the paper also somewhat mischievously recorded this meandering non-response from the president that became a popular meme:
“But so I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done, and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.”
The Trump campaign put out a second-term agenda, a hodgepodge of big ambitions (“Create 10 Million New Jobs in 10 Months,” Eradicate Covid-19) and conservative buzzwords (“Teach American Exceptionalism”), but the president has been erratic in discussing the agenda or its key plank.
In 2016, Trump had a clear and concise line of attack against Hillary Clinton: she was a corrupt member of the Washington establishment and he was going to send her to jail if he became president. He discussed the alleged perfidy of her deleting personal emails with impressive discipline. But Biden has proven to be a more elusive target. Sometimes he is “Sleepy Joe.” Other times he’s a dangerous radical. At this point in the campaign in 2016, Clinton had become a despised figure among Trump’s hardcore supporters. Those supporters in 2020 can’t seem to muster the same amount of antipathy for the former vice president.
Finally, and most important, Trump in 2020 is burdened with a record, one that has sunk him into chronic unpopularity for several years now, even during the height of his economic boom. Trump was not the first American politician to successfully win an election by casting himself as a populist outsider taking on the corrupt establishment. That playbook is as old as the republic.
But those outsiders who suddenly arrive in Washington or a state capital with no experience and ill-equipped for the job suddenly realize the limits of campaign schtick. (This happened to Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who declined to run for a second term in 2002.)
When they could be heard through the fog of Trump’s insults and interruptions, the portions of the debate that were most devastating to Trump were Biden’s prosecution of the case against the president’s handling of the pandemic, the economy, and health care, particularly the effects of gutting Obamacare. Biden was by no means commanding on Tuesday. In the hands of a more nimble and energetic Democrat, these portions of the debate might have been more devastating for Trump. (Naturally people on the left thought so: “Bernie would have annihilated Trump,” wrote the New York progressive activist Jonathan Tasini.)
What it all adds up to — no message, no killer line of attack against Biden, no defense of his record — is that Trump resorted to strapping on an explosive vest. Perhaps the idea was to sully both Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace, who was incapable of controlling the president’s interruptions. “Mr. President, please stop,” Wallace said at one point, seeming to speak for many viewers. If Wallace and Biden were discredited, then nobody had standing to fact check Trump or probe his record. Meanwhile, the stream of interruptions, personal insults, and attacks on Biden’s family made it nearly impossible for Biden, who is already a mild-mannered debater, to make a clear case for himself or against Trump.
Whatever the thinking behind what the strategy would accomplish, it was born of desperation from a candidate who is mired in a health crisis he can’t control, down in the polls, and struggling to articulate a case for why he deserves a second term.