Vintage Trump goes debating in a new world
The first presidential debate of the 2020 election was vintage Donald Trump. The president did all the things that worked for him in the Republican primary debates in 2015-16 and worked well enough in the three debates with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for him to come out on top in the Electoral College.
Trump let no criticism go unrebutted, no matter how trivial. He was aggressive. He took risks. He belittled his opponent. He went after the moderator. "I guess I'm debating you, not him, but that's fine," Trump told Fox News' Chris Wallace at one point. "I'm not surprised." Just as he went there with the women who accused Bill Clinton of varying degrees of sexual misconduct, he went there with Hunter Biden's business dealings and even personal drug use. Repeatedly.
The polls did not immediately vindicate this approach against Clinton, although Trump's debate performances surely helped him make 16 other Republican candidates vanish in the primaries. Politico's Ryan Lizza summed up Trump the debater well.
"[L]ast time around Trump learned to master and dominate the debates in the Republican primary, and he was extraordinarily effective against someone as skilled as Hillary Clinton in the three general election debates," he wrote. "He shouldn't be underestimated."
The question is whether whatever undecided voters remain will find Trump's non-stop aggression appropriate in the middle of a pandemic and whether the arguments against the suitability of his temperament for the office are now more persuasive in a crisis.
Trump did have some success getting Joe Biden to say things that could potentially depress progressive support. Biden disavowed the Green New Deal. The former vice president spoke defensively of the margin by which he defeated Bernie Sanders. He repeated his opposition to Medicare-for-all and downplayed the Biden-Sanders Democratic "unity platform."
"Right now, I am the Democratic Party," Biden said at one point. After he distanced himself once again from defunding the police, Trump responded, "He just lost the left." That could be wishful thinking on Trump's part — Biden has had considerably more success in using antipathy toward Trump as a substitute for enthusiasm for himself than Clinton did four years ago — but it is a wedge he has to try to drive.
To the degree that Trump rallied his base with vast servings of red meat and convinced a certain number of voters to stay home by reducing the debate to two old men yelling, that was to his benefit. But it was not all good for Trump, as he repeated some of his past mistakes too.
Trump missed an easy lay-up on condemning white supremacists, failing to even repeat language he had used before, even in his much-denounced Charlottesville remarks. His pounding away at Hunter Biden even when the conversation turned to the former vice president's late son Beau will almost certainly be viewed as mean. Sometimes his interruptions, and Wallace's interruptions of those interruptions, actually got Biden out of answers he was fumbling.
Biden easily exceeded the low expectations the Trump camp set for him. He too tried to recycle some of his past tricks, like laughing through Trump's responses as he did to Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate eight years ago. But his Democratic debate habit of frequently losing his train of thought was on full display. He did not land many body blows, though telling Trump to "shut up," and calling him a "clown" and a "racist" will enthuse his own base (with a less certain impact on the dwindling number of swing voters).
Yet Biden did have one particularly good line. Zinging the president on his coronavirus response, Biden said, "It is what it is because you are who you are."
That is Biden's argument for this election, and that is why some of the Trump tactics that have served him well in the past are riskier now. Trump needs to make this election at least partly about Biden. He needs there to be headlines about Biden. The former vice president has not dominated a single news cycle, with the arguable exceptions of when he captured and accepted the Democratic nomination. Making everything about Trump — as Trump himself likes to do — helps Biden.
That is of course why Trump went after Hunter Biden and tried to prosecute the case that the former vice president wasn't a nice old moderate but a captive of the far left. He wants this election to be a binary choice rather than a referendum on him. He tried as only he could. But it just might not be 2016 anymore.