President Donald Trump has made his view of Joe Biden’s mental state and capacity very, very clear.
“Biden can’t put two sentences together,” Trump told “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace last month. “They wheel him out. He goes up – he repeats – they ask him questions. He reads a teleprompter and then he goes back into his basement.”
“They brainwashed him, he doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and our country will suffer,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity last month.
In a Trump TV ad airing in 12 swing states, a narrator says this:
“Joe Biden is slipping. Now at the age of 77 years old and running for president for the third time, Biden is clearly diminished. Joe Biden does not have the strength, stamina and mental fortitude required to lead this country.”
And then there’s the Instagram and other social media feeds of people like Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, the president’s two oldest sons, which are filled with memes painting Biden as clueless – or worse.
The message is relentless and clear: The presumptive Democratic nominee is not mentally fit to be president. He’s not up to the job he is seeking.
All of which brings me to the three scheduled general election debates between Biden and Trump on September 29, October 15 and October 22.
As Axios’ Jonathan Swan – yes, the face meme guy – reported on Sunday, the Trump campaign sees the debates as increasingly important as the incumbent seeks a change in the operating dynamic of the race. Here’s what Swan reported:
“Among President Trump’s closest aides, these debates have taken on outsized importance to close the polling gap and get Trump within striking distance by Election Day. The Trump campaign views the debates as the crucial inflection points left before Nov. 3.
“‘I don’t think he [Trump] sees the debates as the last inflection points, but potentially the most important,’ said a source familiar with the results of the planning meeting. ‘I think he always thinks he can create an inflection point.’”
Which is true! There’s nothing obvious – short of some ahistorical VP pick by Biden that proves to be a cataclysm – that will change the race’s trajectory between now and the debates.
And now for the problem for Trump: Having spent months attacking Biden as barely there mentally, he has drastically lowered the expectations for the former vice president when it comes to debate performance.
Think about it: The image of Biden pushed by Trump is a guy who is totally out of it. Who is being controlled by forces he is unaware of. Who can’t stand on his own two feet (figuratively speaking). If Biden simply sounds moderately credible and conversant in the debates, that image is going to be upended. And at least some people who bought the Trump idea that Biden isn’t up to the job will be forced to reckon with the fact that, well, the former VP is someone who appears to a) be able to put two sentences together and b) knows where he is.
Those remarkably low expectations for Biden’s performance in the general election debates are a godsend for him. During the Democratic primary process – and its monthly debates – it became clear that the former Delaware senator was, at best, a mediocre debater. He tried to stuff 10 minutes of facts into a two-minute answer. He would change thoughts – and lines of argument – in the middle of a sentence. He would simply stop talking when his allotted time ran out. He would occasionally fade into the background, despite being the race’s front-runner.
In short: Joe Biden isn’t a terribly good debater. He may have his moments, but it’s just not his strong suit. Never has been.
Which makes Trump’s attempts to portray Biden as utterly out of it all the more confounding strategically. And why the Trump campaign is trying to reshape its messaging on Biden – and quickly.
“Joe Biden is actually a very good debater,” Trump White House aide Stephen Miller told The Washington Post over the weekend. “He doesn’t have as many gaffes as he does in his everyday interviews. I would make the argument that Joe Biden would even be the favorite in the debates since he’s been doing them for 47 years.”
You get the idea. Joe Biden can’t be both of those things. Either he is barely holding on or he is a gifted debater. Not both.
If Biden walks away from this trio of general election debates as the perceived victor, he should send Trump a “thank you” note. Seriously.