In a bar-room brawl, who wins the fight? The guy swinging his fists or the guy clutching his drink?
From the very first minute of the first presidential debate, the 45th president behaved as he has for the last four years: as unpresidential as possible.
He heckled. He bullied. He blustered and he lied. He came out swinging and didn’t mind where his fists landed: his opponent, the moderator, the Biden family, the microphones. It didn’t much matter.
“Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential,” gasped Joe Biden at the end of a chaotic discussion about the supreme court. “That was a really productive session. Keep yappin’, man.”
Biden sounded unsettled by the first round of the Trump onslaught. He lost his train of thought as Trump never ceased to talk over him.
If Democrats were hoping that Biden would box Trump in, they were surely disappointed. Biden’s most effective response was to laugh at the brawling around him.
But something funny happened on the way to Trump’s next swing of the fists: a pandemic. Covid-19 stopped the presidential yapping, briefly. Then Biden made a statement of the obvious, by questioning whether Trump was smart enough to handle the coronavirus.
“Did you use the word smart,” the un-president barked. “Don’t ever use the word smart with me.”
So easily offended, yet so quick to offend. Donald Trump is a heavyweight slugger with a fondant center.
Soon it was Biden’s turn to interrupt. “You’re the worst president America’s ever had,” Biden heckled. “Come on.”
As a debating tactic, Trump’s choice of endless chatter succeeded in dominating the conversation. As a pitch for the sliver of undecided voters left in America, it was a charmless barrage of hostility and hubris.
“Mr President, please stop,” said Chris Wallace of Fox News, the moderator who often resembled an armadillo in the middle of a Texas highway.
It is traditional, and yet almost entirely forgotten every four years, that sitting presidents whiff in their first debate.
Barack Obama stank in his first head-to-head with Mitt Romney. One of Obama’s closest friends emailed this columnist in 2012 with a simple question: “Is this as much of a disaster as it looks?”
Eight years earlier, George W Bush tanked in his first debate against John Kerry, struggling to defend – of all the unexpected topics – his own war in Iraq. That was how memes got made back in 2004, forgetting Poland and all.
There is a reason for this serial debate failure of sitting presidents: they really don’t want to be on stage with some stupid upstart of a challenger.
After almost four years of being the world’s biggest boss, they are entirely comfortable with their comfort zone. Prepping for a nationally-televised venture outside the zone is impossibly tricky for presidential aides.
This is not, in fact, Donald Trump’s challenge. Since he never preps for anything, his aides can hardly complain about his reluctance to prep for the first debate. He won’t prep for the second or third ones either.
And no, Mr President: watching even more Fox News does not count as debate prep.
Instead, Trump’s prep for the debate was to shout down the middle of a microphone every time he talks to reporters. Trump didn’t disdain his challenger; he just drowned him out. Because for Donald Trump, the first presidential debate was not a debate; it was a descent into din.
Knowing they would fail at presidential prep, Trump’s debate coaches took to – where else? – Fox News to turn up the volume on the expectations game.
Rudy Giuliani, a Trump lawyer known to Russian agents peddling disinformation across the world, decided against the traditional pre-game tactics of raising the bar for the other side.
Normally you would argue that your own candidate is a hapless amateur who can barely string a coherent sentence together, facing a battle-hardened Demosthenes who could slay with a single word.
In Trump’s case, this may be too close to the truth to be said out loud. So Giuliani took to Fox and Friends to lower the bar for Joe Biden. In Rudy’s retelling, Joe Biden can barely get dressed.
“The man has dementia. There’s no doubt about it,” he said chuckling. “I’ve talked to doctors. I’ve had them look at a hundred, a hundred different tapes of his. Five years ago and today.”
Even the Fox News hosts interjected to challenge Dr Giuliani’s diagnosis.
“Oh. Wuhuhuhah,” said Rudy, sounding remarkably like a man with dementia. “He can’t, he can’t recite the pledge of allegiance and he’s fine? He’s been, er. He’s been. He was in the Senate for 160 years. I mean, he can’t do the prologue to the, to the, to the, er, constitution of the United States or the declaration of independence. Any of them. He can’t do numbers. Wow.”
This wasn’t some random Wuhuhuhah moment for Trump’s kooky inner circle. Our fearless commander-in-chief has been laying the foundations of this dementia and drugs “attack” on Biden for weeks.
Most recently, in a chess move worthy of Mr Potato Head, Trump challenged Biden by insisting he take a drug test. Quite brilliant from the president who can’t produce enough Covid tests.
For the last four years, Democrats have mostly followed Michelle Obama’s advice to go high when they go low. But quite frankly my dear, after a year like 2020, the Biden campaign doesn’t give a damn.
“If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. “We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200,000 Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop Covid-19.”
A little harsh, perhaps. But fair.
If Donald Trump loses his re-election in little more than a month, it won’t be because of his donnybrook of a first debate.
Four years ago, Trump squeaked a victory through the electoral college despite losing every single debate to Hillary Clinton, and despite losing the national vote by a larger margin than John Kerry.
He won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes, but is now losing there by nine points among likely voters. He won Wisconsin by 22,000 votes, but is losing there by 10 points. He won Michigan by 10,000 votes, but is losing there by eight points.
He truly, badly, deeply needed something to turn those states around in his first debate against Joe Biden. He didn’t get it by fighting on TV on Tuesday night.
He has five more weeks to sow chaos and disinformation through the land as he brawls his way across the country. Hold on to your beer.
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