“People tend to forget that he came to a relatively cogent and disciplined closing argument in 2016 — the idea that we needed to upend the establishment,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist.
Tonight, Steel said, Trump will likely do what he has been doing haphazardly for months — arguing that he built a strong economy and that as soon as a coronavirus vaccine becomes available “we can return to that impressive prosperity.”
“The problem is it doesn’t seem like serious public health authorities believe that a vaccine is imminent, let alone a widespread distribution of that vaccine,” Steel said. “And you can’t simply ignore or wish away this public health crisis and the economic crisis that it spawned … No amount of screaming about [Biden’s] surviving son’s business practices or insinuations that he is enfeebled are going to change that.”
Less than two weeks before Election Day, Trump is worse off than he was at this point four years ago. Not only is he polling behind Biden by about 8 percentage points nationally, few voters remain undecided, and Biden is less objectionable to the electorate than Clinton was.
But what hasn’t changed — four years after his last debate with Clinton — is Trump. He is running the same race he ran before, right down to the demonizing rhetoric about his foe and unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. And this evening’s debate is less likely to look like his first one with Biden — and more likely to resemble a replay of the final debate of 2016.
That year in Las Vegas, Trump provided a reasonable facsimile of the presidency to come. Trump branded Clinton as a “criminal,” the insult he assigned to Biden this week. He picked a fight with experts (the U.S. intelligence community then, public health officials working on the coronavirus pandemic today). He criticized then-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death four years later has put Supreme Court appointments at the forefront of the presidential campaign once again. He complained about the media and he refused, as he has repeatedly in recent weeks, to commit to accepting the results of the election.
But what was also striking, in light of his debate performance several weeks ago, was how often Trump said nothing. At times he interrupted Clinton and talked over the moderator, Chris Wallace, but he often remained silent when Clinton spoke, pursing his lips, adjusting his microphone or drinking from a glass of water.
When Wallace said, “I would like to hear from Secretary Clinton,” Trump mostly complied. At a minimum, the self-restraint served to make Trump look less desperate than he did while debating Biden in September.
This week, Trump’s advisers suggested that, following that havoc-wreaking performance in this year’s first debate, he will likely interrupt Biden less tonight than he did in their September debate.
That has nothing to do with microphones being muted, as they will be for parts of the debate. The idea is to give Biden “a little bit more room to explain himself,” as Trump adviser Jason Miller put it to Fox News, and hope Biden self-destructs.
Brett O’Donnell, a veteran Republican debate coach, said Trump “needs to make this a choice election and not a referendum on him, and the way he can do this is by forcing the vice president to answer tough questions in the debate.”
That means letting Biden talk — about his position on taxes and expanding the Supreme Court, among other issues.
O’Donnell pointed to Trump’s State of the Union address this year and his fiery speech at Mount Rushmore as “places where the president has been substantive and appealed to American values.”
“That’s the president that has to show up on Thursday night,” he said.
In part because more than 42 million people have already voted, there is a good chance Trump is out of time no matter what he does.
Debates rarely have a determinative effect on a presidential election’s outcome, and the first debate is typically more important than the second or third. Trump bombed the first debate. Biden was viewed as the winner, polls showed, and his lead expanded slightly afterward.
Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist, said he can’t foresee Trump benefiting from the debate “under any circumstances.” And Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican consultant and pollster who has been conducting post-debate focus groups, said “it is possible that this race ended the moment the first debate ended.”
“If my focus group of undecided voters was any indication, the 80 million people who watched the debate came to a collective conclusion that while there was much in the Trump agenda that appealed to them, Joe Biden was simply seen as the better human,” Luntz said in an email. “The only way this is not the narrative is for Trump to improve his debate performance” tonight.
It is too much to expect that Trump will forego all smashmouth rhetoric. Earlier this week in Arizona, Trump called Biden a “criminal” for his family’s business dealings, and he told a reporter, “You’re a criminal for not reporting it.”
Those are the words of a candidate who recognizes the imperative for turning the campaign around — and who is growing increasingly impatient with his inability to shift the focus of the election to Biden. This week, he called CNN “dumb bastards” for the network’s focus on the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed more than 220,000 Americans and dragged Trump’s re-election prospects down.
When Trump speaks tonight, it will almost certainly not be subdued. On the eve of the debate, he was griping about the “mute” button, the debate’s lack of focus on foreign policy and the moderator, Kristen Welker.
“But that’s my life,” Trump said.
In Nashville, he‘s likely to level such complaints again. But if 2016 is any indication, there will also be periods where he refrains from speaking — pinning his prospects to the possibility that Biden, given room to speak, might falter on his own.