As many others have noted, a president is prone to underperform in his first reelection debate. In recent memory, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had lackluster first reelection debates, though both bounced back and earned a second term.
Can President Trump?
While many theories abound, a key reason for a president’s less-than-stellar first debate performance is usually his preparation team’s poor overall strategy—often overemphasis on technical policy and failure to anticipate the opponent’s moves. (Refer to the quadrennial stories of who on the prep team is playing the opponent, as if pretending to be someone else is a career plus. Oh, wait, we’re talking about the swamp . . .)
Unfortunately, all of these typical prep team failures were apparent in President Trump’s first debate performance.
As the president himself recently noted, the presidency is a momentous and consuming job, which leaves the incumbent little time to prepare for a debate. This is offset, however, by the reality the president is daily (and nightly) dealing with the salient issues which will be front and center in the debate. In this, and in the president’s unique ability as the incumbent to help shape these issues going into the debate, it is hard for the job itself not to serve as a president’s debate prep.
To bog a president down in technical details is cumbersome and counterproductive, because it risks the president appealing only to a handful of policy wonks, and muting or losing his overarching inspirational message for the American people.
Similarly, a prep team overly concerned about what the opponent may or may not do is equally counterproductive. To use a golf analogy: the player must play his game and the course, not the other golfers. If he does otherwise, the distracted golfer tries to do too much; gets off his game; and loses. True, a general understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies of one’s opponent is helpful; but it is not the dispositive factor in the incumbent delivering a winning debate performance.
At this juncture, then, it is necessary to define in a presidential (or any political) debate what constitutes “winning.” It seems elementary, but it bears repeating: “winning” occurs when the candidate gains more votes than he had going into the debate. In this goal, to put it politely, the president did not maximize his opportunity. Why?
While first and foremost the candidate must always bear the consequences—good or ill—of a debate performance (his is, after all, the name on the ballot); nonetheless, President Trump was ill-served by his debate prep team.
It appeared the prep team was more concerned about technical policy matters and Biden’s reaction to them than they were with the fundamental question not of why Biden should not be president, but why Trump should be reelected president.
First, by planning to use technical policy questions to make former Vice President Joe Biden look frail, senile, or weak, the president’s prep team’s strategy was one that depended not upon President Trump but upon Vice President Biden. This was done despite the prep team’s knowing moderator Chris Wallace was likely biased and could bail out Biden should the latter stumble (which in fact occurred).
What happened is the prep team turned President Trump into the challenger. This unfortunate outcome was made all the easier by the fact the president’s only experience in one-on-one political debates was in 2016, when he was the underdog against an assumed victor, Hillary Clinton. This could and should have been avoided.
What frustrated the president’s base, especially female supporters (and independents) was his interruptions. But much of this was forced by the strategy of having to take down Biden, as if he were the incumbent.
Once moderator Wallace revealed his helping hand, President Trump, while being called every name in the book, was forced to try and pin Biden down on issues—this as the president was also being called a “liar” and “racist” and told to “shut up” with impunity by Biden. Hence, the testy president’s frequent interruptions.
But what frustrated the viewers even more, especially the president’s base, was his failure to adequately articulate his accomplishments and vision for America. Again, this was the direct result of his prep team’s failed strategy.
Given his relative lack of political experience, what the president needed from his prep team was an understanding of the psychological aspects of running as an incumbent; and what “winning” really meant—in sum, not scoring debating points but gaining votes.
It is very difficult to stand on a stage as an incumbent and be civil with an opponent who is attacking you and your decisions. (Trust me on this one.) It is very difficult to ignore a biased moderator(s). And it is very easy to forget how, unlike being the challenger against an incumbent or a candidate running for an open seat, it is you who are the target to be taken down. And all of this makes it far too easy to forget why you’re there; what you must do; and win votes.
Had the president been properly prepped, would he have followed their advice? Would he have focused more on his accomplishments; drawn the proper contrasts where needed; and championed his vision for 21st century American greatness?
He deserved the chance to do so; and Americans deserved the chance to see him do it.