June 25, 2024


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Why the big debate question is not Biden’s stamina but Trump’s discipline

When you strip away the hype, blather and speculation surrounding Thursday’s presidential debate, the core narrative is this: Can Joe Biden get it done?

In other words, can the 81-year-old president, beset by doubts about his stamina and sharpness, be sufficiently cogent and aggressive in a way that transforms the campaign narrative? 

But I would suggest that may be the wrong question.

There’s no way that the president, if he doesn’t wander into the curtains, doesn’t turn in a reasonably strong performance after a week of prep at Camp David. Sure, he could stumble, mix things up or just look frail.

But Biden will clear the absurdly low bar that Donald Trump, Republican allies and conservative commentators have set for him. Dazed, confused, senile, doesn’t know where he is, can’t string two sentences together.

That portrayal is so deeply embedded that Trump’s last-minute effort at course correction – suddenly Biden is a ‘worthy’ debater who ‘destroyed’ Paul Ryan in 2012 – is a drop in the bucket.

And if Biden just holds his own, most of the media will declare him the winner and insist he shattered expectations.

In my view, the larger question of the CNN debate is focused on Donald Trump.

There’s now a concerted effort by the anti-Trump media to hammer home the message that the former president is losing it.

Trump rambles quite a bit at his rallies. In his view, he’s entertaining the crowd with yarns that are often semi-facetious or even self-deprecating.

But as his critics see it, Trump, 78, is showing his age through stream-of-consciousness digressions and detours.

So with his weekend appearances in Philadelphia, Trump told the tale of a boat owner telling him they can’t switch to electric because the batteries are so large they sink the boats (the conversation may have been real, but the reality is not).

And then there was his familiar lament about showers.


Trump talked about how much he likes to lather up his beautiful hair because that makes it thicker, and then the water comes out drip drip drip. (I’d wager that the showers at Mar-a-Lago, Bedminister and Trump Tower, at least, provide plenty of pressure.)

Still, Trump knows the difference between doing shtick for adoring crowds and handling a debate. He’ll obviously come on strong, as no one questions his energy level. 

But what most people are missing here is his level of discipline. Trump is perfectly capable of turning it on for as long as necessary.

I speak from personal experience. When I interviewed the former president for an hour at Mar-a-Lago some weeks ago, he was sharp and substantive.

Knowing full well that my audience is more independent, Trump easily fielded questions on abortion, immigration, Israel, indictments, Tik Tok, retribution, law enforcement and other topics–a couple of which had just broken hours earlier. While he got in a few zingers, especially about the 2020 election, he didn’t miss a beat, even about something he’d done in 1985. He acknowledged sometimes using inflammatory language to drive the news cycle.

Now I wasn’t under any illusion that he had morphed into a different candidate. Within a couple of days he was dropping hand grenades again. The risk for Trump this week is that he gets irked and hits Biden with below-the-belt shots. But no one thinks he won’t come out swinging.

Here’s how I see it unfolding: Biden and Trump both perform fairly strongly. And since the president is the one who’s been pilloried as a doddering old fool, the media, as I said, declare him victorious.  

But the bigger surprise in the Atlanta studio will be the more disciplined Trump. And he’ll be aided by the lack of an audience and the muted-mic rule, which will keep him from the constant interruptions that marred his first debate in 2020.

Oh, Trump seems pretty serious. You know, this is not the Trump I remember. He looks more presidential. That may be the reaction among Republicans or independents who were leaning against Trump but might like the more restrained version.

Of course, debates are unpredictable and I could be wrong. But it’s not just Joe Biden who has the ability to present a different persona. 

: Both presidents will be rusty, since neither has debated in four years. But Trump has an edge here because he’s constantly doing TV, radio and podcast interviews, enabling him to refine his answers. The incumbent, by largely avoiding journalists and being terse with shouted questions, is unaccustomed to such sparring.

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