Every national political campaign dramatizes the perceived negatives of the rival. But President Donald Trump and his team may lack the credibility to frighten voters away from Joe Biden — especially given the Republican incumbent's low approval ratings amid the massive COVID-19 crisis.
Naturally Trump would like to persuade mainstream voters that Democrat Biden somehow represents a mortal danger from the left. But during the Democratic primaries, the anti-Biden rhetoric from leftier rivals, especially Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, painted the former vice president as quite the opposite — pro-corporate, centrist and accommodating to the GOP.
So to help shore up the desired canard, Trump propagates the notion that his foe is too feebleminded to know he's being used by the "radical left."
The problem is, a Trump effort at this late date to impugn someone else's mental faculties invites a harsh assessment of his own.
Anti-Trump ads portray the president as unable to think in a straight line. They play on his constant mendacity, his slurring of words, his blurted sentence fragments. They show cringeworthy video of the president appearing to have trouble using steps and a ramp and needing two hands to raise a glass of water to his lips.
Trump's claim of having "aced" a "recent" cognitive test only makes skeptics suspect that he's embellishing or fabricating another strange triumph. It will be interesting to see if anyone on his team can demonstrate what test the boss may have been citing.
Claims that Biden is coddling extremists, such as those who would "defund the police," also leave Trump exposed to easy counterpunching. The Biden camp is well aware that Trump has proved diffident about renouncing white supremacists who support him.
China could represent yet another glass house for the president. Trump tries to depict Biden as a tool of the People's Republic. Trump defensively exaggerates the impact and uniqueness of U.S. restrictions on travel from that region.
But for weeks, the president had nothing but praise for China's furtive response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan and refused to engage his own advisers' warnings about the spread to the U.S.
Trump & Co. snipe at Hunter Biden landing those overseas positions for which he had little or no qualification. That invites return fire about the business activities of daughter Ivanka Trump in China, and of son Donald Trump Jr. in India and the personal interests of son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
Now Trump is commuting the felony sentence of his confidant Roger Stone, convicted of lying to authorities. The drive to make Biden look at least as corrupt puts more pressure on Attorney General William Barr to scare up an "Obamagate" scenario by the fall, or at least to produce some negative claims.
When Trump ran in 2016, opponent Hillary Clinton had a record in government that was fair game to attack, from her mishandling of emails at the State Department to real questions about how to address potential conflicts between the family foundation and her public role if she won. Trump had no record in government. Failed businesses, blurry finances and character issues didn't stop him.
As attacks go, Biden seems satisfied so far to use the weapons Trump hands him.
Trump has much he needs to defend. For a while, he could point to economic upticks and no new wars. But he has tried to rig U.S. diplomacy in Ukraine to smear American opponents, meddled in criminal justice investigations, appointed aides with dubious qualifications, come up passive on Russia and public health and punished official monitors for doing their jobs.
For Trump, to destroy Biden means further condemning President Barack Obama's record. Perhaps like no previous president, Trump obsesses about his predecessor at every turn, with dozens of false claims and spiteful reversals of policies.
Candidates frequently exaggerate the failings of the opposition. That's the election process we know. Which attacks will resonate, and whose house has more exposed glass, should become clear in the weeks ahead.