Donald Trump is a very bad debater. Donald Trump is very difficult to debate.
These two seemingly contradictory statements are equally true. He's a dangerous opponent. In 2016, it was because he had nothing to lose. Now, it's because he has everything to lose.
I would know. In the last cycle, I had a unique assignment: playing Trump's stand-in during Hillary Clinton's mock debates. Before donning the ill-fitting suit I had tailored, my preparation included studying the 11 Republican primary debates in which Trump participated, watching each three times: once start to finish; then only exchanges involving Trump; and finally only Trump, standing at a lectern in my living room with the sound off to focus entirely on his gestures and body language.
Mimicking his appearance, gesticulations and histrionics aside, my overall approach meant zeroing in on the four topics that obsessed Trump: immigration, Obamacare, trade and "the swamp." When he was on offense, his attacks on (and nicknames for) Clinton were honed and simple by the time the debates began in September. But he rarely, if ever, defended himself. No matter the attack against him — and there were some doozies — he dispensed with them quickly. And in the GOP primary debates, his answers involved three parts: I am great; you are terrible; and a nonsensical digression that often changed the subject entirely.
Four years later, Trump is not different, but the circumstances are. The Trump we see at the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Tuesday may be even harder to debate than last time, because whatever ability he possessed to engage has been subsumed by a constant need to launch into tirades over grievances. ("I sort of prepare every day by just doing what I'm doing," he told "Fox and Friends" about his pre-debate regimen.) He exists in a double bubble — isolated in the Oval Office, consuming and regurgitating nothing but friendly right-wing media and Twitter bile. And he's desperate: The debate presents the first big chance to shake up a race he's losing, but he doesn't seem to have a plan to turn things around other than to hope for Joe Biden to collapse. After studying Trump in 2016, and our national tutorial every day since, here's what I think Biden can expect as they face off three times over the next 24 days. (Although it was never really in doubt that Trump would debate, expect grumbling after the first exchange about being treated unfairly and noise about skipping the two others.)
Debates are an opportunity to speak directly to voters. If you're doing it right as a candidate, you're just a more distilled version of your usual self. If you're grasping for a debate strategy, you have bigger problems than debating: Your message should be a simple extension of your overall campaign message and strategy. Biden has both. Trump has neither.
Some armchair pundits hold that debates don't matter, which is absurd. Of course a 90-minute performance in front of a Super Bowl-size TV audience can affect the vote. The valid question is how much they matter. Clinton, after all, clearly won the debates against Trump.
One challenge is about style: Biden will be doing some actual debating while Trump verbally hopscotches around, telling us how perfect his call to the Ukrainian president was. How smoothly he handled the final 10 feet of the slippery ramp. Interpreting coronavirus charts. Boasting about how he nailed his cognitive test.
On any given day, Trump decides whether he wants to speak, and where and when. What to talk about. Whether to take questions, and if so, from whom. How long to let reporters speak before interrupting and berating them. And he decides when he has had enough.
That's not a debate, and it leaves him ill-equipped for one. Because the 2016 Trump with the clear message, honed attack and efficient defense mechanism has given way to something else: a politician who cannot articulate his vision for a second term. On offense, he's a mess; he can't settle on an overarching attack on Biden, or even two. Even his already-overrated nicknaming skills have all but failed him. As for defense, his existence now entirely involves explaining, misdirecting, denying — whatever it takes to address every item on his grievance list. Which is as long as his tie.
Trump will certainly check the "consistency" box: He will be the same on Tuesday as he was two Tuesdays ago, as he was in July, as he will be in October. But that person is losing. So he has to change the trajectory of the race. In the context of the debates, there are two simple ways to accomplish that: by doing really well and/or by forcing Biden do very badly. (Curiously, Trump's overall strategy has been to hope for Biden to make enough unforced errors for Trump to win. Setting aside the likelihood of any debate moment being so catastrophic that Biden couldn't recover during two more debates and a month of campaigning, it's an awfully passive plan.)
It is easy to say someone needs to be prepared for anything and everything. That's typically rhetorical. Here, Biden does, in fact, need to be ready for the unexpected, because Trump has proven he'll say anything and everything.
If I were reprising my 2016 role for Biden's debate prep, I would add a few wrinkles. I'd make sure to take a jackhammer to the English language: stopping short, declaring war on proper nouns, the things Trump does daily that leave the listener knowing he just screwed up but not always sure how. Just as you squint and say "huh?" after Trump's garbles, Biden will have the same impulse. And although it would guarantee him a spot in the debate Hall of Fame, a Hillary-esque full body shimmy might not look the same on Biden.
You don't need to watch dozens of hours of video to know that Trump's focus is less like a laser and more like a disco ball. Debates, however, ostensibly have a topical structure. In a July interview, Tuesday's moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, proved that he can handle Trump. But he will have his hands full trying to keep the president on the six topics announced in advance. In one remarkable answer to a question about Social Security reform during a 2016 Republican debate, Trump took a tortured detour that ended with North Korea's military — in just 17 seconds. Biden cannot rely on Wallace to keep Trump engaged in a coherent conversation. He'll have to find ways to prevent Trump from hijacking the proceedings to indulge one of his preferred rants.
Biden has a few basic decisions to make about his approach. Some are obvious. Others, such as staying high vs. going low, trigger Talmudic-level disagreements. For instance, when Trump attacks Biden's family as corrupt, of course no Democrat would argue that he should simply stand there and take it. Even Michelle Obama added this caveat to her famous admonition: "Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty." But does Biden turn the question around toward Trump's family? Ivanka Trump is the most obvious target, as a government employee who still has business interests in China. But attacking Trump's eldest daughter is far more fraught than, say, going after his son Donald Jr. Identifying — let alone navigating — these lines on live TV is never simple.
The best way to deal with Trump, though, won't be to try to fact-check him in real time or to let lies and absurdities go in the hope that moderators — or viewers — catch them. There's a third option: Preempt the president. Clearly and strongly preview for the 100 million people watching what will happen in the debate as soon it begins. Biden should say early on that we all know what's coming. Not to remind voters. But to remind Trump, by speaking on behalf of the majority of the country, that everyone is on to him, in a reversal of Trump's favorite "everyone is saying" paralipsis device:
"C'mon, Mr. President. Everyone knows that whatever you call fake is real. Whatever you call a lie is the truth. Whatever you accuse others of doing is what you've done. And whatever you makes fun of me for saying by accident only serves to deflect from what you say on purpose."
The 2020 version of Trump is constantly winging it, hoping voters will forget what he has said and done while focusing on his grievance du jour. He needs everyone watching the debate to pretend he never said there were only a few cases of the coronavirus in the United States, or that it would be gone in a week, or that he confessed, on tape, to lying about its lethality.
In the end, both men's debate preparations rely on what they have done over the course of the entire campaign.
For the last 18 months, Joe Biden has debated Donald Trump on the issues from afar. Over that same period, Trump has done nothing but assault Biden's character. Trump's debate preparations — "what I'm doing" every day — are the first in history to include behavior that ended up in impeachment.
In Cleveland, an unshrinking force will meet an unvarying object.
Reines is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and a visiting lecturer at Tufts University's Tisch College.