Debates Are Trump’s Only Hope, But Still No Guarantee

Donald Trump is running out of time. Rasmussen total approval notwithstanding, the president’s polling numbers are dismal just three months before Election Day. He’s inseparable from his woeful COVID-19 response, and no amount of leftist-baiting, election delay threatening nonsense can change that.

Trump and his team have one final hope: the presidential debates.

Reports Monday stated Trump’s campaign wants to have more debates with former vice president Joe Biden than the three currently scheduled. Trump also wants to have them earlier—the sooner he can get on a debate stage with the world watching, the sooner he can openly distract from his own failures.

In Trump’s (and his campaign’s) eyes, the debates are his only possible salvation. They provide the ultimate stage to contrast himself with Biden, to showcase the former vice president’s cognitive decline and Trump’s comparable energy and stamina. Based on Trump’s performance, however—both as chief executive and in front of television cameras—there’s nothing to indicate he’d be particularly good at debating. The president habitually fumbles over his own words, gets caught in contradictions, and regularly sounds genuinely uninformed.

Trump’s interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios spotlighted the president’s rhetorical ineptitude. When pressed on COVID-19 death statistics, Trump fumbled over paper charts and seemed genuinely confused about some of the topics and questions he was asked. He discussed America’s death numbers with a bewildered confidence and, unsurprisingly, didn’t show a shred of empathy. He also got a bit defensive when asked again about alleged sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell.

Swan is an experienced interviewer and nailed Trump down with ease. A debate moderator likely won’t press Trump (or Biden) very hard on any particular topic, and competing against another person gives Trump a foil to play off of. Still, the ease with which the president was thrown off course was striking. Biden, while a shell of his former self, has done well at debates based on his ability to buffalo through tough questions and assert falsehoods as fact with little shame.

Biden’s perceived debate weaknesses are identical to Trump’s—he’s an old guy who often appears confused and might have trouble staying on topic. Trump will try his best to hit Biden on that, but the former VP can levy the same charges against the president. The result will be mutually assured destruction and a fresh reminder that America doesn’t really have any great options right now.

Debates rarely change minds about a presidential candidate. People voting against Trump will likely do so regardless of what happens during the first debate on Sept. 29 and beyond. Still, there’s a chance Biden looks terrible and the debates prove as beneficial to Trump as he’s banking on. But that requires him to avoid being terrible himself, which is no sure bet.