In the fall of 2016, he cleverly used immigration, trade and Obamacare political issues, as well as personal issues of suspected corruption, against Hillary Clinton. That formula yielded an electoral college win by taking three Midwestern states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan – that had long voted Democrats in presidential elections.
These debates have always been riddled with Trumpian misinformation, unfounded personal attacks, and the strategic use of procedural disruptions. But Trump always had a key message and a clear argument about his opponents.
Tuesday was different for three reasons.
First, Trump, the king of oversimplified political branding, seems out of his message. In 2016 it had its four pillars: immigration, trade, Obamacare and corruption. He had slogans that were effective: “Make America Great Again”, “Build the Wall”. Quickly, what’s Trump’s 2020 message? Nothing really pops out. There is no Trump legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. He was recently asked by the New York Times what he would do in a second term, and the newspaper suggested he was talking about lowering regulations and taxes, appointing conservative judges, and border control. But the newspaper also mischievously recorded this meandering non-response from the president that became a popular meme:
“But I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we’d go on with what we’re doing, we’d cement what we’ve done and we have other things on our plate that we want to do. ”
The Trump campaign set an agenda for the second term, a collection of big ambitions (“Create 10 million new jobs in 10 months”, Eradicate Covid-19) and conservative buzzwords (“Teach American Exceptionalism”), but the president has erratically discussed the agenda or its key plank.
In 2016, Trump had a clear and precise line of attack against Hillary Clinton: She was a corrupt member of the Washington establishment and he would send her to jail if he became president. He discussed the impressive perfidy with which she deleted personal emails with impressive discipline. But Biden has proven to be an elusive target. Sometimes he’s “Sleepy Joe”. Another time he’s a dangerous radical. By this point in the 2016 campaign, Clinton had become a despised figure among Trump’s hardcore supporters. These 2020 supporters don’t seem to have the same dislike for the former vice president.
Finally, and most importantly, Trump is burdened with a record in 2020 that has left him chronically unpopular for several years, even at the height of his economic boom. Trump wasn’t the first American politician to successfully win an election by posing as a populist outsider against the corrupt establishment. The game book is as old as the republic.
But those outsiders who suddenly arrive in Washington or a state capital with no experience and are poorly equipped for the job suddenly see the limits of the election campaign. (This happened to Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who refused to run for a second term in 2002.)
As they could be heard through the fog of Trump’s insults and interruptions, the parts of the debate that were most devastating to Trump were Biden’s pursuit of the case against the president’s handling of the pandemic, the economy and health care, particularly the impact of Gutting Obamacare. Biden did not give any orders on Tuesday. In the hands of a nimbler and more energetic Democrat, those parts of the debate could have been more devastating for Trump. (Of course, the left thought, “Bernie would have destroyed Trump,” wrote New York progressive activist Jonathan Tasini.)