The insinuation from various media outlets writing about this topic implies that formalized debate prep, where a stand-in would play the role of former Vice President Joe Biden, would help the President immensely. That sort of prep work, for anyone who has been watching the past four years, is simply not Donald Trump’s style. With the first Biden-Trump debate less than two weeks away, what will it mean that Trump is pushing off debate prep in favor of a “wing-it” style, for which he is famous?
Business Insider warns that Trump’s town hall with George Stephanopoulos, an event which took place earlier this week, was a preview of what a debate with no formal prep work could look like:
The president was unable to answer basic questions from undecided voters for large stretches of the evening.
At one point, a voter asked Trump a straightforward question on what he would do about unemployment stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. The president quickly veered off on a series of tangents, jumping around from sanctuary cities to China and then back to “Democrat-run cities” before the ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos had to cut to commercial.
The event featured other equally bizarre moments, like when Trump said that “a lot of people think the masks are not good.”
“Who are those people?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Waiters,” Trump replied.
Success or failure in politics is often in the eye of the beholder. Trump’s off-the-cuff style is seen as brutish and amateur among most in Washington and the media, but it’s seen as refreshing or genuine to his supporters. Voters, by this point in history, are well-acquainted with his style and it’s likely that a few answers which do not pass media standards don’t impact much beyond that realm as Americans have heard “Trumpisms” for nearly five years now.
That’s not to say his style can’t be harmful, it most certainly can with various segments of the voting public. The question is whether those voters who detest his answers and personality were ever on the table as undecided voters in 2020 in the first place.
Back in 2016, as a candidate, Trump did spend time in formal debate prep, standing on a fake stage with former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie standing in as Hillary Clinton, yet this time, he’s forgoing it:
President Donald Trump has not held a single mock debate session, and has no plans to stage a formal practice round, as he readies for his first faceoff with Joe Biden in less than three weeks, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
The president has dismissed the typical debate preparations he participated in four years ago, joking to aides and allies that he’s been preparing for debates since he was born. His ability to fire back at an opponent in real time, he’s argued, “isn’t something you have to practice.”
Instead, Trump has so far chosen to prepare through informal discussions with key allies and with briefings from top officials in his administration on various topics that are likely to come up, these people said.
“It’s not the traditional, ‘we need Chris Christie to fill in and play Hillary Clinton’ like we did four years ago,” one of the president’s allies said, referring to the former New Jersey governor who has helped Trump prepare in the past.
There is something to be said for being “too scripted” in answers and attacks, but Trump rarely comes close to that line. His responses are usually quilts of tattered facts and figures, sometimes stretched thin, woven together to form something which can at times resemble an answer and at times resemble a list of other things he’s done when he doesn’t have a direct answer.
The wildcard here is Chris Wallace, moderator of the first presidential debate. It should be obvious to both campaigns the topics and questions that could come up. Coronavirus is a massive topic touching on the economy, national security, foreign relations, and just about everything else. Protesting and violence is another topic, and the list goes on and on. Health care and insurance is always on the table as well.
The hidden traps are the questions that Wallace pulls out of the left field, so to speak, where neither candidate was expecting them from. Biden will get questioned on his 1994 crime bill, Trump will get questioned on his Coronavirus response, etc.. But what other topics or charges will Wallace trot out that neither candidate is truly prepared for?
That spot, when a candidate is asked something which they aren’t ready to answer, is where formal debate prep comes into play. The stagecraft of responding by tapdancing away from the topic is a practiced art, and some politicians do it better than others. Trump and Biden have their own ways of doing it, which aren’t that different. Biden is prone to head off on tangents and tick off a list of accomplishments related to the question, or unrelated, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Trump is well-capable of doing the same.
The Hill, a conservative outlet, has an attention-grabbing headline about “warning signs flash” for the debates over Trump’s lack of preparation and citing President Obama’s lackluster performance against Mitt Romney at the first presidential debate in 2012:
Then-President Obama unnerved his supporters with a noticeably weak showing against GOP challenger Mitt Romney in their first 2012 debate, while former Presidents George W. Bush and Reagan also struggled in their first encounters against John Kerry and Walter Mondale, respectively.
The most common explanation is that sitting presidents, grown accustomed to agreement from those around them, can find themselves out of practice at rebutting direct attacks.
Looking back at the first 2012 debate, Obama strategist David Axelrod told CNN: “We kind of counseled [Obama] not to engage too much. He took that to the extreme. … Honestly, we didn’t do a good job of preparing the president for that.”
President Obama took a very laid back approach with Romney during the first debate, and it hurt him. It was the first time in years that an opponent had truly challenged Obama to his face, and he wasn’t quite ready for it.
It shouldn’t go unnoted that Trump’s frequent and lengthy press conferences, where he takes direct questions from numerous journalists, do resemble at least something that looks like a debate. The questions are often antagonistic in nature, and the President appears to revel in the worst ones because it gives him an opportunity to attack the media while answering.
We will see the results on September 29 when the first presidential debate takes place.