Biden's trap for Trump in the first debate

It’s probably a safe bet to assume that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE has more riding on the first presidential debate than does President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE. The primary reason is that the Trump campaign and its allies — as well as the mishaps by Biden and his advisers — have successfully put Biden's “cognitive issue" on the table for all to examine.

But, as demonstrated by Biden’s virtual convention speech, the expectation game can quickly be turned to Biden’s favor. Numerous political operatives believe the Trump campaign and the president overplayed their hands before the Democratic and Republican conventions with regard to Biden’s cognitive state — so much so that when Biden gave a solid acceptance speech, round one went to him.

Now, the Trump campaign and the president may be overplaying that “cognitive” hand a second time heading into the first presidential debate. Both have raised questions about whether Biden is using a teleprompter for even basic interviews. Of course, it didn’t help the former vice president’s cause when one of his spokesmen continually dodged that question when asked in an interview by Bret Baier of Fox News.


Next, the Trump campaign and its allies are trying to push the “cognitive issue” by continually asking why the Biden campaign has issued “put a lid” announcements — meaning no public events, no talking to the press — at least nine times so far in September. The Biden campaign insists that it is because the former vice president is deep into debate prep, while Team Trump wants voters to wonder if Biden — like any number of seniors — is having bad days mixed in with good days and, thus, is basically calling off sick while on the campaign trail.

Politics aside, every American should expect any president, and any serious candidate for the office, to be cognitively aware and always mentally sharp. Both Trump and Biden should be willing and able to directly answer any and all questions related to that basic, expected qualification.

Over the last few months, Trump has been like the ultrasmart kid in class who raises his hand at every question from the teacher to prove he knows the answers. Trump’s enthusiasm to prove his own cognitive abilities would seem to tip that issue in his favor.

And yet a case can be made that, with regard to the expectations game, Biden might be in a stronger position perceptionwise than Trump and his allies want to believe. To gain the upper hand during their first debate on Tuesday, Biden must be willing to walk a mental and temperamental tightrope for the entire 90 minutes, without slipping once.

To successfully cross the tightrope, and to put Trump at a disadvantage on this issue, Biden must be able to claim the middle ground between elderly and seasoned, between forgetful and thoughtful, between frail and fit, between contentious and courteous — and between politician and statesman.


After a nearly half-century political career, Biden has engaged in hundreds of these debates. No matter if he is on the younger or older side of his 77 years, at some point his mental muscle and memory should kick in to guide him around the questions, along with Trump’s practiced and purposeful rhetoric.

If the seasoned, thoughtful, fit, courteous, statesmanlike Biden shows up at the first debate and remains well balanced on the rhetorical tightrope, he will successfully trigger the expectations trap set for Trump and win round two. If not, he'd better have his best Ronald Reagan age-related quip — “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” — ready and believable for the next debate, or the race will be all but over.

Douglas MacKinnon was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and former special assistant for policy and communication at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration. He is the author of “The Dawn of a Nazi Moon: Book One.”