A Nixon playbook will fail on the debate stage
President Trump has trailed Joe Biden in national and battleground polls since he entered the race nearly a year and a half ago. Numerous high-profile issues like impeachment, coronavirus and a Supreme Court nomination have failed to impact the tenor of the election significantly. Presidents Trump and Nixon both employed law and order political strategies during their campaigns. Both had tax issues. It’s not surprising that Trump attempted to emulate the Nixon re-election playbook.
During the Cleveland debate, President Trump utilized a Hail Mary debate strategy against Joe Biden — in some ways reminiscent of a Nixon “dirty trick.” He was no doubt aware of Biden’s long history of a volatile temper and letting his emotions get out of control in public. In late 2019 Biden called an Iowa voter a “damn liar” and challenged him to a push-up contest over his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine. He cursed at a Detroit automaker in March during a disagreement over the Second Amendment. The testiness included episodes during the Democratic primary debates. President Trump appeared to hope that being relentlessly aggressive would trigger an emotional and disqualifying response from Biden that would direct attention to Biden’s mental acuity and fitness to serve as president.
Trump insulted Biden’s intelligence, questioned the margin of his Democratic primary victory, criticized his memory, and attacked his son Hunter. In return, Biden called Trump a clown twice and told him to shut up — and came closest to losing his temper when talking about his deceased son Beau — but Biden never broke. Trump’s constant stream of attacks did cause Biden to stutter on several occasions, but this remains an issue on which he is impervious to criticism. Biden has not only been open and public about his stuttering history, he turned the issue to his advantage. After meeting a boy with a stutter on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Biden invited the boy to participate in the Democratic National Convention, where Brayden Harrington became one of the event’s viral moments.
The bullying strategy initially deployed by President Trump must be one and done; it’s destined to fail in Thursday’s final debate, not least because debate organizers have announced they are muting opponents’ microphones during initial responses to questions.
What’s more, Biden is now familiar with that playbook and will be on guard. Likewise, moderator Kristen Welker should be more prepared than Chris Wallace regarding how to best navigate Trump’s combative debate style.
In 2016, after losing the first debate to Hillary Clinton, Trump used the watershed moment to recalibrate his strategy for the final encounters, employing more formal debate preparation with the help of Chris Christie. President Trump would be wise to adapt once again — because his margin for error will only get smaller as Election Day nears and more early voting occurs.
To improve his chances for success, Trump must abandon an antiquated and combative playbook and exhibit sunnier optimism — like Ronald Reagan — or follow the lead of Vice President Pence, who effectively pressed Kamala Harris on substantive issues like court-packing, taxes, fracking, and the Green New Deal.
President Trump could also chart his own unique path forward; regardless, time is running out and this debate will be his last opportunity before tens of millions to deliver a winning campaign message.
Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of “Debating The Donald.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronsUKBBBlog.
Joshua Clark is the head debate coach at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn., and the 2017 National Debate Coaches Association Educator of the Year. He is co-author with Aaron Kall of “The State of the Union Is … Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years” Follow him on Twitter @jreubenclark
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