On Super Tuesday, after winning seven states and clearly establishing himself as the favorite to earn the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump did something unusual. Instead of throwing red meat to supporters at a victory rally, he addressed reporters at a news conference where he described himself as a "unifier" and congratulated "Ted" — not "Lyin' Ted" — on a win in Texas.
Trump was "sounding presidential," remarked Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who had questioned the business mogul's presidential temperament during a debate seven months earlier.
New York magazine's Eric Levitz wrote that Trump's tone was "measured; even-keeled; almost presidential."
"The Donald refined his economic fatalism into a general-election argument that should make Democrats a little nervous," Levitz added.
Appraisals like these were common on Super Tuesday. They represented journalists' search for a pivot that never came. They also illustrated something else that could be important in the final two months of the campaign: The media — particularly the pundit class — grades Donald Trump on a curve.
Here's how New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it Monday: "If he manages to read from a TelePrompter without going off script, he's being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn't round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he's moving into the mainstream."
Trump has set his bar so low that it is remarkably easy for him to exceed expectations. Just last week, CNN commentator and Republican strategist Ana Navarro, a harsh Trump critic, praised the GOP nominee's comportment during a visit to Mexico. What was so impressive? "For the first time in his life, during this campaign, he actually said some positive, constructive things about Mexican Americans," Navarro said.
Navarro also applauded Trump for a) going to Mexico in the first place, b) standing next to a world leader, c) answering reporters' questions and d) talking about shared economic interests.
"The Donald Trump I just saw, I think, has had some sort of personality transplant," she said. It was hard to argue with that observation, but the things that earned Trump kudos were, let's face it, pretty rudimentary by normal campaign standards. They were remarkable only by his standards.
This matters because, as MSNBC analyst and former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace suggested this week, Trump could show up to the general election debates and be credited with strong performances by simply avoiding penis jokes and grade-school name calling. Trump's understanding of this dynamic could be one reason that, after hinting that he might boycott the debates, he agreed Monday to participate. Perhaps he realizes that he need not actually win to come out looking like a winner.
If that is Trump's calculus, he will get to test it Wednesday night at NBC's "commander-in-chief forum," a kind of debate tune-up in which he and Clinton will appear onstage separately to field questions about the military and national security. Trump will be coming off an embarrassing quasi-admission that he actually does not have a secret, "foolproof" plan to defeat the Islamic State militant group — at least, not one he currently plans to use. But if he manages to sound reasonably competent, he might be able to bury that story with new ones about how he looked more commander-in-chief-ish than usual.