It’s about Joe Biden now — and it’s about those upcoming debates.
In April, I wrote about a theory of reelection campaigns that makes a lot of sense. (Here again I’ll credit Nathan Daschle, who used to direct Democratic governors’ campaigns.) The theory holds that all campaigns with incumbents on the ballot are essentially two-part tests.
The first question is whether voters think the incumbent deserves to be rehired for his or her job. If the answer, after some consideration, is yes, then the campaign is effectively over.
If the answer is no, however, then voters move on to the second question: Is the other candidate a suitable alternative? Do enough voters believe that he or she represents a risk worth taking?
Despite the never-ending focus on Trump’s daily antics, the first question has been asked and answered. Whatever window Trump had to persuade the electorate that he has been the greatest president in the history of presidents — or, at the very least, that he has learned from his mistakes and deserves another chance — appears now to have closed.
Consider that three weeks ago Trump enjoyed almost a week’s worth of prime-time TV to parade his family in front of the country, crow about his achievements and declare himself the last line of defense between White America and wilding mobs.
All of this he did quite well. If there was a compelling case to be made for more of Trump, without any discernible regard for fact or decorum, this was it — and all against the impressive backdrop of the White House.
A majority of Americans have seen enough of Trump to make up their minds about him, and nothing he says between now and Election Day will change that. On the question of whether he deserves to be rehired, the collective answer is no.
And so now, with less than seven weeks left, we’re firmly in the second phase of the campaign. The only real question is whether Biden represents a comfortable alternative for a lot of voters who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the Democratic nominee last time around.
So far, so good for Biden. His answer to Trump’s law-and-order onslaught at the convention — “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” — was exactly right. He’s locking up majorities in the states he ought to win (like Minnesota) while remaining competitive in states where he ought to have no chance (like Texas).
But his last crucial test is coming. A lot of voters didn’t pay close attention to the Democratic primaries, and because of the pandemic, they haven’t had an extended look at Biden. His campaign seemed just fine with lying low while the president unraveled.
Starting Sept. 29, voters are about to see Biden up close, sharing a stage with Trump, three times in about a three-week span.
An interesting analogue here is the 1992 debates, during the last election cycle in which the voters sent a president packing. What people mostly remember from those encounters is George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch — visual proof, it appeared, of his detachment.
But really, by then, a recession-racked electorate already knew how it felt about Bush. The much more important takeaway from those debates was that a young Bill Clinton seemed ready to govern and not at all like the draft-dodging radical he’d been made out to be.
No one seriously questions whether Biden is unqualified or too ideologically extreme. What they might wonder is whether, at 77, he’s still up to the job, and strong enough to defy the most extreme voices in his own party.
A forceful — or even adequate — performance from Biden in all three debates will likely settle that question and seal Trump’s fate. A glaring moment of befuddlement, however, could make this a very close finish.
Either way, it’s all about Biden from here on out, his campaign to win or lose. The Trump carnival rolls on, but it’s merely a sideshow now.
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