Last month, Joe Biden got some practical campaign advice from a maestro: Keep speeches, interviews, and tweets short and crisp, former president Barack Obama told the presumptive Democratic nominee, according to The New York Times.
With President Trump imploding daily, there’s little else to add except stay cool, drink plenty of water, and avoid mistakes like saying 120 million Americans have died from COVID-19, as Biden recently did, before quickly correcting himself. The current coronavirus tally is just over 125,000. With current polls showing Trump in deep trouble — the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds Biden leads him by 8 points, and Trump has an overall disapproval rating of 58 percent — any Biden stumble is fodder for Trump’s desperate strategy to rebrand his Democratic opponent from “sleepy to senile,” as Axios puts it.
Good luck with getting that to stick, at least in this moment. While Biden’s verbal slips can be anxiety-inducing, it’s a big and ugly crisis a day for Trump, who looks more and more unhinged as he struggles to contain them.
The coronavirus is surging in red states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida, and so far eight Trump campaign workers have tested positive for COVID-19 after the president selfishly went forward with a rally in Tulsa, Okla. Over the weekend, Mississippi lawmakers voted to replace a state flag designed around the Confederate battle emblem — while a tone-deaf Trump retweeted a video of one of his supporters yelling “white power” before the post was taken down a few hours later. John Bolton, Trump’s onetime national security adviser, continues to make headlines with a book that Justice Department lawyers tried to squelch, which describes a stubbornly ill-informed president in love with dictators while bumbling dangerously around the world. Meanwhile, the Trump family is trying to block publication of a book written by Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump, a psychologist, entitled “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”
And then there’s the stunning New York Times report that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered to pay Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition forces — American troops included — while the United States was participating in talks to end the war there. Trump said he was never briefed on that classified intelligence assessment about Russia’s activities, though officials told the Times, “it was briefed to the highest levels of the White House and appeared in the president’s daily intelligence brief.” Based on the anecdotes in Bolton’s book about the president’s short attention span and general resistance to briefings, it’s possible he was briefed and it just never registered, or he just didn’t care. If that’s not grounds for a congressional inquiry, what is?
In response to the Afghanistan report, Biden took the opportunity of a virtual town hall event to blast Trump for “his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin.” It was short and sweet, in keeping with Obama’s advice.
Some are urging Biden to go forth boldly from his Delaware basement. But I am in the camp of letting Trump run against Trump as long as possible. Trump’s lack of leadership on two viruses — COVID-19 and systemic racism — has exacerbated each crisis. He has no empathy for the victims of either and shows no signs of understanding what it takes to guide a country through difficult times. His go-to strategy is race-baiting, but as the Mississippi flag vote shows, he’s pitching that to a shrinking base.
So now it’s time for the Trump campaign to hit Biden with accusations of dementia. An ad run by a pro-Trump PAC raises the question: “Does Joe Biden have the mental capacity to keep America safe?” The ad features footage of Biden stumbling over words and asks: “Is Joe Biden making any sense? Does Joe Biden have dementia?”
Biden is 77; Trump just turned 74. They are both old. While there are concerning examples of Biden making odd statements, unlike Trump, he has never suggested injecting Americans with bleach as a way to fight COVID-19. He hasn’t devoted nearly 15 minutes of a speech to describe how hard it is to walk down a ramp and drink a glass of water. He hasn’t mocked people with disabilities or referred to protesters who included Nazi sympathizers as “very fine people.”
When Trump and Biden go head-to-head in debates, Americans will take the measure of each man. Until then, Obama‘s advice to Biden holds: Keep speeches, interviews, and tweets short and crisp — and let Trump be Trump.