With the first of the general election presidential debates still more than two months away, is it too soon to talk about them? Perhaps. But I’ve been thinking about those upcoming clashes in recent days and listening to friends ponder how they will play out.
Illuminating or not, presidential debates have been a part of my political education since I was a teenager. With one exception, I believe I’ve watched every single one since Reagan’s shaky first performance against Walter Mondale, which caused people to wonder about the incumbent’s mental acuity. In the follow-up, when asked whether his age should be an issue, the 73-year-old Reagan famously deflected those concerns with a perfectly-delivered one-liner: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Everyone laughed, and Reagan won in a landslide.
Both contenders this year are older than Reagan was in 1984. The question of mental acuity is back on the table in large part because, oddly, Trump has put it there. He has placed a large bet that his own cognitive ability compares favorably to Joe Biden’s. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Let’s assess the debating strengths of Donald Trump. Some of these strengths are quite formidable, frankly. They don’t, however, have anything to do with eloquence, preparation, intelligence, or rhetorical skill. Rather, as I see it, Trump has two debating assets that inoculate him to some degree against a failed performance.
First, notwithstanding Trump’s braggadocio about his abilities, five years of slurring (both words and people), misstatements of fact, and bald-faced lies have essentially rendered him immune from a catastrophic performance, at least in the estimation of his base. Given the likely huge audience, a debilitating gaffe is what campaigns fear the most. Remember when Mitt Romney was asked about pay equity for women in the second debate of 2012? He responded with a defense of gender diversity in his hiring, saying he had received “whole binders full of women.” For that, he was ridiculed and criticized for his insensitivity to women until Election Day. How quaint. Trump got elected after release of the Access Hollywood tape wherein he basically confessed to sexual assault, after mocking the looks of a female candidate, mocking the looks of the wife of another candidate, and after being credibly accused of sexual misconduct by over a dozen women. On top of that, Trump has been caught in thousands of lies and has made blatantly racist statements. Again, at least with respect to his base, none of it matters.
Back in September of 2016, well before Trump even took office, Politico published an article entitled, “The 37 Fatal Gaffes that Didn’t Kill Donald Trump.” Ronald Reagan wasn’t the teflon president; Donald Trump is.
What on earth could Trump possibly say in a debate with Joe Biden that is more controversial or deal-breaking than countless things he has already said?
Second, Trump is remarkably difficult to debate because he is so very difficult to pin down. He is all over the place, dodging, lying, changing the subject, counter-attacking. He refutes a questioner’s documented facts with an easy, “That’s not what I’ve been told.” The combination of bluster and bullying saves him from an obvious knockout punch. Trump is near impossible to put back on his heels. He is never dumbstruck. He always has a sharp retort, whether it is truthful or not, whether it is logical or not. The point is he always has a return punch. I believe sensible people see that this man is the most ignorant and ill-prepared president of all time, but in the televised debate arena, it is hard to see how anyone lands a blow that will shake the faith of his faithful.
At this point in Donald Trump’s tenure, we expect very little from him other than nasty narcissism. No one is expecting a newly presidential, rigorous, fair, fact-based performance from the incumbent. Expectations are incredibly low, because Trump’s own conduct has put them there. That’s actually a strategically good position to be in. Hurdles are easy to clear if they are one inch high on the track.
But what are the expectations for his opponent, Joe Biden? Biden has historically been a substantively strong debater. He’s had a lot of practice, in the Senate and in his many runs for national office. Don’t forget that in 2012 he was widely praised for dispatching the much younger, self-described policy wonk, Paul Ryan, in their sole debate. Some people believe Biden is not as sharp as he was eight years ago. Whether or not that’s true, I have not understood why Trump and his supporters keep pushing this narrative before the debates. The principal effect of that approach is to lower the bar for Biden to Trump-like levels.
Let’s go back to cognitive acuity. Trump has been bizarrely bragging about his mental capabilities. He has boasted of “acing” a cognitive test that is meant not to measure intelligence, but screen for dementia. The test calls for, among other things, identifying a picture of an elephant and counting back from 100 by sevens. Yesterday, Trump said that doctors administering the test marveled that he could remember five words in a row: “person, woman, man, camera, TV.” As he boasted, “I’m cognitively there.”
Having cleared this preposterously low bar for the most powerful position on earth, Trump and his allies are simultaneously claiming that Joe Biden is NOT cognitively there. Over and over again, Trump attacks Biden’s mental acuity, language skills, and sharpness. The campaign is even running ads on it. A slew of Facebook spots sport titles such as “Joe Biden is clearly diminished” and “Do you think Joe Biden has the mental fortitude to be president?” Notwithstanding Trump’s own gaffes and misspeaking, the campaign hammers away at any Biden stumble. It comes across as a form of projection, rather than a smart political strategy, at least before the first debate.
Mostly what it has done is lowered expectations for the challenger. What does this mean for the debates? Speaking to NBC News recently, Mark McKinnon, President George W. Bush’s chief media adviser in 2004, said this: “If Trump keeps beating the cognitive drum and Biden shows up and completes sentences at the debate, it’s game over.” I tend to agree.
Back to School?
By Sam Ozer-Staton
On Monday, Florida’s largest teachers union sued Governor Ron DeSantis, seeking to overturn a sweeping emergency order which would force schools to physically open five days a week. The lawsuit, which is the first of its kind in the country, is the latest flashpoint in a debate that is growing louder and more urgent as the school year draws closer: When and how should students return to the classroom?
The lawsuit comes as Florida’s COVID-19 case count reaches nearly 400,000, including a surge of nearly 10,000 confirmed cases on Wednesday alone. Even as cases climb, Florida lawmakers have employed some of the most aggressive tactics in the nation to pressure school districts to reopen for in-person learning. On July 6th, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order which required that “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students, subject to advice and orders from the Florida Department of Health…and subsequent executive orders.”
For his part, Governor DeSantis has in recent days distanced himself from the executive order by shifting blame on to Corcoran. “I didn’t give any executive order, that was the Department of Education,” DeSantis told reporters. Yet he has continued to pressure school districts to offer in-person learning, saying in an address on Wednesday: “Fear does not help us combat the virus…I believe we owe every Florida parent a choice to send your child back to school for in-person instruction.”
The issue of school reopening has quickly become a partisan political football. Earlier this month, President Trump tweeted, “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” Fact-checkers have pointed out that the executive branch does not have the authority to unilaterally withhold funds that Congress has allocated, but Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has continued to echo the president, telling Fox News, “If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds.”
The Florida litigation is a preview of the kinds of legal and political battles expected in the months ahead. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs — the Florida Education Association, along with individual parents and teachers — allege that the order violates the Florida Constitution by not providing for a safe and secure school environment:
The Florida Constitution is clear: public school onsite instruction and operations must be opened safely. The Florida Constitution mandates “[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.” Fla. Const. Art. IX, § 1. The Defendants’ unconstitutional handling of their duties has infringed upon this mandate and requires the courts to issue necessary and appropriate relief.
The fight over school reopening is also being waged in Congress, where it is a major sticking point in the ongoing negotiations over the next COVID-19 relief bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell is attempting to tie significant funding for schools — likely in the ballpark of $100 billion — to a commitment on the part of school districts to in-person learning. “This country wants its kids back in the classroom this fall learning, exploring, making friends,” he said on Tuesday. But the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), called that idea dead on arrival. “Any attempt to condition funds on physically reopening is a non-starter for Democrats,” she said Tuesday.
As the debate plays out nationally, local school districts are making their own choices. Many of the nation’s largest school districts, like Los Angeles and Houston, have announced that they will begin the school year with all-online instruction. Of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, only two — New York City and Chicago — have average daily infection rates lower than 5% of tested individuals, the threshold public health experts have established for reopening. Both will employ a “hybrid learning model” that includes a limited amount of in-person learning coupled with online classes.
With COVID-19 putting all kinds of new pressures on parents, teachers, and students, how do you feel about school reopening? Let us know your thoughts by writing to us at [email protected], or reply to this email.
Jennifer Taub is Professor at Vermont School of Law and a scholar of corporate governance and white collar crime. As the case concerning the Manhattan District Attorney’s subpoena of President Trump’s tax returns winds its way through SDNY, Taub has provided expert blow-by-blow legal analysis. Follow her @JenTaub.
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Tamara Sepper, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Calvin Lord, David Tatasciore, and Matthew Billy