Those goals were in tension, though several prominent Republicans noted that Trump had a model for how to behave: Mike Pence, who was alternately zealous and Zen in his vice-presidential debate with Kamala Harris.
But Trump lacks the humility to take cues from anyone. And nudging the nutty monarch of Mar-a-Loco to emulate the Hoosier snoozer is like asking a honey badger to morph into a three-toed sloth. It goes against the very nature of the beast.
He pursued an odd strategy, built on pure delusion and dependent on voters’ complete amnesia.
He painted Biden, not himself, as an ethical abomination whose career in government was devoted to personal enrichment. He essentially cast Biden as the incumbent, speaking as if Biden had exited the vice presidency all of 60 seconds ago, and clung to the claim that he, the leader of the world’s richest and most powerful country for nearly four years now, was the ultimate outsider.
“It’s all talk, no action, with these politicians,” Trump said at one point.
These politicians? Mr. President, please allow me to introduce you to the profession that you now inhabit. You’re awful at it, and there’s a death toll of more than 220,000 Americans confirming that. But it is your occupation, God save the rest of us.
As for Trump’s delusions, they flared brightest when he likened himself — for the umpteenth time — to Abraham Lincoln and when he confidently predicted that Republicans would regain the House majority. Republicans will be lucky to hold on to their Senate majority. And all the rosy soothsaying in the world won’t change that, any more than Trump’s promise about the coronavirus (“We’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner, it’s going away”) will be magically fulfilled.
I would love to be able to write that Biden, in contrast, was dazzling, but I live in a realm more truthful than Trump’s. Biden is never dazzling. On Thursday night he was frequently wobbly, failing to nail comebacks that should have been a cinch, and spoke more negatively of the oil and gas industry than he intended to, so that he was forced to try to clean up his remarks after the debate. Trump will probably spend the coming days telling workers in that industry that Biden is coming for their jobs.