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A Petulant Trump Squanders His Best Chance for a Breakthrough

By skipping the next presidential debate, the president is signing his own death warrant.

Illustration by James Steinberg

On Thursday morning, Donald Trump, the king of real estate bankruptcy, declared political bankruptcy. Trailing Joe Biden by double-digit margins in recent national polls, the Covid-stricken president did what he does best—he had a self-destructive temper tantrum. After the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that next week’s face-off with Biden would be held virtually because of concerns about the coronavirus, Trump said in an interview on the Fox Business Network, “I’m not going to waste my time with a virtual debate.”

Trump, of course, must be busy composing deranged all-caps tweets and binge-watching Fox News. But normally, candidates in his dire position relish any debate as a chance to reset the race—especially if their opponent is as uneven a debater as Joe Biden, who has had enough shaky debate performances to make many Democrats nervous.

Instead, just as he did earlier this week in loudly rejecting the last chance for an economic stimulus package before the election, Trump reverted to his unique negotiating strategy: the Art of the Squeal. By screaming about something—whether it is unfairness, time-wasting or, one of these days, the astrological charts—Trump expects his opponents to beg for a chance to renegotiate.

Yes, there remains a chance that Republicans in Congress, hoping to save some of their most endangered members, will agree to provide more economic relief for those suffering from the pandemic. Trump, in fact, is now trumpeting that the stimulus talks are back on, which seems to be his latest attempt to negotiate with himself.

But it is impossible to envision how Trump recovers from being a debate refusenik. Having made a prudent decision, the debate commission is not about to say, “We were wrong. We do indeed want a superspreader debate in person.” Nor is Biden about to show up at the White House gates in a chicken suit, begging Trump to reconsider and debate.

So there is a good chance that Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate will be the last event before the election with a mass audience. While the debate had few exchanges worthy of a highlight reel, it provided a road map of how both campaigns envision the terrain ahead.

The running-mate rumble has been hailed in the morning-after commentary as a shimmering example of decorum in politics. The New York Times, for example, headlined a postdebate podcast “Plexiglass and Civility.” And it is true that it was shocking to see Mike Pence, as Trump’s second banana, get through an entire debate without shouting or stamping his feet like Rumpelstiltskin.

But the face-off with a live audience in Salt Lake City should be remembered as the “Thank you, Vice President Pence” debate. Those were the plaintive words that moderator Susan Page of USA Today employed dozens of times as Pence blew through the debate time limits like a vice presidential limousine roaring through stoplights.

By repeatedly talking over both Page and Kamala Harris, Pence must have alienated female voters, who already support the Democratic ticket by a historic margin of 2 to 1, according to some recent polls. There may have been a few swing-state male voters who would have relished the latest example of Republican disdain for women in politics, but my guess is that most of those men are already wearing MAGA hats and proudly going maskless. The rest of them could probably squeeze into a dive bar somewhere.

Both Pence and Harris are disciplined candidates who obviously memorized their briefing books and rehearsed with mock debates. Pence, in fact, probably did more debate preparation in a single afternoon than Trump has done in a lifetime. As a result, the debate provided a revealing look at the internal polling on both sides as the candidates recited their prepared talking points.

Harris, who had a strong debate, though one devoid of any transcendent moments, used her time to provide viewers with a handy rundown of some of the recent revelations about Trump’s leadership style. She highlighted the New York Times story that our business-genius president paid only $750 in federal taxes in 2016 and 2017. She picked up on an Atlantic story that Trump had called the war dead “suckers.” And the California senator reminded voters that Trump—in his taped interview with Bob Woodward—knew how lethal the coronavirus was in late January. As Harris pointed out, “They knew, and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax.”

It was telling that of those three charges, Pence only strenuously objected to her reference to the Atlantic story, saying, “The slanders against President Donald Trump regarding men and women of our armed forces are absurd.” (She chose not to point out that Trump had described getting through the 1970s without a sexually transmitted disease as his “personal Vietnam.”)

Harris also amplified a key message that Democratic campaign ads are trumpeting in swing states across the country, stressing that millions of Americans could lose their health care coverage if Trump is reelected: “If you have a preexisting condition—heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer—they’re coming for you.” As she pointed out later in the debate, having had the coronavirus may, in the future, be considered a preexisting condition.

Nothing Pence said in response was new. He stubbornly clung to the fantasy that there is a Trump health care plan just over the horizon, so close and yet always so elusive. And he tried to paint a dire picture of life under Biden. The vice president repeatedly claimed that Biden wants to raise everyone’s taxes, sticking to his talking point even after Harris pointed out that only those earning more than $400,000 would pay more. He also went after the Green New Deal, saying that the Democrats “want to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking, which would cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs all across the heartland.”

But Pence—who used to accurately describe himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf”—never echoed Trump’s more extreme claims about Biden. The word “suburbs” was never mentioned in the debate, despite Trump’s drumbeats of fearmongering about property values and, by implication, integration. And while Pence briefly denounced “rioting and looting,” there was nary a mention of Trump’s favorite theme of “law and order.”

In short, Pence demonstrated the failure of Republican polling to figure out a persuasive way of scaring swing voters about a Biden-Harris ticket. All they have are Pence’s tired tropes about taxes and Trump’s guttersnipe rhetoric.

Without a second or probably third debate to give Trump a megaphone beyond his Fox News base, the president may be reduced to closing out the campaign screaming about the injustice of the pandemic to a smaller and smaller audience. There will probably be more indoor rallies as Trump endangers the fervent few with exposure to a deadly virus. Badly outspent on television by the Biden campaign, Trump needs debates to change his downward trajectory in the polls.

But, of course, the petulant president would rather take his lectern and stay home. So much for Donald J. Trump, strategic genius.