The idea that the purported diminished mental capacity of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden renders him unfit for the highest office in the land has become an essential tenet among supporters of President Donald Trump.
On any given day for the past few months, the main personalities of right-leaning media pile on suggestions that Biden “is losing his memory and is getting senile”, “suffers from dementia,” or “might have Alzheimer’s.” All of this follows logically from the script of the President himself, who routinely mocks his opponent with the moniker “Sleepy Joe.”
Pro-Trump voters have taken the cue and colored their view of the race accordingly. In their eyes, Biden’s compromised faculties make him unfit for office, which wouldn’t matter anyway because his condition purportedly renders him incapable of mounting a campaign and winning the presidency in the first place. Bizarrely, Biden even earns sympathy from this Republican constituency for supposedly being manipulated by those around him for their own gain, like a helpless senior citizen being fleeced by his unscrupulous progeny.
Biden’s lack of public appearances has lent credence to this view of an uninspired candidacy. Whereas Trump hogs the spotlight at every opportunity, Biden has remained largely out of sight for the past few months, giving the (wrong) impression of a lifeless campaign and a flag-bearer who cannot deliver. The Biden campaign strategically chose to eschew typical campaign photo-ops during the pandemic, and instead focused on virtual meetings, linking them to fundraising.
Considering his consistent lead in the polls, sometimes even by double digits, the strategy appears to have worked thus far. If we consider the race essentially a referendum on Donald Trump, Biden didn’t lose much by remaining out of sight while his opponent continued to struggle with the pandemic and the economy, which should have been Trump’s calling card for reelection.
But what the Republicans have not realized is that “Sleepy Joe’s" discreet strategy did more than just avoid harm to the Democrats. It also set a trap for Trump’s supporters, and they walked right into it.
Two-and-a-half months from the election, the (mostly virtual) conventions are now taking place, and we will soon approach Labor Day, when the race really heats up. Joe Biden’s heretofore absence from the campaign trail, when there really was no campaign trail, will be forgotten. But what will not be forgotten is the image of Biden as a feeble-minded incompetent. That is who Trump’s supporters expect him to face.
Unfortunately for them, the Joe Biden who showed up to introduce his running mate Kamala Harris last week seems to have found a miracle drug to cure dementia, because he was on the money. The delivery of classic Biden lines like “as that old saying goes, give me a break” do not exactly suggest that he has jitters about debating Donald Trump, despite what Trump’s supporters might think.
No doubt that Joe Biden is gaffe-prone. It goes with the territory. But debates are a game of expectations, and by staying out of sight and perpetuating the image of “Sleepy Joe,” the Biden campaign has made useful idiots out of right-wing pundits who conditioned voters to expect Trump to make mincemeat out of a mentally compromised opponent. When they finally face off, should Biden score even a couple good zingers against Trump that put doubt in the minds of voters as to which candidate would best handle the economy, he will have exceeded expectations. Ergo, The Donald loses bigly.
The Trump campaign desperately needs to reset expectations for the coming debates. There are numerous ways to do this, which would be illuminated by the campaign’s internal polling indicating how undecided voters or waffling Trump supporters see the race. But we can offer educated guesses: for example, by positioning Trump to walk into the first debate as an obnoxious street brawler, the President could exceed expectations by showing showing his compassionate side, as he effectively did when he announced cancellation of the Republican convention due to Covid-19.
The race largely remains a referendum on Trump, but the 11 weeks from now until the election represent several eternities in politics. Biden could easily steal defeat from the jaws of victory between now and then. But the useful idiots mocking “Sleepy Joe” have set him up for success in the coming debates that will have an outsize impact on voter disposition.
George Ajjan is a political strategist and former Republican candidate for US Congress
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