Donald Trump will chicken out of the debates next year. It’s part of who he is now. Here’s why:
Trump’s ability to shock will be one of his last remaining assets by that point
Debates. Currently front and centre in everyone’s mind. Twenty Democrats have just slogged it out on TV last week taking questions on health care, immigration, race, and climate change. You know, actually discussing policy. With words. In English (or Spanish). Setting the bar high for Donald Trump already.
From early figures, out Friday, the second debate was the most watched Democrat debate of all time. The ‘bigger hitters’ of Biden, Sanders, and Harris drew in over 18 million viewers.
Still, that’s nothing compared to the big one. The Presidential debates in 2020 will be an entirely different beast. Let’s have a look.
Despite them being a spectacle that we all love to pretend we hate, they don’t do much; apart from getting the politicos fired up. In the second debate of 1984, we were treated to Reagan’s iconic slap-down of Mondale — ‘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’. In 1992, Clinton used the debate to demonstrate his vastly superior ability to connect with the voters and left Bush Snr looking out of touch in the extreme when asked about how the economy had personally affected them. And in 2012, there was some mild-panic after Obama’s poor opening debate against Romney. But little else more.
Reagan, Clinton, and Obama went on to win in spite of their debates, though, not because of. Similarly, Hilary thrashed Trump 3–0 in 2016 and still lost. Again, in spite of, not because of. If nothing changes, then what’s the point… The Trump team will be asking.
In 2016, Trump and his team were still learning the ropes; treading them carefully as well as not to fall off too catastrophically as they approached the final hurdle. Balanced between wanting to be seen as the outsider, but also wanting to be seen as the genuine contender. Relishing the underdog status, but avoiding the ridiculous. Whether they liked it or not, the candidate Trump was not out of the woods yet and as polls continued to show him trailing, his campaign had to play by at least some rules in order to keep Clinton in sight. One of these ‘rules’ was that the two candidates debate each other.
Things are different now though. While the crux of the over-sized man-child remain the same — he is a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and a general idiot, of course. President Trump, campaigning for re-election after four years in office is different to candidate Trump, campaigning against the establishment, while his only prior claim to Washington fame was being ridiculed for his racist obsession over Obama’s birth certificate.
Increasingly (and thankfully) his campaign will run out of shock tactics this time around. I mean, what comes next as we get closer to the Series Finale of Trump’s White House? More rape allegations, more obstruction of justice, more financial wrong-doing, more corruption, more children locked in cages, more regressive foreign policy?
Politically speaking, his refusal to debate the Democrat candidate in the fall next year would be a powerful nod to his populist, anti-establishment, I-do-what-I-damn-well-please-base. I think there are three reasons this is at least possible, if not likely.
The first, and most simply, there is no Constitutional obligation to debate, at all. It is a mere convention, and in the grand scheme of things, a convention that has only been around for 40 years anyway (since they became a consistent feature from 1976 onward). Not that this has ever stopped him before, but there would be no immediate repercussions if his team decided not to debate. If they’re not strictly necessary then why would an idiot dedicate time to doing the prep and risk the potential negatives?
I can instead, quite conceivably, see Trump doing three large rallies in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina — take your pick really — on the dates of the scheduled debates. Get off the ‘MSM’ networks and get Trump out to his base, they’d say. The irony being, of course, that the news networks would cover these rallies to at least the same degree as they would any formal debates. But this time he wouldn’t even have to share the stage with anyone else.
Essentially, he has a ready-made better option.
Secondly, there isn’t the all-consuming desire to humiliate like there was in Clinton’s case. A motivation powerful enough for Trump to risk his own campaign. For decades, literally, decades, the Republicans, including Trump loathed the Clintons. They loathed Hilary long before her time as Secretary of State, too. We see it now still; Trump’s re-election campaign launch in Florida was full of Clinton references. He’s still obsessed! SAD.
In 2016, Trump relished being on the same stage as her. Even if he didn’t ‘win’ the debates, he produced that haunting image of him lurched over her shoulder. You know, the one that made Clinton’s ‘skin-crawl’. Imagine the feeling that would have produced in the Trump/Manafort/Conway/Bannon circle?
Trump is going to dislike his opponent, whoever it is. They are a Democrat threatening his power. End of story.
But that visceral, deep, human hatred was reserved exclusively for Hilary. This time around his team won’t be chomping at the bit to take his opponent down. Any temptation that is there, they know it won’t be worth the risk.
They won’t be worth the risk partly because Trump now has strings to his bow that he didn’t in 2016. Namely, the incumbency advantage and the ‘strong’ economy. Indicators that have remained consistently strong predictors of election success. But also the candidate — and Trump’s opponent — will be markedly different to Hilary.
Hilary herself was also treading a fine balance during those debates. Her entire career had been in the spotlight and she had faced a litany of allegations about being insincere, arrogant, elitist and inauthentic. How she presented herself, the vastly superior candidate on the same stage as the owner of Trump Stakes was a real concern. As such, she wasn’t as combative as she could have been. Instead trying to appear calm, more reserved, more presidential.
This will not happen in 2020. The Democrat party is clearly, and rightfully, fed up of this criminal bastardising the highest office in the land. They will come out fighting. Imagine Harris vs Trump? Or Warren vs Trump? Or even Mayor Pete vs Trump? They would wipe the floor with the President. And not just in the way Hilary ‘beat’ him in the debates — they would absolutely take him apart. No holes bared.
We understand who Trump is now. The man himself has even exhibited some much needed self-reflection and concluded that he is going after his base, no more, no less. The Democrats will also be furiously fired up and will have a four year record to unpick on live TV — if anyone knows the impact of live TV, it’s Trump.
Asking Trump to go toe-to-toe with a Democrat candidate over three nights in front of tens of millions of Americans is a deeply concerning and unattractive proposition to his team. Instead, watch him call three national rallies in three states he is under-performing in next year. That will attract thousands of his supporters chanting his name, feeding his ego and boosting his confidence.
The worst part is, the media will cover these rallies in their full glory. Giving Trump unmitigated access to the top of the news cycle. No need to share.