Trump Time Capsule #91: Debate Camp

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
John Kennedy, who had served as a Congressman and Senator, felt he had to practice for his presidential debate in 1960. Richard Nixon, who had spent eight years as Vice President, practiced too. Donald Trump says that practicing is for losers. (AP)

A new story in the NYT says this about Donald Trump’s debate preparations:

He has been especially resistant to his advisers’ suggestions that he take part in mock debates with a Clinton stand-in….

Instead, Mr. Trump asked a battery of questions about debate topics, Mrs. Clinton’s skills and possible moderators, but people close to him said relatively little had been accomplished….

Mr. Trump, in the interview, said he saw little use in standing at lecterns and pretending to debate his opponent.

“I know who I am, and it got me here,” Mr. Trump said, boasting of success in his 11 primary debate appearances and in capturing the Republican nomination over veteran politicians and polished debaters…  “I mean, it’s possible we’ll do a mock debate, but I don’t see a real need.”

This is either extremely clever or bottomlessly stupid. It’s clever if it lulls the Clinton camp into thinking (as it won’t) that they too should just coast into the debate. It will be all the more brilliant if it masks actual preparation on Trump’s side.

It is bottomlessly stupid in all other circumstances.

I have a big piece coming out in the magazine in a few weeks elaborating on who has what to gain and lose in the debates, and why. So I’ll save the full explication for then.

For now I’ll just say: No previous non-incumbent candidate has ever applied the “I know who I am: why prepare?” approach to the general-election debates, and there’s a reason. The reason is, these head-to-head showdowns are very different from the multi-player primary-debate scrums, and doing well at them is an acquired skill. Incumbent presidents have been tempted to apply this approach to their first debate with a challenger (for reasons explained here). This is what Barack Obama did before his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, and it is much of the reason he badly lost that debate to Romney, as incumbents who believe themselves to be above practice repeatedly have done.

So three-plus weeks from now either Trump will show us that once again all previous rules of politics are nullified via his existence; or, as with so many other missteps he has made in the past month, he’ll show once again that he is out of his depth in a general-election campaign.

Details to come in the magazine soon, and over the airwaves starting September 26.

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The NYT has unveiled a nice time-capsule-like feature, which matches a timeline of Trump’s outlandish statements with a list of the Republicans who have announced that they can no longer support him. It’s elegantly done.

Meantime, as the clock nears 69 days to go until the election, Trump rumbles on: with stolid support from the party’s “leadership,” and no tax return or plausible medical report on hand.