If voters reject him next month, this will be the chief reason: The 2020 campaign is different, and Donald Trump is not.
By Matt Flegenheimer and Maggie Haberman
Before the president’s last, best chance to change the trajectory of his re-election bid, his mandate on Thursday evening was at once clear and complicated: Be less like Donald J. Trump.
It can be said that he tried, by his standard. He succeeded at various points in acting like the type of person he claims to disdain: a typical politician in a debate. He spoke with an inside voice while saluting his own pandemic response. He interrupted far less. He thanked the moderator for letting him chime in and did not sound sarcastic while doing so.
And it is far from certain that he helped himself enough anyway.
Swiveling all night between heeding the advice of allies who have pleaded for uncharacteristic discipline and succumbing to impulses that can still consume him as he faces down an opponent he cannot process losing to, Mr. Trump stood before the electorate a candidate in conflict at his late campaign hour.
If Mr. Trump appeared to recognize that the debate represented his final mass audience less than two weeks before Election Day, he also showed the limits of even a more finely calibrated executive performance.
In an election that Mr. Biden’s team has sought to frame as a referendum on the incumbent, particularly his handling of the coronavirus — an endeavor that Mr. Trump has often made quite straightforward for his rival — it was the president who entered Thursday night with more work to do, given the national and battleground state surveys showing him behind.
At times, his answers seemed tailored explicitly with this deficit in mind, targeted at groups with whom he must improve his standing, like seniors, whom he pledged at one point to “protect” four times in a matter of seconds.
But in a moment of relentless national upheaval, manifesting in protest, public health crisis and immense financial turmoil, Mr. Trump also could not help but accentuate the most essential qualities of his tenure on Thursday, reverting to fits of magical-thinking-aloud and grievance-stuffed nonrestraint.
He set off on an extended meditation — most likely to resonate with only dedicated consumers of right-wing media — on whether Joe Biden’s nickname was “the big man” as it related to his son’s business dealings. He dwelled on “the emails, the emails, the horrible emails” with conspiratorial repetition.
He invoked Abraham Lincoln to praise his own contributions to Black Americans.
He specked his virus defense with an aside that “we can’t lock ourselves up in a basement like Joe does,” before nodding at purportedly shadowy sources of Biden family wealth. (“He’s obviously made a lot of money someplace,” he said.)
The president’s opponents like to say there is only one Mr. Trump, and his advisers like to describe a different one: compassionate in private, they insist; altruistic in nature; brawling only when the task dictates as much.
Too often — and despite his best efforts on Thursday — this latter case has tended to collapse in a hail of misstatement and self-congratulation.
He can resemble a chef with one dish, a golfer with one club in his bag — regardless of what the next stroke might require — and a propensity to blame his caddie for the attendant result.
If voters reject him next month, this will be the chief reason: The 2020 campaign is different, and Mr. Trump is not.
He still focused extensively Thursday on often unsubstantiated allegations against his opponent’s son, defying some Republican allies who have counseled that the attacks connect little beyond the conservative echo chamber where Mr. Trump is already beloved.
He still made virtually no attempt to outline a comprehensive second-term agenda that might appeal to any remaining political fence-sitters — to the extent that there are many left, in an election where many millions have already voted and most others are largely set in their views, according to polling.
Of course, political pliability was probably never going to be a prominent feature in a contest between two proud men in their 70s. Mr. Biden likewise demonstrated on Thursday that he is very much the candidate that voters have come to know, for good or ill, across the decades: a creature of a bygone Washington, prone to throwback references, never entirely smooth.
He spoke of “Bidencare” and made a curious allusion to Hitler. He strained to supply a compelling rebuttal to Mr. Trump’s charge that he has been around Washington for almost a half-century to little effect.
Mr. Biden was often at his strongest pressing Mr. Trump on his stewardship during the pandemic, suggesting the president did not have the capacity to evolve in the job.
“He says we’re learning to live with it,” Mr. Biden said of the virus. “People are learning to die with it.”
In an exchange about immigration, Mr. Biden highlighted the 545 children who were separated from their parents at the border, and whose parents cannot be located. “It makes us a laughingstock, and violates every notion of who are as a nation,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Trump’s retort was to claim the children are “well taken care of,” and then to focus on the cages that have been used to hold them. “Who built the cages, Joe?”
A businessman who has long specialized in setting Houdini-like traps for himself and then trying to escape, Mr. Trump appeared mindful that this is almost certainly the last time he will ever be on a debate stage. In 2016, he managed to stay relatively disciplined for the final 10 days of the race, something his advisers have lamented since the disastrous last debate.
And if he was not his most unruly self on Thursday, he also remains a man who believes firmly that a refusal to modulate is part of what delivered him to his position in the first place — reason enough, supporters say, to be reminded that this race is not yet over.
Through essentially his entire professional life, the president has delighted in making others adjust to his tics and whims, secure in the knowledge that if history was instructive, everything would more or less work out for him anyway.
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