As debate season nears, Trump struggles with the expectations game

Three weeks before the first debate, Team Trump is now telling the public that Biden is a "very good" debater, whom the president will "destroy."
Image: Donald Trump Joe Biden
Chris Kleponis; Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

If all goes according to plan, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will meet exactly three weeks from today in Cleveland for the first of three presidential debates. A recent national poll found a plurality of Americans expect the Republican incumbent to win the debates, which isn't necessarily bad news for the Democratic challenger: if expectations for Biden are low, it creates a bar that's easier to clear.

That's right: the expectations game has begun.

As we discuss every four years ago around this time, presidential campaigns invest quite a bit of energy in trying to manage expectations ahead of the debates. Aides sometimes go to comical lengths to argue that their rival is an extraordinary debater, while their boss is woefully unprepared for the events. (My personal favorite came in 2004, when the Bush/Cheney team, with great sincerity, told campaign reporters that John Kerry was the greatest debater since Cicero, the legendary orator from ancient Rome.)

This year, Team Trump is playing the same game, but it's not playing it especially well. Late last week, for example, Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Republican campaign and one of the key advisers for Trump on the debates, told Politico how impressive Biden is.

“Biden has been debating for a half-century. He is very good. Part of the reason he is very good is that he gives the same answers over and over again to questions for the last 30 years."

Two days later, Team Trump told its supporters that the president will "DESTROY" Biden in the debates.

And therein lies the problem. Trump and his allies have spent months telling the public that Biden is old and addled, hiding in his basement, unable to speak in complete sentences. Team Trump is also now telling the public that Biden is a "very good" debater, whom the president will "destroy."

Or put another way, with the first debate three weeks away, the Republican operation seems indifferent to the fact that it's building Biden up and knocking him down at the same time.

For his part, the president has recently begun pushing the line that the candidates should be subjected to drug tests before the debate -- a line Trump also pushed four years ago. Last week, the Republican added that Biden is "on some kind of an enhancement" that makes him a better debater.

This is ridiculous, of course, but it's also apparently part of some weird effort to set expectations.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the absurdities are almost certain to get worse.