"Athletes, they make them take a drug test," Donald Trump told supporters. "We should take a drug test prior to the debate." The Republican made the comments 47 months ago, apparently as part of a way to explain to voters why Hillary Clinton was better than him at debating.
Four years later, the president has spent months trying to convince Americans that Joe Biden is a feeble old man who can't speak in complete sentences without the benefit of a teleprompter. The public-relations push has had some effect: a plurality of Americans expect the Republican incumbent to win the debates, the first of which is scheduled for tomorrow night.
The problem for Team Trump, however, is that the president's offensive has probably been too effective: expectations for Biden are now low, creating a bar that's easier to clear. And so, Trump has settled on a new strategy: accusing his Democratic rival of secretly taking performance-enhancing drugs.
We started hearing some talk along these lines about a month ago, but as the debate showdowns have drawn closer, the Republican's preoccupation with the issue has intensified in weird ways, becoming a staple of his stump speech and a line he throws around in assorted Fox News interviews.
Over the weekend, Trump put this in writing for the first time, publishing this missive to Twitter:
"I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night. Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???"
Asked at a press briefing yesterday whether this line of attack was an attempt at humor, the president replied, "No, I'm not joking." He added, "People say he was on performance-enhancing drugs. A lot of people have said that. A lot of people have written that.... Take a look. Why don't you just check it? You can check out the Internet. You'll see."
Soon after, the Biden campaign issued a statement that read, "Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it. We'd expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn't make a plan to stop COVID-19."
That's a good line, though some related questions linger.
Do drugs exist that make people better debaters?
If so, can Team Trump identify them?
And what does it say about a president's level of pre-election panic that he's fixated on a weird theory about performance-enhancing drugs?
Postscript: Just for fun, note that in 1984, during a heated re-election campaign, Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) faced a Republican challenger who dared him to take a drug test. “I’ll take a drug test if you take an I.Q. test,” Hollings responded.
If Biden uses the line tomorrow night, at least we'll know its origins.
Update: Shortly before I published this, Trump tweeted, "Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?" At this point, I'd be genuinely surprised if the Republican doesn't bring this up during tomorrow night's event.