2020-07-20 20:00:35 UTC
President Trumps interview with Chris Wallace, which aired on "Fox News
Sunday," was remarkable in more ways than there is room to recount here.
But lets start with what should be the lead story: The president of the United
States told Wallace that the mental competence test he recently took was very
hard, specifically the last five questions.
Just to be clear, the president passed the test, a fact hes boasted about on
numerous occasions. I aced it, he proudly told Foxs Sean Hannity earlier this
month. The problem is that none of the questions on the standard Montreal
Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) test are supposed to be hard if you arent suffering
from dementia of some kind. Crowing that you aced the MoCA is a bit like
bragging that you passed a sobriety test while sober.
The last five questions of the 10-minute, nine-task exercise assess things like
basic abstract reasoning e.g., what do a train and a bicycle have in common?
and rudimentary memory. The final exercise, presumably hardest according to
Trump, simply asks the patient to provide the full date, current time and
location of the examination.
We should all hope the guy with the nuclear codes can ace this test. And some
might even say we should have a president who didnt find it very hard to ace
Trumps bragging about his test results may simply be part of his strategy to
cast Joe Biden as not all there. But its hard to fathom why the Trump
campaign thinks this is a shrewd gambit.
In Sundays interview, Wallace asked Trump point-blank, Is Joe Biden senile?
Trump responded. I don't want to say that. I'd say he's not competent to be
president. At first, it seemed the president was opting to take the high road.
But he then went on to insist, Joe doesn't know he's alive, OK? He doesn't know
Perhaps hes seen data suggesting attacks on Bidens age dont play well with
senior voters, so the task is to claim Biden is mentally handicapped but not as
a result of his age? Thats a level of nuance wed expect of someone who aced a
cognitive evaluation, but not what wed associate with Trumps political style.
Regardless, the whole strategy of attacking Biden as mentally incompetent is
risky. Forget that such tactics were once considered beyond the pale. And put
aside the entirely reasonable conclusion that Biden does indeed show his age
quite often and that he has always had a propensity to say weird things. The
Trump campaign is now betting his reelections already slim chances on Biden
proving Trumps diagnosis is right.
One of the central tasks of campaigning, and politics generally, is managing
expectations. Beating expectations in a primary makes you a winner. Falling
short has the opposite effect. For instance, LBJ won the 1968 New Hampshire
primary by seven points but fell so far below expectations he withdrew from the
race. President Trump has benefited from early warnings that the U.S. could see
millions of deaths from COVID-19, so the current and rising death toll of
only 143,000 beats expectations.
As of now, all Biden has to do to beat the expectations laid out by Trump is
prove he knows hes alive a very light lift. In normal times, presidential
campaigns work hard to set expectations for the opponent unreasonably high.
Before Trumps first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, for example, then-RNC
Chairman Reince Priebus said, "The expectations on Hillary are very, very high.
She's been doing this for 30 years. I think people expect her to know every
little detail. She has to perform in a way that is of the highest of
expectations. I think in the case of Donald Trump, look, he's the outsider, he's
a person who's never run before, let alone be in a presidential debate." In
other words, if Trump even held his own in the debate, he should be declared the
Given that his lead in the polls continues to widen, theres no rush for Biden
to call off his front-porch-style campaign. But after months of Trumps
flailing, erratic and increasingly desperate attacks on Biden as a near
vegetable, all Biden will have to do is come across as a reassuringly normal,
albeit gaffe prone, competent leader. Biden, despite his flaws, seems up to
If the Wallace interview is any indication, its Trump who struggles to meet
that remarkably low bar.