One can already hear the punditry repeating the most ridiculous and annoying of all public relations and political nostrums.
“Perception is reality.”
And when it comes to the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, “perception” favors the former veep.
He stayed on his feet. He was lucid. He had good prepared lines on his sons and other matters. He talked into the camera effectively.
Meanwhile, Trump was a bully. Interrupting and talking over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. Out-of-bounds in his attacks on Biden’s son and his drug addiction. Turning the event what one CNN commentator surprisingly called a “s—. show.”
Winner: Not-As-Sleepy-as-Usual Joe.
Well, here’s one long-time communications practitioner’s response to that whole line of argument.
To put it politely, bullcrap.
Perception is not reality. Reality is reality. You just have to make sure people know about it.
And the reality is that Donald Trump wiped the debate floor with Biden and his plugged pate.
The president was admittedly not at his best. He too often failed to accomplish his most important job for the evening: underscore his many accomplishments as chief executive and paint a visionary picture of the next four years, while contrasting Biden’s wild and expensive schemes.
When Wallace gave him a shot to explain why he should get four more years in the job rather than turn it over to his opponent (the basic question Teddy Kennedy flubbed in his famous interview with Roger Mudd), Trump once again missed the opportunity to point to his slam-bang second-term agenda and repeat his pronouncement that the “best is yet to come.”
But the president clearly did have a strategy, one that recalls the famed statement first attributed to Finley Peter Dunne’s wise-cracking Irishman, Mr. Dooley, “politics ain’t beanbag.”
His obvious plan: rattle Biden into making mistakes. Trump forced the Delawarean into a number of indefensible and outright untrue statements (that will never be reviewed by the “fact-checkers” who once again dug into the president).
The prez got onto the record, and the public consciousness, questions about Biden that would not normally get picked up in mainstream media coverage. In particular, issues relating to the former vice president’s son Hunter and his cash-raking from a rogue’s gallery of American enemies. And his kowtowing to Sanders and his party’s radical left wing. The president pushed the longtime senator into exaggerations about the extent of lost health coverage in the event of Obamacare repeal and COVID-19. Trump brought out the VP’s weaselly positions on opposing violence in the streets.
But Barack Obama’s wingman’s biggest mistake, under pressure from Trump, was losing his cool and failing to adhere to the political “norms” to which he and his party so frequently appeal.
Get this: in a single debate, the Democratic candidate told the president of the United States, on national television, to “shut up, man.” Called him a clown and a racist. And termed him the worst president in history (an especially ludicrous statement given that Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama held the office in this commentator’s lifetime).
The moderator’s response to such extraordinary breaks in decorum? Calling the president out for breaking debate rules, when both men were guilty at various times.
Wallace let Biden get away not only with disrespect for the office of president and the conventions of political debate, but also with an approach of slipping, sliding, prevaricating and outright running from his record and his party’s positions – for example, repeatedly and simply responding “that isn’t true” to charges that were in fact well-grounded.
To charges that he gave in to the Sanders/AOC wing on health care and climate policy. (In particular, Trump had Biden against the ropes and pummeled him on the Green New Deal.) And to charges relating to specific payments Hunter had received.
To Trump’s contrast of the candidates’ records on criminal justice reform and the economy.
And even in defending the indefensible behavior of educators who truly are teaching the younger generation, as POTUS rightly pointed out, to hate America.
Like a referee covering up a weaker fighter and sending an aggressive opponent back to his corner, Wallace repeatedly enabled Biden to slip away just as Trump was landing roundhouses and body blows.
The most outrageous part of Wallace’s Candy Crowley-like disgraceful performance was failing to pin Biden down on whether he would acquiesce to Democratic suggestions of court-packing, opposed by more than 60% of independent voters.
The job ahead for the president and his partisans: finish the job Trump started. First, by countering Sleepy Joe’s “nice guy” image with reminders of “shut up” and insults slung at the office of president.
More important, by hammering at the former vice president’s outright lies and other wedges the president started on corruptocracy, law and order, health care and most important, the Green New Deal. President Trump flushed Joe Biden out and exposed his weaknesses on any number of subjects.
That’s the reality of Tuesday’s debate, and the president and his team need to get to work getting public “perception” aligned with it.