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Trump attempting to lower debate expectations?

Is former President Donald Trump attempting to lower expectations for tonight's debate with Joe Biden on CNN? That's the take that's been coming from the Associated Press this week. 

Trump has been out on the campaign trail lambasting Biden, pointing out his cognitive decline, his frequent stumbles, and his terrible policies. He has been painting a picture, as the AP puts it, of a "shell of a man" who is incapable of stringing together coherent sentences, to say nothing of trying to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump for ninety minutes without a teleprompter or cue cards. But more recently, Trump has suggested that Biden may still be a "worthy debater" who he doesn't want to "underestimate." 

So is Trump actually worried about how well he will do tonight? Or is just trying to spice up the pre-game show? 

From AP:

After months of casting President Joe Biden as a shell of a man incapable of putting two sentences together, Donald Trump has changed his tune days before their first debate.

“I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater,” the former president and presumptive Republican nominee said in an appearance on “The All-In” podcast last week.

“I don’t want to underestimate him,” he added.

The changed rhetoric marks a dramatic shift from how Trump typically describes the man he will face in a rematch this November.

The linked analysis suggests that Trump's team is concerned that they have "set the bar so low" for Biden that he will almost certainly exceed it. To a certain extent, that's a valid analysis, though I would argue that it's Biden himself who has set the bar nearly as low as it could possibly go. Trump is simply observing the public appearances of his opponent like the rest of us and basing his estimation on what we've all seen. 

Later in the piece, the AP takes matters several large steps too far. They suggest that Trump may be "setting up a series of excuses in case he is outperformed by Biden." Of all of the concerns that Donald Trump might be weighing as we move toward the election, being "outperformed" by Joe Biden isn't even on the list. A far more legitimate worry is whether Trump might be outmaneuvered by the moderators and the programming crew at CNN. It's highly unlikely that Biden will be given any questions that might paint his presidency in a poor light, while they will attempt to pin Trump's ears back at every turn. We'll be watching to see if CNN uses its chyron to "fact check" Trump in real-time after setting up rules forbidding the other networks from doing the same.

On a more basic level, we should ask whether we can even quantify what the expectations are of Joe Biden and how we should evaluate whether he exceeded them or fell short. We have been informed that Biden's handlers have had him "practicing" standing up for ninety minutes at Camp David. He has also undoubtedly been coached on some key phrases to work into his answers to anticipated questions. (This assumes that they haven't provided Biden with the questions in advance. CNN has been caught doing that before, particularly with Hillary Clinton.)  

So is that where the bar is going to be set? Will it be seen as enough if Joe Biden simply manages to remain upright without falling down or wandering off and manages to at least say something when his mic is turned on? That wouldn't be a case of setting the bar low. That's putting the bar in the basement. If Biden is as sharp and in command as his wife and his handlers insist, he should be able to mount some sort of cogent defense of his policies and construct defensible attacks on Donald Trump's presidency. It would be shocking to see if he managed it, but in that hypothetical scenario, we would be forced to agree that he at least exceeded expectations.

As for where the bar will be set for Donald Trump, that's a significantly more complicated question. I believe it will largely come down to a test of whether or not he can tame his inner beast, avoid hurling insults, and focus on policies and the failures of the Biden administration. If he simply starts shouting about "Crooked Joe" for an hour, he will be the one who has fallen short. But I'm not expecting that to happen. We'll know soon enough.

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