Do presidents have to be prepared?

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Trump Probably Isn't Preparing for Next Debate Either

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The New York Times reported that advisers to Donald Trump "plan to more rigorously prepare him for his next face-off with Hillary Clinton by drilling the Republican nominee on crucial answers, facts and counterattacks, and by coaching him on ways to whack Mrs. Clinton on issues even if he is not asked about them."

Good luck, guys.

Debates are correctly perceived as landmarks on the route to the presidency because they demand performance skills, quick wits and deep reservoirs of substantive arguments, rhetorical pivots and psychological weaponry.

Trump is a skilled performer but a crude one. His arguments are shallow and grow quickly incoherent when he extends them beyond two or three familiar lines. His pivots are clumsy. And he has only one reliable weapon in his arsenal: bullying.

He could improve, but the fact that everyone, including his own team, is saying that he needs to will make it much harder for him to do so. The Republican nominee's disastrous first debate wasn't a result of poor staff work so much as a product of an unmanageable, gargantuan sense of insecurity.

No one obsessed with every slight has genuine confidence. No one who spends so much manic energy pretending to be in control actually is. Trump appears to live each second with an abiding fear of humiliation.

With his dark talk of crime and terrorists and drugs and economic calamity, Trump spends an inordinate amount of time trying to frighten American voters. He may or may not succeed in that come November. But there's little doubt that he thoroughly scares himself.

The paradox, of course, is that preparing for a debate would help allay Trump's fears. Except it would also expose and concentrate them. Preparation itself requires Trump's acknowledgment that he often doesn't know what he's talking about. That's too risky an admission for such a shaky, hyperkinetic ego.

Trump's dominance of the Republican primary debates has little bearing on his general-election challenge against Clinton. It's not just that the GOP debates featured so many candidates, though that's a significant factor that eased the strain on Trump's short attention span. It's that the GOP audience was so receptive to Trump's juvenile taunts and crude remarks. Republican base voters wanted a battering ram to bludgeon their own establishment and everyone else who condescends to them. Trump was invariably the bluntest instrument on the stage.

Trump is now battling Clinton for swing voters and college-educated, relatively affluent white moderates, along with some who lean conservative. On the whole, they are not voters whose political reality is defined by resentment. So the framework for Trump's success has changed.

Veteran Republican consultant Mike Murphy is unlikely to underestimate Trump's abilities. After all, Trump crushed Murphy's candidate, Jeb Bush, and everyone else in the 2016 Republican field. But Murphy has decades of experience with top-shelf politicians. The most successful of them all confronted their own vulnerabilities.

"By the time people have graduated to that level of politics, they have some of the traits you need," Murphy said in a telephone interview. "They're more grown-up. They recognize they need to prepare even if they don't want to." 

Trump, by contrast, combines inexperience with a veneer of confidence so thin that he can't afford to expose his vulnerabilities even to his own staff.   

"To accept the need for preparation means: One, he needs help. Two, there's stuff he doesn't know. And three, he's not some superhero. He needs to improve," Murphy said. "It's like asking Aquaman to live outside the water for three weeks."    

In their reporting, based on anonymous sources, the Times reporters generously indulge the spin of Trump staffers, who have limited tools in the face of a daunting psychological task. The staffers' list of laments is almost endearingly phony, missing the big target in the room with perfect precision.

They blamed his overstuffed schedule, including a last-minute rally in Virginia that was added days before the debate. They blamed the large number of voluble people on his prep team, including two retired military figures with no political background. And they blamed the lack of time spent on preparing a game plan in the first place.

If their candidate were not a child-tyrant in the body of a 70-year-old man, Trump staffers might have some leeway to maneuver. "Some of the advisers want to practice getting under his skin, as Mrs. Clinton did, to gauge his response," the Times reported, "but they offered no details about doing so."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net