The Trump campaign and the national Republican Party are preparing to launch an offensive against Joe Biden that will portray the 78-year-old as senile.
The effort would be unprecedented. Nothing like it has been tried since 1984 when Ronald Reagan was running for a second term. Democrats were prepared to raise troubling questions about Reagan’s age after the president performed poorly in his first debate against Jimmy Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale.
But Reagan, who had been reading about his infirmities for weeks, came prepared. The very first question from Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun gave the Gipper the opening he was waiting for.
Trewitt said: “Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for two or three weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms.
“You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent [debating] encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President [John F.] Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”
Reagan responded: “Not at all, Mr. Trehwitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience.
Game over. Drive home safely.
Older people never used to run for president. But times have changed. People are living longer, healthier, more active lives well into their 80s. The Democrats fielded a whole slate of septuagenarians this time around and no one batted an eyelash.
Except as the campaign went along, it became clear that former Vice President Joe Biden was faltering. At times, he was downright incoherent. Questions were raised about the lightness of his schedule at times, as well as his obvious confusion and befuddlement.
Trump and the GOP see an opening that they are not going to pass up because of tradition or respect for the elderly.
With Biden emerging as the likely Democratic nominee, Trump has launched a concerted, near-daily campaign to raise doubts about the 77-year-old’s mental acuity. The president has been bolstered by a conservative echo chamber flooding social media with video clips highlighting Biden’s gaffes.
The effort provides a window into how Trump — who’s been dogged by questions about his own mental fitness — regularly picks apart his political opponents. He has an unmatched ability to zero in on his foe’s biggest vulnerability or insecurity, and through sheer repetition bake it into the public consciousness. Unfortunately for Biden, his performance on the campaign trail has given Trump plenty to work with.
For his part, Biden appears to be ignoring Trump’s assault — a fatal error made by Hillary Clinton in 2016 when Trump dubbed her “low-energy.”
“He’s not responding to the threat strong enough, because it is absolutely a problem now and [is] going to be a problem” going forward, said Philippe Reines, a former top Hillary Clinton adviser who prepped her for the debates with Trump. “You have to defend yourself, because that stuff absolutely sticks.”
The night before Super Tuesday, the president tweeted out a telling theme of attack and included a video of Biden’s recent gaffes.
WOW! Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is, or what he’s doing. Honestly, I don’t think he even knows what office he's running for! pic.twitter.com/454v9GFpgF
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2020
The Republican National Committee is doing its part.
Trump is getting backup from his sprawling political apparatus. The Republican National Committee last week circulated a clip showing Biden appearing to confuse his wife and his sister, distributed social media posts making fun of the former vice president for his Super Thursday remark, and cut a video depicting Biden botching a line from the Declaration of Independence.
Does this really work? Trump has learned that the more personal the criticism the more questions are raised in people’s minds. For the president, there are no boundaries anymore — especially after his opponents have spread scurrilous rumors and lies about his personal life.
The basic message is a winner, especially for presidents running for a second term: You’re taking a chance in voting for my opponent. Stick with me because I’m the safe choice.