Is It Really Wise for Trump to Question Biden's Mental Fitness?

It's a risky gambit.

President Trump’s interview with Chris Wallace, which aired on Fox News Sunday, was remarkable in more ways than there is room to recount here.

But let’s start with what should be the lead story: The president of the United States told Wallace that the mental competence test he took recently was “very hard,” specifically the last five questions.

Just to be clear, Trump “passed” the test—a fact he’s boasted about on numerous occasions. “I aced it,” he proudly told Fox’s 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 aren’t suffering from dementia of some kind. Crowing that you “aced” the MoCA is 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., how are a train and a bicycle alike?—and rudimentary memory. The final exercise, presumably hardest according to Trump, simply asks the patient to provide the date, time and location of the examination.

We should all hope the guy with the nuclear codes can “ace” this test. Some might even say we should have a president who didn’t find it “very hard” to ace it.

Trump’s bragging about his test results may simply be part of his strategy to cast presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as “not all there.” But it’s hard to fathom why the Trump campaign thinks this is a shrewd gambit.

In Sunday’s interview, Wallace asked Trump point-blank, “Is Joe Biden senile?”

“I don’t want to say that,” Trump answered. “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 say, “Joe doesn’t know he’s alive, OK? He doesn’t know he’s alive.” And, later on, “He’s shot, he’s mentally shot.”

Perhaps he’s seen data suggesting attacks on Biden’s age don’t play well with senior voters, so the task is to claim Biden is mentally handicapped but not as a result of his age? That’s a level of nuance we’d expect of someone who aced a cognitive evaluation, but not what we’d associate with Trump’s 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’s always had a propensity to say weird things. The Trump campaign is now betting his re-election’s already slim chances on Biden proving Trump’s 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, Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1968 New Hampshire primary by seven points but fell so far below expectations that he withdrew from the race. 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 he’s alive—a very light lift. In normal times, presidential campaigns work hard to set expectations for the opponent unreasonably high.

Before Trump’s 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 victor.

Given that his lead in the polls continues to widen, there’s no rush for Biden to call off his front-porch-style campaign. But after months of Trump’s 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 that.

If the Wallace interview is any indication, it’s Trump who struggles to meet that remarkably low bar.

Photograph by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty Images.