BY ARUL LOUIS
New York, Sep 15 (IANS) US President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden are both gaffe-prone, but are taking radically different strategies to deal with their reigns of error before the November 3 election.
Biden keeps a lower profile and shies away from unscripted encounters and his strategists hope it will minimise embarrassing errors while watching Trump shoot himself in the foot with his shoot-from-the-hip style.
Trump, on the other hand, seems to revel his aggressive, mis-statements-be-damned stance following the dictum that any publicity is good publicity and hopes that it will play to his base.
The President has nicknamed his rival “Basement Biden” because he did not leave his Delaware home to campaign till recent weeks hoping to control his message and its delivery.
The former Vice President has to walk a fine line between the party’s left wing and the moderates, not saying anything that would turn off one side while placating the other and vice-versa.
Trump, on the other hand, has no such hesitation and is ready to target just his base.
They will have their unscripted showdown on September 29 at the first presidential debate and that could make or break their candidature.
Trump’s love-hate relationship with the media propels him to hold news conferences even as he excoriates reporters as agents of “fake news” or to shoot his mouth off with writers.
His recorded interview to author and associate editor of The Washington Post Bob Woodward in March about the Covid-19 pandemic, in which he admitted playing down its severity has now been revealed to haunt him in the final phase of the presidential campaign.
In an interview in February, Trump told Woodward that that the novel coronavirus was several times “more deadly” than the flu, but admitted to him in March: “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Publicly he had said at that time that the pandemic was just “going to disappear”.
That has now become campaign fodder for Trump’s critics, who have accused him of lying to the nation and causing deaths by not acting adequately to contain the coronavirus crisis.
And on Monday during a roundtable in California, Trump told a scientist who mentioned global warming’s effects as a cause of the wildfires consuming vast swathes of the state that “it’ll start getting cooler… I don’t think science knows, actually”.
His errors and mis-statements are too many to enumerate and often the media and his critics label them “lies”.
He has been jetting around the country almost daily addressing campaign meetings, often more than one in a day.
This has been going on for months, often with hardly a distinction between official presidential meetings and campaign affairs.
The President has been criticised for holding these meetings without social distancing, sometimes indoors, and with many in the audience without masks.
On Sunday, he defied Nevada’s Covid-19 rules and held a rally at a Las Vegas warehouse drawing stiff criticism from the state’s Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak.
Trump and his supporters have brushed off the attacks over the lack of social distancing at his meetings by calling them “peaceful protests” – a dig at the Democrats who have defended the mass gatherings at the sometimes violent protests without COVID-19 precautions by characterising them as “peaceful protests”.
Only recently has Biden been out campaigning in person, and that too in small groups preferring to meet with victims of police excess or other targeted groups.
Even his Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris has been keeping a low profile and avoiding media interactions.
When Wisconsin Lt Governor Mandela Barnes last week tried to get her to take questions from reporters, the California Senator’s aides cut it short and whisked her away.
Unlike Biden, Harris is articulate and controlled.
But the danger for her and also for Biden is being forced to take public stands on issues that are contentious within the party.
If they, for example, strongly criticise the move to cut the police budgets advocated by the left, they could anger them, while supporting it or equivocating could turn off the moderates within the party and without.
Unlike with Trump, the mainstream media has been soft on Biden. They have not complained about lack of direct access or his insults.
In the one recent news conference they lobbed soft questions at him mostly about Trump and avoided controversial issues.
Trump said the questions “were not meant for a grown-up; they were meant for a child”.
Unusually for what was supposed to be an interview on the NBC network, Biden was allowed to use a teleprompter to answer what obviously were prepared questions and he gave the game away by also reading the cues meant for him on it like “top line” and “end of quote”.
The risks of being unscripted can be seen in some encounters with media and voters.
He told an African-American interviewer that if he couldn’t figure out he should vote for him, “then you ain’t black”.
At one open meeting, when a young woman asked him about his electability, he called her “a lying dog-faced pony soldier”.
His age is a touchy issue as he will be 78 if he is elected and takes office becoming the oldest of any US Presidents.
Also when another journalist asked whether he had taken a cognitive test, Biden shot back at him, saying: “That’s like saying to you, before you got on this program if you had taken a test, ‘Were you taking cocaine or not.’ What do you think, huh? Are you a junkie?”
In a strange encounter with an elderly man who asked him at another open meeting about his son Hunter’s controversial business dealings abroad, Biden snapped “you’re a damn liar” and called him fat.
“You’re too old to vote for me,” and challenged him, adding: “Let’s do push ups together, let’s run, let’s do whatever you want to do, let’s take an IQ test.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has opposed Biden participating in a debate with Trump given the obvious risks, though she didn’t refer to them.
But Biden has boasted he would “beat Trump like a drum” at a debate.
Last week he was reported to have said at a fundraiser: “I hope I don’t get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that’s the only place he’s comfortable.”
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)