Practice is for wusses.
To go by the US presidential debates, that’s what the 2016 Republican ticket seems to believe. During last night’s Oct. 4 showdown, vice president nominee Mike Pence followed Donald Trump’s lead in attacking his opponent for spending too much time studying up.
Both Trump and Pence appear to be betting that American voters will share their distaste for candidates who demonstrate a commitment to discipline and dry runs. They may be right. But this line of attack could also backfire, precisely because it relies upon a form of self-satisfied egotism that ought to make the Trump-Pence ticket unelectable.
Trump, a man whom no one has ever accused of appearing overly rehearsed, went after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the Sept. 26 presidential debate for taking time off the campaign trail to practice for the match. The two candidates’ wildly different approaches to debate prep had been previously reported by the New York Times: while Clinton poured over a Trump dossier in the days before the debate, her opponent eschewed practice.
Clinton, in turn, refused to be ashamed of readying herself for the big night with mock debate sessions and drills. ”I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate,” she said. “And, yes, I did. You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
A similar theme emerged at last night’s vice-presidential debate, as Pence repeatedly suggested that his opponent, Virginia senator Kaine, was too rehearsed. When Kaine brought up Trump’s breezy response to the possibility that nuclear proliferation would make it easier for terrorists to get their hands on the weapons (“Go ahead, folks, enjoy yourselves“), Pence responded by criticizing the evident planning that had gone into the remark. “Did you work on that one a long time?” he asked. “Because that had a lot of really creative lines in it.”
At another point in the debate, Kaine argued that Clinton would be better for the American economy. “Do you want a ‘you’re hired’ president in Hillary Clinton or do you want a ‘you’re fired’ president in Donald Trump?” he asked rhetorically.
Pence was again quick to jab his opponent for being overly prepared. “Well, first, let me say, I appreciated the ‘you’re hired,’ ‘you’re fired’ thing, Senator,” he said. “You use that a whole lot. And I think your running mate used a lot of pre-done lines.”
It’s easy to understand why Trump and Pence want to go after the Democratic ticket for preparing too much. A big part of Trump’s appeal lies in his willingness to make off-the-cuff, “politically incorrect” remarks. (He’s figured out that he can always go back on them later, as with his quickly revoked declaration that women should be “punished” for having abortions.) There are plenty of things to criticize about a man who resurrects a decades-old spat with comedian Rosie O’Donnell during a presidential debate and tweets insults about a former Miss Universe in the wee hours of the morning, but over-thinking his comments is not one of them.
Trump is impulsive, and to some voters, his utter lack of self-restraint reads as authenticity. It can also seem like a refreshing antidote to the rote, superficial remarks so often by deployed more conventional politicians. What better way to remind viewers of Trump’s dubious strength than by accusing his opponents of being canned and wooden by comparison?
Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake noted the wisdom of the strategy in an annotation to the transcript of last night’s debate: “Pence will keep hitting Kaine for using pre-packaged lines, which I think works to an extent. It makes it look like he’s using a script and can’t speak for himself.” By contrast, Pence appeared smooth and natural—perhaps because he wasn’t worried about things like discussing the facts.
But there’s another, sneakier factor driving the Republican ticket’s attack on preparedness: the spirit of anti-intellectualism that has fueled Trump’s campaign. To accuse your opponent of being overly prepared is the grown-up equivalent of bullying the smart kid in class for knowing the answers to the teacher’s questions. In the debates, it’s clear that Clinton and Kaine have done their homework. But Trump and Pence know that to some viewers—including MSNBC pundit Chuck Todd, who memorably called Clinton “over-prepared“—the Democratic candidates’ ability to call up names, dates and specific policy issues won’t necessarily seem like a good thing.
By contrast, both Trump and Pence project implicit confidence in their own abilities; they seem to think they can get by in life simply by following their gut instincts. We already know that Trump’s top foreign policy advisor is himself; he trusts his “very good brain” to guide him to the right decisions. The same spirit of narcissism informed his decision to avoid debate prep in his first face-off with Clinton: the Times reported that he approached the debate “like a Big Man on Campus who thinks his last-minute term paper will be dazzling simply because he wrote it.”
Pence, a self-declared “B-list Republican celebrity” with a modest demeanor, appears far more self-effacing and thoughtful than his running mate. But Pence has his own brand of egotism, as was evident in Pence and Kaine’s discussion of the tensions between their religious beliefs (both men are Catholic) and their responsibilities as public servants. Kaine noted that while he personally opposes the death penalty, he upheld it while serving as Virginia governor because it was a matter of law. “The doctrines of one religion should not be mandated for everyone,” he said.
But Pence, as a public official, has demonstrated that he believes his personal religious beliefs come first. During “my first time in public life, I sought to stand with great compassion for the sanctity of life,” he said—a position that has meant passing draconian laws aimed at restricting women’s abortion access.
It is this kind of unquestioning belief in the supremacy of the self that unites Pence with his running mate. Both men rebuff the idea that they need to look outside themselves for guidance or answers. And so they launch attacks against opponents who display the horrifying weakness of devoting time to research and self-improvement.
These days, Trump’s advisors are hoping he’ll take a page out of Clinton’s book. The Times reports that his team is urging him to buckle down and practice before the next debate on Oct. 9, although it is unclear “whether he is open to practicing meticulously.”
Trump has gotten this far by relying on his knack for improvisation. But when it comes to picking the next president and vice president, perhaps voters will decide that they’d rather elect people who try too hard than a pair of men who think they’re already so good that they don’t need to try at all.