Allow me to remedy the nation's critical shortage of advice for the participants in the presidential debates that kick off with Wednesday's Obama-Romney debate. Below, a few suggested do's and don'ts for each of the two candidates.
Advice for Romney
I've watched Romney debate a lot (although this will be the first presidential debate where I'll be rooting for him rather than against him - it's kind of like the feeling I had when Tom Glavine joined the Mets, hopefully with a better ending). On the whole, Romney is about average as a debater. On the plus side, he's smart, aggressive and basically shameless - a little like John Kerry without the pomposity (aggressiveness in debate was one of Kerry's few positives as a candidate) - and not easily rattled. On the negative side, he's not very flexible/improvisational (he tends to stick to his game plan, other than the time he offered Rick Perry a $10,000 bet) and he will never be Mr. Empathy. Which leads to...
Get Obama's Goat: The first rule of presidential debates is that how the candidates come across usually ends up mattering a lot more than what they say (absent a colossal gaffe; the only debate gaffe that may arguably have swung a presidential race was Ford's Poland gaffe in 1976). The most famous example is JFK winning the televised debate with Nixon when the people who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. But there are many others: Dukakis' cold-fish affect when answering the death penalty question in 1988, George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992, Al Gore's audible sighs in 2000.
And one of the first corollaries of that rule is that the first guy to get mad loses. Obama has lived in a bubble most of his political career, and never moreso than the past two years, avoiding any venue where he might be challenged with difficult questions or forced to discuss subjects he doesn't want to address. And historically, he gets prickly when he's challenged. Romney should do everything he can to get under Obama's skin, from communicating subtly and unsubtly his lack of personal respect for Obama to challenging his knowledge and truthfulness. It's more important to puncture Obama's cool than for Romney to pull his punches trying to look friendly and agreeable.
Debate Like A Boss: Let's face it: Romney's not a particularly likeable, relatable guy, and he's not going to become one 34 days from Election Day. I've long thought that Romney's closing argument about himself had to be kind of a cross between Hyman Roth's boast that he always made money for his partners and Danny DeVito's speech in Other People's Money ("I'm not your best friend...I'm your only friend...and you might make a few bucks for yourself."). He's the guy who knows how business works, who takes charge and makes the tough decisions, and he should send the message that he came to do just that.
Here's a point from The Transom that Ben Domenech and I had kicked around as a suggestion for a way for Romney to tie together that attitude with an approach that would be guaranteed to get under Obama's skin:
"In the private sector, one of the things I did was invest in companies. I learned a lot about how jobs are created, but I also learned a lot about leadership. One of the things I had to do when we got involved with a company was evaluate its leadership and see if it needed a change. And let me tell you, if I got involved with a company that was losing money and jobs hand over fist and piling up debt like there was no tomorrow, and I found out the CEO had been in the job four years and still spent most of his time blaming his predecessor and his co-workers, I'd fire him and get somebody in there who could get results." A response like this, besides being one virtually guaranteed to tick off Obama, makes the whining look petty and small. But it would also do something else, too: workers of all types, but particularly blue-collar workers, resent the idea of the incompetent senior management which survives pain while they bear the brunt of it. Romney should do his utmost to speak for those who demand accountability and turn his negative role as one of the suits into an advantage.
Don't Get Mad, Get Even: Continuing in this vein, candidates who complain about negative ads come off as losers. But Romney also has an opportunity he needs to take to set the record straight as to some of the more outrageous falsehoods being thrown at him, ranging from the delusional fabulist claim that he intends to raise taxes on the middle class to the ads blaming him for things done at Bain Capital after he'd left to run the Olympics.
Here, too, how you say it matters. The better approach is to acknowledge that he's a big boy and negative ads come with the territory - but that the voters deserve to be told the truth.
I Question Your Premise: Similarly, conservatives and Republicans - myself included - spend a lot of time beating up the media for bias, but it comes off poorly when the candidates themselves complain about it in general terms. But as Newt Gingrich demonstrated during the primary debates, it's another story when confronted with an obviously loaded/slanted line of questioning. Romney will never have Newt's facility for doing this, but he should enter ready to pick on a question or two that strike him as especially outrageous, and use it to force discussion of some issue Obama doesn't want to get into.
Four More Years? Romney this week has been hitting what I think has to be the core of his closing argument about the election as a whole, which is more about Obama than Romney: the country can't afford four more years of this. No matter what else Obama throws out there as a distraction, Romney needs to keep bringing it back to the actual record of the past four years and the extreme unlikelihood that anything's going to improve if we give Obama four more - and communicate a certain incredulity at the idea that anybody could consider the past four years a good record or something they'd want more of. He should not try to steal Reagan's "there you go again" line, which will look transparent - but he absolutely should ask Reagan's equally famous and perennially relevant question: are you better off now than you were four years ago? The beauty of the question is, the voters and not the politicians or the media get to have the final answer.
Advice for Obama
Obama's greatest weakness as a debater is the contrast to his soaring rhetoric on the stump, and of course he's rusty. That said, his debates with McCain were some of the better debates in recent memory. He may be full of silly ideas, but he's not stupid. Aside from the obvious need to keep his cool, stay on script and not have another "you didn't build that"/"spread the wealth around" moment that inadvertently reveals his actual thinking, here are some of the things he'd be wise to consider entering this debate.
Stick to The Issues: Obama has run much of his campaign away from the issues, in particular focusing fire on Romney's business career, taxes and wealth. But focusing on those points in the debate could be a disastrous error. First, as we saw throughout the Republican debates, Romney is at his weakest when debating public policy; he's at his strongest and most vigorous when defending his own business career. Second, Obama's invested a huge amount of money in unanswered negative ads on Romney's biography; it would be a colossal error to give Romney the chance to rebut those in free airtime in front of an audience of tens of millions of voters.
Tag Team: Romney is well-prepped to defend his business career and he knows what he wants to say about issues like Romneycare and the auto bailout. Paul Ryan will come well-prepared to defend his own plans in Congress. The wise approach is to switch: make Romney defend Ryan's plans, many of which he's not nearly as comfortable with or prepared to address, and have Biden make Ryan defend Romneycare, which he obviously loathes, and Mitt's taxes.
That said, the spectacle of Romney defending Romneycare is one that always puts a drag on GOP base enthusiasm, and is probably too tempting a target to pass up.
Leave The Straw Men Home: Obama has few more unappealing characteristics than his tendency to sneer at straw man caricatures of everyone who disagrees with him. "You didn't build that" and "bitter clingers" came out of that sort of thing, as have a number of his other gaffes. Romney's 47% line has given the most divisive partisan occupant of the Oval Office in memory a fig leaf to try to rebuild his tattered reputation as an above-the-fray guy, but the minute he starts painting everyone who criticizes him as racists, extremists, ignoramuses, etc., he'll remind people why they were so sick of him by 2010.
Forget George Bush: Everybody's opinions about Bush are cast in concrete by now. The excuse-making is unpresidential and opens up precisely the kind of rejoinder from Romney I noted above. At some point, it's just counterproductive.
Leave General Motors Alone: The Obama campaign has told a fairly compelling story about General Motors: Romney wanted it to go out of business, but Obama kept it out of bankruptcy and saved the company. The problem is, the narrative doesn't survive contact with the facts: Romney argued for a bankruptcy restructuring, Obama poured billions into the company and couldn't avoid a bankruptcy restructuring anyway: on June 1, 2009, the company filed one of the largest bankruptcies in American history. And the GM saga is right in Romney's wheelhouse - it lets him talk about business as a businessman. He's the son of a car-company CEO; he knows this stuff inside and out and should be ready to tear the Obama story to ribbons (recall that the bailout was unpopular, not because people wanted GM to fail but because the government picked winners and losers in the bailout and let a lot of other companies go without similar bailouts). Obama may be forced onto this turf, but it is not where he should want to go.