How to Debate President Obama
September 26, 2012
The upcoming Presidential debate on October 3 is the most important single event in Mitt Romney’s political career.
The elite news media is doing everything they can to convince Romney’s supporters that the election is lost.
Americans will be tuning in that evening to see if Governor Romney turns this media narrative on its head.
This will be the first time Americans will see President Obama and his challenger side by side.
This will be the largest audience to watch the two men side by side without editing or distortion by the media. If Romney wins this debate, the next debate will have an even larger audience. If he loses it, the elite media will be giddy in its intense reporting of an Obama victory and the Obama team will be giddy and energized by the proclamation of victory.
The media will attempt to pounce on a strong Obama debate and try to bring back up Bain Capital, 47 percent, income tax returns and a host of wounds as perceived by the left.
On the other hand, a Romney victory will destroy the false media narrative that is determined to avoid President Obama’s failure. Suddenly, unemployment over 8 percent, gasoline rising from $1.89 when Obama was elected to $3.89 today, massive deficits, Obamacare, weakness in foreign policy and a host of other failures will rush to the forefront.
Obviously a lot depends on this debate.
And much of the outcome depends on events and actions which are not part of normal debate preparation.
I have been observing Presidential debates since the very first debates in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Sometimes the outcome of a debate can turn on the most trivial thing.
Richard Nixon vs. John Kennedy
In 1960 then-Vice President Richard Nixon turned down professional makeup.
Television was still black and white and the lights were often harsh. Nixon thought a light application of a roll on makeup stick would suffice. His judgment was further flawed by two realities he ignored. First, Nixon naturally had a strong beard and the absence of makeup would give him a five o’clock shadow even if he shaved just before the debate. Second, he had hurt his leg, gotten infected, spent several days in the hospital and lost weight. The result was that he looked gaunt.
The result of these random factors was devastating. People who heard the debate on audio thought Nixon had won decisively. People who watched the debate on television thought Kennedy (who used make up and had a good tan) looked much better and more fit to be President than did Nixon.
Nixon entered the first debate the front runner and left it neck and neck with Kennedy. The Democrats capitalized on the failure by hiring an older woman who stood at the foot of the plane for Nixon’s first post-debate stop and said, “It’s ok, you’ll do better next time.” He did, but it wasn’t enough and Kennedy went on to become President.
Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter
In 1976 President Gerald Ford asserted that the United States did not recognize Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Ford was thinking of the legal status – the United States insisted that Poland and other Eastern European countries were technically sovereign. The press interpreted it to mean that Ford was out of touch with reality and simply didn’t know what he was asking about. This fit into a general media theme that Ford was clumsy and dumb (the Saturday Night Live skits with Chevy Chase as Ford were devastating and made Chase’s career while crippling Ford’s).
Ford was a very well informed president who had a generation of service in the House and knew far more about foreign policy than did Jimmy Carter. However, the news media felt it had an angle of attack and worked on Ford for days. Finally his staff convinced him that he could never get his campaign back on track until he withdrew his words. The damage had been done and a campaign that had been catching up to Jimmy Carter lost enough momentum to lose the election by a narrow margin.
Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan
In 1980 President Carter was in trouble but he had easily defeated Sen. Ted Kennedy for the nomination. The Carter team had contempt for Gov. Ronald Reagan and he was the candidate they most wanted to run against. They got their wish.
Two things happened in the one debate between Carter and Reagan which no one on the Carter team expected. First, Governor Reagan developed “There you go again” as a simple signal that Carter was not telling the truth. It worked like a charm. Without being impolite to President Carter, Reagan defined every one of his attacks as untrue.
Second, strangely, Carter decided the country would be deeply moved by his recent conversation with his teenage daughter about nuclear war. Instead of being seen as a sign of sincerity and humanness it came across as another example of Carter being strange.
After the Reagan-Carter debate the race widened and ultimately Reagan carried more states than Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had carried in 1932 against President Herbert Hoover. The post-debate Reagan surge was so powerful it gave the Republicans control of the Senate when six seats were won by a combined goal of 75,000 votes.
Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale
Reagan repeated his debate dominance in 1984 with a remarkable second debate performance. At the end of the first debate there had not been enough time for the closing that had been planned. Reagan had stumbled badly trying to edit a long story into a short period of time. He had looked lost and bewildered. People worried about whether he was losing his grip. Even his supporters worried about his upcoming second performance.
In the last debate prep meeting just before the second debate, Roger Ailes (then a campaign consultant and now, of course, the creator of Fox News) turned to Reagan and said, “What are you going to do about the age question?” Reagan was startled. None of his traditional advisers had felt comfortable confronting him with how bad the first debate had ended and how concerned the country was about his basic competence.
When Ailes explained the problem Reagan got a big grin. “I know just what to do,” he reassured his staff. “I briefly did a Las Vegas comedy routine and I know what will work.”
Callista and I included this moment of artistic history in our documentary “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny.”
The very first question of the second debate was about the “age issue.”
Reagan pauses, takes a deep breath as though he is cornered, and says “I will not take advantage of the youth and inexperience of my opponent.” In our documentary you see the look in former Vice President Walter Mondale’s eyes as he joins everyone else in laughing and clearly realizes he just lost the election.
George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
Vice President George H. W. Bush had a good presidential debate. President George H. W. Bush did not.
In 1988 the moderator asked Vice President Bush what his attitude would be towards someone who raped and murdered his wife. Bush responded in a very human way saying, “How could you ask something horrible like that?” He seemed accessible and approachable and a decent person. Dukakis, asked the same question, came across as cold, pedantic and a professor answering a policy question. The gap between the two men was never wider.
Sadly, by 1992 the world had changed and President George H. W. Bush seemed tired. That image was really reinforced when during one of the debates he looked at his watch. It was as though he was tired of applying for the job and just wanted to get it over. The contrast with the young, enthusiastic, energetic and engaging Gov. Bill Clinton could not have been clearer.
George W. Bush vs. Al Gore
Eight years later, his son, then-Governor George W. Bush won a debate by doing nothing.
Vice President Al Gore had apparently been coached by some behavioral consultant to be an “alpha male.” It apparently had not occurred to anyone in the Gore team, that if you are being coached into alpha behaviors, by definition you aren’t an alpha male.
In one of the funniest moments in presidential debate history, Gore walks over to Bush and gets so close he is clearly crowding his personal body space.
Bush, in a wonderful moment of theater, quits talking and simply turns and looks at Gore as though he has lost his mind and is wandering around the stage.
Gore can’t take the tension and backs off, leaving himself looking goofy and guaranteeing that his strange behavior will be a key part of analysis of the debate.
Newt’s advice: Relax and be prepared
I tell the stories to make the point that too much debate preparation is cognitive, fact-filled, rational and focused on verbal game playing.
The most important aspect of a debate is how you feel.
Mike Deaver, the great media adviser to President Reagan, used to assert that television is 85 percent visual, 10 percent how you sound and 5 percent what you say.
In every Presidential debate I participated in I always remembered Deaver’s rule.
More important than what Romney knows is how he feels.
Is he confident?
Is he relaxed?
Is he in command of himself?
Can he stand up to both the media and the president?
These body language issues are far more important than the specific things he says.
Be assertive and be on offense against both Obama and his media
You can be on offense without being offensive.
The strongest reactions I got to my debates came from people who were desperate for someone to stand up to the media and redefine the questions and reframe the assumptions.
Americans are sick and tired of the unending liberalism and suffocating groupthink of the elite media.
If you look at my strongest applause lines virtually every one was taking on the media.
It is inevitable the media will ask Romney about “the 47 percent.” Instead of answering it, Romney should pivot and say, “Let me tell you about the 100 percent. Obama has failed the 100 percent who have to buy gasoline. Obama has failed the 100 percent who will be paying interest on the Obama national debt for the rest of their lives. Obama has failed 100 percent of those who want to get a job and move on with their lives. Obama has failed everyone in the Middle East who had hoped the Arab Spring would lead to freedom by allowing it to turn into an Islamist winter.”
The country would be electrified.
There are things Romney has done wrong.
There are things he would like to do better.
People can smell dishonesty and disingenuous efforts to sell or hide.
Reagan and Kennedy both had this wonderful knack of using humor to make points.
President Obama is a detached, often stiff person who overestimates his competence (the next time you see a story on the Middle East remember he got a Nobel peace prize for having done nothing).
No president in my lifetime has been as vulnerable to humor as President Obama.
Enjoy the evening
My dad was a career infantryman in the Army.
I have always enjoyed being a citizen because it is such a privilege to be an American.
Mitt Romney ought to walk into that first debate as a remarkably fortunate man.
God has given him a wonderful, loving wife, five great sons, wonderful daughters in law, loving grandchildren.
His mother and father gave him a fabulous American upbringing.
His Church has taught him faith and faithfulness and serving others.
His hard work and intelligence have made him a wealthy man.
Now he has a chance to share with the freest and most successful people in history.
He should relax and bring to bear a lifetime of experience at decency, honesty, determination, applied intelligence and hard work.
He will do just fine.