Debate has always intrigued me. It is the intellectual sweet science. While boxing pits one man against another in a ring to use only their hands to engage in civil combat, debate is a sweet science of the mind where it takes but a moment to learn and a lifetime to master. It is a competition that revolves around clever positioning of one’s viewpoint, a firm knowledge of the topics at hand and a patience to hold off on striking until the moment is right. Yes, debate is intellectual combat- and I love it.
The presidential debate that begins on Wednesday is an important one. The debate serves as a chance to see a clarification on issues and an ability to clearly outline both each candidates’ plans for future policy. It will also serve as a platform to poke holes in each candidates’ arguments.
The debate is especially important for Romney, as it is said that he is struggling in vital swing states. Of course, these polls are designed to discourage Republican voter turnout as they over sample Democrats significantly and are basing their projections on Democrats seeing a record voter turnout- an event that seems less and less likely as Obama loses favor with a liberal base whose enthusiasm can best be summed up as, “meh.”
Romney’s success will rest on several factors:
1) If Romney can keep the discussion on Obama’s record of accomplishments (or lack thereof), he can frame the debate by putting the onus on Obama to convince voters why he should keep his job. Putting that pressure on Obama to explain will force him to open up on a variety of “accomplishments,” all of which have serious drawbacks that can alienate voters (Obamacare/Obamatax anyone?)
If Romney fails to put the burden on Obama, he forfeits the advantage and may find himself in a debate that revolves around campaign promises for the future. As Obama is famous for promising all kinds of crazy things, focusing the spotlight on Obama’s failure is Romney’s best route.
2) Romney will also have to diffuse Obama’s socialist rhetoric that will, undoubtedly, revolve around Romney’s wealth. However, this should be easy enough if Romney can just stay out of the trap; if Obama can pull him into a debate where Romney defends his wealth, that is time not spent outlining Obama’s dismal job performance.
The issue of wealth will likely be unfolded as an aside or backhanded comment by Obama (“Sorry, Governor, I guess we can’t all afford…”) to which Romney need only reply, “Yes, I’m wealthy. We should be focusing on how to make the rest of America wealthy, too, instead of trying to make everyone equally poor.” Or something along those lines. If Romney can diffuse the rhetoric by making his accumulated wealth be a marker of fiscal understanding, it makes it a much harder debate for Obama.
3) Romney will need to have a bag of tricks available to bob and weave away from Obama’s inevitable discussion of Romney’s “47%” remark. While Romney gained points with conservatives, he runs the risk of alienating independents if Obama is successful in turning the remark into an expression of having “written off” half the population- a claim Obama makes every hour-on-the-hour since the video surfaced. Romney will have to stick to his guns and explain the truth- that Democrats bribe voters with governmental goodies, and his message of lower taxes does not resonate with people who pay no taxes. He can’t dodge the punch, he can only roll with it.
4) Romney will also need to hammer Obama on foreign policy. Obama is incredibly weak in this area, and with the recent attacks in the Middle East going unanswered, the failed leadership of the Obama Administration is fresh in peoples’ minds. However, those that already support Romney already hate Obama’s foreign policy, so Romney will have to clearly outline the failures of Obama’s foreign policy and highlight the ridiculousness of his missteps for the lesser-informed, undecided voters. Foreign policy is much more difficult to relate to than domestic for many voters, so Romney will have to walk them through the failings, emphasizing the continued failures.
5) Most important: Romney will have to appear likable. We have a clear vision in our mind of the more clever and suave things said in debates. When Reagan was confronted with a question regarding his age, he replied, “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” When during a vice-presidential debate, Dan Quayle cited his experience as being comparable to Jack Kennedy, his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen stated, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
My point? Romney is outmatched in smooth-talk. While Romney has spent his whole career perfecting the art of business building and proper management, Obama has been perfecting the art of the long con. Obama has dazzled people with eloquence to achieve his self-serving ends, and he is truly gifted at appearing likable. Romney’s biggest challenge will be to find that one moment where Obama has opened up his argument for a clever, Reaganesque retort that will survive in the public consciousness much longer than the substance of this debate.
Both Romney and Obama have been attempting to manage expectations, hoping to hedge their bets in case they come up short. Obama is incredibly thin-skinned and heavily reliant on teleprompters and rehearsed rhetoric. While there will be plenty of that, this debate will involve a fair amount of impromptu discussion- a condition to which Romney will be well-accustomed as every leftist hack with a microphone in the liberal media has been lobbing hardball questions at him for almost a year now while Obama dishes with the gals on The View.
Romney will need to come out swinging, but more than simply being aggressive, he will have to focus on framing the debate on his terms.
And, of course, Romney needs to ask, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” That seems to work pretty well…