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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Some Tips for the Next Debate

I’ve heard it said somewhere that in every defeat you can find the keys to a future victory — if you learn the lesson(s) of the loss. Here’s hoping President Obama has debate coaches that will give it to him straight. And while no one has appointed me to that lofty position, it appears that the president’s coaches could benefit from some unsolicited advice, which is what the political blogosphere is supposed to provide.
Lesson #1: Style, unfortunately, matters. If you look at the actual transcript of the debate, and read it in context of Romney’s record and his unflagging vacillations, Obama won. He was far more truthful and accurate, and made more well-stated points — on paper. But no one is calling it an Obama victory, because his presentation was, well, kinda wimpy.
It’s clear the President forgot about the split screen format (I refuse to believe his coaches didn’t tell him — they can’t be that bad…can they?). As a result, he spent a huge portion of his on-camera face time looking down and taking notes, like a chastened schoolboy. Romney, in stark contrast, stood rail-straight and looked directly at Obama when the President was talking.
Lesson #2: Give your inner wonk a rest. Stated another way, go lighter on the policy analysis and show more compassion and moral concern, as psycholinguists like George Lakoff and Drew Westen have urged. Here’s an excerpt from Lakoff’s HuffPo post, ‘Why Obama Lost the First Debate“:

You don’t win a presidential debate by being a policy wonk. Obama violated all the basics of presidential debating. The best defense is a good offense. You have to set the terms of the debate and press those terms. Obama failed. Here are those basics:
-State your moral values. Contrast them with your opponent’s.
-Project empathy and enthusiasm. Connect.
-Communicate clearly and simply.
-Be authentic. Say just what you believe.
-Project trust.
-Present an authentic view of yourself that the public can identify with and be proud of.
Obama did none of this. Instead he talked about policy details.

Lesson #3: Attack. Obama seemed verbally stuck in a defensive crouch. He scored a couple of jabs. But his hits should have been harder. While I would give Obama an “A” for civility and graciousness, at a certain point civility can morph into surrender, when your adversary is hitting hard. It’s possible to be both civil and strong. Where were the attack points on Romney’s hidden taxes and offshore bank accounts, Bain’s outsourcing or his condescending dismissal of the 47 percent who need some government help? There should be brief, well-crafted soundbites for each of these attack points on the tip of Obama’s tongue, and at least one or two of them should blister.
President Obama is much sharper than Romney on a broad range of issues and his policies merit the support of an overwhelming majority of voters, in contrast to those of his adversary. But it won’t do the president any good unless he distills his attack points and hones them to do serious damage to Romney’s bloviating persona. Defeat can be an excellent teacher, when the student is paying attention.

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