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The Obama Debate Strategy Needs A Change

October 15, 2012


Like most Democrats I watched the debate in frustration.  As an unabashed Obama fan and unapologetic progressive Democrat, I felt that, from the start, Romney was winning the show.  What most of the pundits realized and the President’s team did not, is that it WAS a show.  After the debate the President’s team explained his performance as the result of him “speaking directly to the American people about his plan to help the Middle Class.”  That’s what speeches are for – in debates you argue directly with your opponent.  Don’t worry, the American people are watching.

The President’s mistake is that he came to the first debate determined to argue policy.  You cannot successfully argue policy in a debate, with two minutes to make your point, against an opponent who freely and frequently changes his position to match every new moment.  You cannot win THAT debate.   The American people are interested in the issues.  But they are not interested enough to parse the differences and understand the complex financial distinctions in policy arguments over $5 trillion tax cuts and $716 billion Medicare cuts.  Politicians, at every level, always miss the point that the people they seek to persuade are just not as into the details as they are.  Most “normal” people actually have real lives to live and that’s why we leave the details to the representatives we elect to deal with our problems.

What people do understand and can quickly assess is character.  And THAT is what the President should have been focused on in the first debate.  Moreover, when it comes to character, the President had in his arsenal clear, incontrovertible evidence that his opponent stood just feet away from him with a distinct, provable character deficit.  What’s better: every time he spoke, he added more proof.  To put it plainly: Mitt Romney just doesn’t tell the truth.  It’s not that he fudges the facts on things like the $716 billion Medicare cuts – I don’t know a politician that doesn’t do some “fudging.”  What is clear and provable is that Mitt Romney, more than any politician in our lifetime, has a voluminous record of saying one thing on Monday to one audience, the opposite on Tuesday to another, and something completely different on Wednesday.  He says whatever he needs to at the moment to get himself elected – and he has done it for his entire political career.

Romney could argue the merits of his tax policy to confusion and can blur the specifics of his policies and their consequences – all of which he is entitled by precedent to do.  But he cannot argue repeatedly, for months, that he will cut taxes on the wealthy to one audience, while denying it categorically in front of a national debate audience without calling into question an essential element of one’s character: honesty.

Debates are not held to change the minds of committed Democrats, like me, or committed Republicans, and they rarely do.  Debates are held to convince the undecided “middle.”  The back and forth of complex policy leaves a muddle in the middle and substances fails before style.  The result was what we saw that night.  When faced with the contradictions of complex policy arguments, voters will default to the intangibles; likeability and character.  And character, in any politician, is the essential quality that voters rely on to help them determine what type of leader a contender will be.  When all else fails: can you believe in him or her?

Mitt Romney’s shifting positions, on issues great and small, on policies complex and simple, are both many and provable and make the case that you just can’t believe what this guy is saying and, more important, you just can’t buy what he is selling.  That is the case the President should have made in the first debate and I hope it is the case that he makes in the two that remain.  If he makes character the argument, that’s a debate Mitt Romney cannot win and Barack Obama cannot lose.

From → National, Politics

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