Debate preview: How Romney can win

posted at 12:41 pm on October 3, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Tonight, Mitt Romney has the opportunity to change the trajectory of this race against Barack Obama in the first of three presidential debates.  This is arguably the most important of the three, as low-information voters may be getting their first close look at Mitt Romney since the primary debates ended months ago — or perhaps ever.  In my column for The Week, I game out the stakes in this Denver debate, and offer three keys to Romney’s strategy:

1. Romney has to transcend the debate agenda. Successful candidates use questions as mere suggestions, while answering their own questions to drive a debate narrative. Both Obama and Romney will do this, but Republicans assume that media moderators will drive the debate into territory friendlier for Obama than Romney. Romney has to take control and drive the debate, not let the moderator keep him pinned on defense — and that’s an entirely legitimate strategy for voters, too. As Romney is running against an incumbent president, the focus should be on Obama’s performance and his plans for a second-term agenda.

2. Romney has to assert himself without looking overly aggressive. That’s no easy feat. Al Gore lost the debate battle against George W. Bush by alternately looking too aggressive and then too impatient. Obama ended up prevailing over John McCain by projecting a collegial-if-not-friendly mien while dispensing with McCain’s arguments. Lower-information voters have to see Romney as something other than the Thurston Howell caricature that Team Obama has painted, while still pressing Obama on his economic failures and lack of any clear second-term agenda.  The tone used in his ad last week, in which he spoke directly into the camera for 60 seconds about the economy, would work well in this setting to reassure undecided voters that Romney will be a safe alternative to Obama.

3. Romney has to construct an overarching narrative of executive incompetence in the Obama White House. This first debate will focus on the economy, but Romney needs to draw on more issues than that to make his case. Obama will respond on the economic issues by claiming that the grave nature of the recession handicapped the recovery, and that his policies will eventually work to create jobs faster than population growth, a pace with which the Obama recovery has failed to keep up. Romney needs to use the economy to discuss the inept handling of consular security in Benghazi and the Arab Spring in general, as well as Operation Fast and Furious, to show that the entire administration has run off the rails. That will negate Obama’s blame-Bush-and-Republicans defense for the economy, and strengthen Romney’s case that Obama simply doesn’t have the executive talent for his current position.

Actually, it will be interesting to see whether Romney has to force the issue of Benghazi into the debate.  The announced topic is domestic policy, but BuzzFeed’s Michael Hastings reported yesterday that the moderator, PBS’ Jim Lehrer, has all the leeway he needs to go beyond the announced agenda:

According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, tomorrow’s moderator, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, has the leeway to ask any questions he wants — including topics dominating the headlines, as Libya is now.

“We don’t have any say in what the moderator asks whatsoever,” the spokesperson for the Presidential Debate Commission Bob Roy told BuzzFeed. “The only rule for the debates is that the moderator decides what is asked.”

A spokeswoman for Lehrer, Anne Bell, told BuzzFeed in an email that “the overall debate topic is domestic policy” but that “when Jim Lehrer announced the general topics for the debate he did indicate that is was subject to change in the event news warranted.”

I’d expect that to come early in the debate, either through Lehrer or through Romney.  Will Barack Obama be prepared for that?  Supposedly he’s shirking his debate prep in Nevada, and that’s not uncommon, according to the man who prepped Jimmy Carter for his disastrous debate performance against Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Samuel Popkin has written a book about incumbents and debates, and argues that incumbents get too wrapped up in sycophantic bubbles to prepare properly for debates — and have little stomach for practice, too:

Samuel Popkin, a political-science professor at the University of California (San Diego), advised three Democratic nominees before their debates. He was brought to Camp David in 1980 to play the role of Reagan in debate prep for Carter. Like Stockman four years later, Popkin incurred the wrath of his president, as he disclosed for the first time in his new book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win—and Hold—the White House. Aides knew that Carter was unprepared for Reagan and ordered Popkin to “hold nothing back.” So in his very first answer, he used Reagan’s own words to pummel the president. “I could see that Carter was bewildered. When I spoke he would alternately feign a smile or wrinkle his nose in disgust; look away from me in embarrassment or glare at me in anger,” he wrote.

Popkin told National Journal, “I really thought the Secret Service was going to kneecap me. Carter turned red in the face and got flustered, and, after only 11 minutes he said, ‘That is enough’ and tried to call it off.”

Popkin said he had always believed that reaction was unique to Carter until he started researching his book and discovered that every incumbent resists the prep work and reacts badly to being challenged. “Nobody on staff ever questions a president’s motives and nobody around him ever challenges him,” he said, contending there is very much an “emperor-has-no-clothes” aspect for leaders who have spent four years sheltered in the protective presidential bubble and surrounded by sycophantic aides.

Then add to that resistance the fact that incumbents are almost always rusty when it comes to debating. Romney this year has spent 43 hours in 23 separate debates. Never flashy, he was solid and disciplined, clearly losing only one debate when he impulsively challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry to make a $10,000 bet. In contrast, Obama has not debated in four years. And while he improved as a debater over the course of 2008, he stumbled far more often than Romney did this year. Obama was too often professorial and discursive and found it difficult to be concise. He promised in one debate to meet with America’s enemies with no preconditions, and in another he was seen as cruel to Hillary Rodham Clinton when he coldly assessed her likability. In his general-election debates, he was blessed with low expectations against the much more experienced John McCain.

National Journal also games out the potential domestic-policy topics that will arise, and provides a good (if necessarily brief) analysis of how each topic may play for Romney and Obama.  Andrew Malcolm analyzes the stakes, and the way candidates react to the “high wire” act:

But these debates are rarely important as individual events. Instead, taken together they provide an impressionistic narrative arc for viewers to soak up what these men are about, how they carry themselves, listen, speak under pressure.

From a living room couch, voters may ponder the unimaginable pressures at play. It’s true. They’re intense. It’s bad for staffers, worse for spouses.

But at this level of politics, the candidates I’ve seen up close actually relish the moment. They enjoy walking the high-wire. They’ve campaigned typically for years, sometimes with an audience of but one or two. Now, their every word will reach scores of millions.

And whoever said seeking the pressurized presidency should be easy? ….

The Republican needs to be aggressive without stridency, to look like he’s willing to fight for the job, which he did at times during the 220 Republican primary debates. (OK, it just seemed that way; there were ‘only’ 22).

Romney needs to confront Obama over the weeks of false ads that have given the Democrat poll leads in crucial swing states. With no economic record to run on and no second-term agenda beyond the slogan “Forward,” Obama is likely to play considerable defense. He wants to avoid any mistakes that would elevate Romney’s stature by comparison.

History shows that the debates usually result in elevated status for the challenger no matter what, thanks to the difficulty of playing defense in debates.  That’s probably going to be the case tonight as well, if Romney remains as focused and disciplined as he was in the primary debates.

Note: We’ll be covering tonight’s debate, of course, but I won’t be available to watch it live, thanks to a commitment at school this evening.  Be sure to follow Mary Katharine Ham and Erika Johnsen on Twitter for their analysis.


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IMPORTANT: what are the drinking words for tonight?

katablog.com on October 3, 2012 at 7:53 PM

From a Facebook post I like:

If either candidate: A) addresses his opponent in the third person; B) Compliments the opponent’s personal life or family; C) Ignores a question by addressing the audience; or D) agrees with the moderator.

If 0: A) Says “Let me be clear”; B) References Bain Capital; C) Blames the previous administration; or D) says “Millionaires” or “Billionaires”.

If Mitt: A) Touts his plan to create 12 million jobs; B) says “Entrepreneurs” or “Small Business”; C) Brings up Reagan; or D) says “Private Sector”.

Special Rules: A) If a candidate exceeds his allotted time, drink until they stop. B) If either candidate says “Obamacare”" or “Romneycare”, raise your glass. The last one to raise their glass, drinks. C) Finish your drink if Romney mentions “Doing Just Fine”, or if Obama mentions “47%”.

Hope y’all have given your livers a rest…

JohnGalt23 on October 3, 2012 at 8:03 PM

Romney will win this thing his own way, Romney style!

casuist on October 3, 2012 at 8:04 PM

hmmmmmm

maybe mr cmsinaz can make a quick trip to the store

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:02 PM

The 12 year old is fine, but if he really loves you… he’ll get the 18 year old :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:04 PM

hmmmmmm

maybe mr cmsinaz can make a quick trip to the store

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:02 PM

The 12 year old is fine, but if he really loves you… he’ll get the 18 year old :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:04 PM

Scotch that is!

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:05 PM

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:04 PM

:)

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:05 PM

I sure hope that poll is right.

Terrye on October 3, 2012 at 8:03 PM

.
Right ? !

I hope those figures are ‘understated’ in Obama’s favor.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:05 PM

JohnGalt23 on October 3, 2012 at 8:03 PM

Holy Crap!

(switching to beer)

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:05 PM

lololol

thank you us :)

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

Don’t you have a 1/4″ sheet of Lexan across the front of your screen?

I thought that was a requisite for us “political junkies”.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 7:56 PM

Nah… I still have some big tube TVs, which my wife says are still perfectly fine. Lexan would prevent any “upgrades”. :)

dominigan on October 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

7% should have the official HA drinking rules handy

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:07 PM

The 12 year old is fine, but if he really loves you… he’ll get the 18 year old :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:04 PM

Chivas Royal Salute–21 years old. Only had it once; went down smooth and silky like water. I think, too, Ballentine’s has a 30-year-old.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:07 PM

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 7:56 PM

.
lol…learn to throw straight down in anger….makes clean-up easier and less expensive.

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:03 PM

.
Yes it does! . . . : )

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:07 PM

Michelle: “‘I’m Going To Make Barack Write ‘Love You, Honey’ On His Hand’..

faraway on October 3, 2012 at 8:08 PM

Nah… I still have some big tube TVs, which my wife says are still perfectly fine. Lexan would prevent any “upgrades”. :)

dominigan on October 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

Got a handgun, a big back yard and a long extension cord(lol)?

You could have some fun tonight!

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:09 PM

Debate preview

Just checked my supplies;

Johnny Walker Red – check.

Ice – check.

Tumbler glass – check.

Yup.

Good to go.

Bruno Strozek on October 3, 2012 at 8:09 PM

RINO detector – check

faraway on October 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 7:56 PM

.
Nah… I still have some big tube TVs, which my wife says are still perfectly fine. Lexan would prevent any “upgrades”. :)

dominigan
on October 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

.
If that’s the case, tonight is your big opportunity to get a new set!

Forget the “heavy mesh screen”, and just let-fly at that old tube!
.
“Honey . . . . . I broke the TV.”

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

Chivas Royal Salute–21 years old. Only had it once; went down smooth and silky like water. I think, too, Ballentine’s has a 30-year-old.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:07 PM

but if you want pure heaven… 30 year old Glenfiddich… aaaaaaahhhh! :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

RINO detector – check

faraway on October 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

Mine overheated and exploded long ago.

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

dominigan on October 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

.
Got a handgun, a big back yard and a long extension cord(lol)?

You could have some fun tonight!

Tim_CA
on October 3, 2012 at 8:09 PM

.
: )

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

“Honey . . . . . I Obama broke the TV.”

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

Accuracy in media…

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

Need to get dinner outta the way .. Hope my tummy can handle it.

pambi on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

.
If that’s the case, tonight is your big opportunity to get a new set!

Forget the “heavy mesh screen”, and just let-fly at that old tube!
.
“Honey . . . . . I broke the TV.”

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

Does that count as a “Hold my beer and watch this” moment? :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:10 PM

this is why i love HA

lol

:)

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:13 PM

Bruno Strozek on October 3, 2012 at 8:09 PM

*clink*

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:13 PM

Chivas Royal Salute–21 years old. Only had it once; went down smooth and silky like water. I think, too, Ballentine’s has a 30-year-old.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:07 PM

.
but if you want pure heaven… 30 year old Glenfiddich… aaaaaaahhhh! :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

.
Is Ballantine still extant? I haven’t seen an ad for it in over thirty some years.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:14 PM

but if you want pure heaven… 30 year old Glenfiddich… aaaaaaahhhh! :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

Now you’re becoming a tease…

Straight up with an ice water back.

The one time I had that Royal Salute, my dad and uncle were in on the deal. My uncle mixed it. I swear–my dad and I almost cried…

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:15 PM

Is Ballantine still extant? I haven’t seen an ad for it in over thirty some years.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:14 PM

yup, have a bottle of that too :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:15 PM

MSNBC is testing the chyron for the debate.

Obama’s says “Please remain quiet while our Lord and Savior Obama is speaking”

faraway on October 3, 2012 at 8:15 PM

Oye. Another night of Barack’s B.S. Bingo! Print your card and pray for your liver

Key West Reader on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

Now you’re becoming a tease…

Straight up with an ice water back.

The one time I had that Royal Salute, my dad and uncle were in on the deal. My uncle mixed it. I swear–my dad and I almost cried…

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:15 PM

As he should… friends don’t let friends ruin good scotch with water or ice (this has been a public service announcement) :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

Is Ballantine still extant? I haven’t seen an ad for it in over thirty some years.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:14 PM

I hope you’re not thinking of Ballentine’s beer

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

can’t switch to msdnc tonight…

watching wolfie and the gang

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

Is Ballantine still extant? I haven’t seen an ad for it in over thirty some years.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:14 PM

I hear they still make Blatz brand beer. Yick.

Key West Reader on October 3, 2012 at 8:18 PM

All this hand-wringing by Republicans and Conservative media would NOT be necessary had Republicans been smart enough to nominate Gingrich.

Obama would be wetting his pants were he facing Newt, who would dispense with Barack the liar, and the Leftist moderator in the first few minutes of the debate.

But alas, Americans were not that smart, and blogs like Hot Air, were excessively we we’ed up over Milquetoast Mittens that they were blinded as to who the best candidate actually was.

Sparky5253 on October 3, 2012 at 8:19 PM

Has anyone ever watched these things on YouTube? I have not the cable TV, and sometimes the feeds on these things go haywire.

JohnGalt23 on October 3, 2012 at 8:19 PM

As he should… friends don’t let friends ruin good scotch with water or ice (this has been a public service announcement) :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

My dad–who taught me how to drink and enjoy top shelf–were too busy crying over it. My Godfather, who gave us that gift, was just too shocked and polite to react.

Ruining a good Scotch is almost tantamount to murder.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Just heard on C-SPAN that BHO doesn’t like Romney personally!!

This should be very interesting if Romney can get under his skin and turn the Louse in da House into a blubbering bumbling flustered angry man!

Scrumpy on October 3, 2012 at 8:20 PM

As he should… friends don’t let friends ruin good scotch with water or ice (this has been a public service announcement) :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

Worse, my uncle used…(gasp and horror of horrors) club soda!

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:22 PM

the new aesthetic on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

Ohhhhh Fuuuuny!!

Scrumpy on October 3, 2012 at 8:22 PM

Scrumpy on October 3, 2012 at 8:20 PM

*crossing fingers*

cmsinaz on October 3, 2012 at 8:24 PM

As he should… friends don’t let friends ruin good scotch with water or ice (this has been a public service announcement) :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

Worse, my uncle used…(gasp and horror of horrors) club soda!

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:22 PM

LOL! My father use to have three types of scotch in the house… something like J&B, for those who mixed, JW Red or black for those who needed to use water or ice, and Fiddich for those who could handle it neat. :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:25 PM

Just heard on C-SPAN that BHO doesn’t like Romney personally!!

Scrumpy on October 3, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Other than reggie love….I’ve never heard of a man that obumbles likes personally.

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:28 PM

Is Ballantine still extant? I haven’t seen an ad for it in over thirty some years.

listens2glenn
on October 3, 2012 at 8:14 PM
.

yup, have a bottle of that too :)

uncommon sense
on October 3, 2012 at 8:15 PM

.

I hope you’re not thinking of Ballentine’s beer…

Liam
on October 3, 2012 at 8:16 PM

.

I hear they still make Blatz brand beer. Yick.

Key West Reader
on October 3, 2012 at 8:18 PM

.
Liam, that might be what I’m thinking, but I
can’t say for sure.
I didn’t pay attention to the spelling on the TV screen, but this would have been pre-1972.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:29 PM

Other than reggie love….I’ve never heard of a man that obumbles likes personally.

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:28 PM

but I thought that Valerie Jarret was one of his closest advisors… I’m sooooo confused! :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:30 PM

LOL! My father use to have three types of scotch in the house… something like J&B, for those who mixed, JW Red or black for those who needed to use water or ice, and Fiddich for those who could handle it neat. :)

uncommon sense on October 3, 2012 at 8:25 PM

My dad, who got gifts of booze from customers at his job, used Four Roses (panther piss that does down like sand) to bribe the garbage men at 5AM to take away his occasional excess trash. Then there was his usual Dewars for regular company and guests.

The Chivas he kept only for himself and my Uncle Van, and me also when I got older. And it only went down neat with a water chaser.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:33 PM

debate thread open….

Tim_CA on October 3, 2012 at 8:35 PM

Liam, that might be what I’m thinking, but I
can’t say for sure.
I didn’t pay attention to the spelling on the TV screen, but this would have been pre-1972.

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:29 PM

It’s all good. There used to be a Ballentine’s beer, an American brand that causes instant headaches in me like did Pabst Blue Ribbon. I put them both under the heading “Panther Piss”.

The Ballentine’s I mentioned is an old-name distillery of fine Scot whiskey. They have a 30-year-old release of their Scotch–very rare and expensive.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:37 PM

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:29 PM

.
It’s all good. There used to be a Ballentine’s beer, an American brand that causes instant headaches in me like did Pabst Blue Ribbon. I put them both under the heading “Panther Piss”.

The Ballentine’s I mentioned is an old-name distillery of fine Scot whiskey. They have a 30-year-old release of their Scotch–very rare and expensive.

Liam
on October 3, 2012 at 8:37 PM

.
I learned something new, there. Very good!

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:41 PM

I learned something new, there. Very good!

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:41 PM

Ballentine’s beer…My dad used to drink Schmidt’s. I don;t even know if that brand is any more.

But I remember him getting the dog drunk on it, just for the shits & giggles. That poodle was sitting on the side of his rump in the middle of the front lawn, and then he just fell over.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:47 PM

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:41 PM

.

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:47 PM

.
(Hello, . . . PETA ?)

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:52 PM

(Hello, . . . PETA ?)

listens2glenn on October 3, 2012 at 8:52 PM

*LOL*

Liam on October 3, 2012 at 8:53 PM

A Romney commercial! I just saw the elusive Romney commercial! It’s about time!

dominigan on October 3, 2012 at 8:53 PM

So how do you guys feel about Romney’s plan NOT to cut taxes?

Politricks on October 3, 2012 at 9:37 PM

Debate preview: How Romney can win

Evidently, he just needs to show up. My God, is Obama the worst debater of our time?

hawkdriver on October 4, 2012 at 1:13 AM

Comment pages: 1 2 3 4