Let Us Talk

September 22, 2008

First Presidential Debate – (9pm EST/CNN) Friday, September 26: What Obama Needs to Do in the Debates

 Unfortunately a four-point lead means little at this point in the game especially for a black candidate who needs to be up by 10 points in battleground states to be safe, the game isn’t over yet. 


The next potential game-changer is his first debate with John McCain, and what he needs to do in the debates is precisely what he has not done thus far in that format, and what no Democrat other than Bill Clinton has done effectively in decades: to connect with voters in a way that makes them feel like they know and share his values, feel confident that he will keep them and their families safe, and will do right by people like them.

How does he do that? By following some basic principles, many of which Democrats would do well to follow in every debate at every level of government:

1. Think of your answers as sandwiches, with emotionally evocative and values-driven language at the beginning and end and with the “meat” in the middle. Emotionally evocative opening and closing statements serve three functions: they draw voters’ attention (one of the major function of emotions from an evolutionary standpoint), they signal voters what you are passionate about, and they provide the sound bites that will be replayed over and over on television. The emotional “bread and butter” at the beginning and end can elicit or address voters’ anger, hope, concerns, sense of patriotism, faith, or whatever informs your position and moves voters, or it can be a story from your own life or the lives you’ve encountered on the campaign trail. That is the bread and butter of what voters will remember. Follow it with the “meat”: first, how we got here (indicting the GOP for what it has done and making the causal link to the pain people are experiencing and our moral standing in the world), and second, a very brief bulleted description of what you plan to do (no more than three points, which is the most voters will remember). For example, on health care, start with something like, “I believe in a family doctor for every family. Right now, 50 million working Americans and their families can’t take their kids to the doctor, and the rest of us are watching our co-pays shoot through the roof and our security disappear as insurance companies are raking in record profits.” Then compare McCain’s “you’re on your own, pal” plan that would knock 150 million people off their employer-provided insurance (which would scare the hell out of most voters if they only knew about it — and for good reason) with your own, emphasizing the most central points of your plan: if you’re happy with your doctor or health plan, you will be able to stay with what you have; if you’re not, you’ll have choices, including not only an array of private plans that will have to compete for your dollar but the same plan members of Congress get. End with something that again inspires emotion, “If that plan is good enough for people like me in the Senate, its good enough for the people who pay my salary — the American taxpayer.”

2. Clearly enunciate your principles in virtually every response. Why do you take the position you do, and how does that principle reflect mainstream American values? Get to the specifics after you’ve established the principle, because it cues voters that you’re a person of conviction. The usual Democratic statements such as “I’m for the Second Amendment but for limited regulation of x,y,z” is not a principle, any more than was Al Gore’s debate response in 2004, that he supported regulation of new handguns but not old ones. (What’s the principle? That old guns are rusty? Voters saw through it and thought he wanted to support gun control but didn’t want to say it.) Here’s a principle, and one that distinguishes him clearly from McCain and the GOP: “My basic principle on guns is this: I believe in the rights of law-abiding Americans. That’s why I support the rights of law-abiding Americans to own firearms to hunt and protect their families, and why I support the rights of parents to send their kids to school in the morning and know they’ll come home safely.” That sets the framework for a principled position; for example, against assault weapons (e.g., “If you’re hunting with an M-16, you’re not bringing that meat home for dinner”).

3. Look at the audience and know where the camera is at all times. In his Saddleback performance, Obama split his eye contact between his interviewer, Rick Warren, and his shoelaces. He rarely turned to the camera and his broader television audience. Eye contact and body posture are crucial nonverbal cues in primates including humans, and voters unconsciously process those cues about dominance, sincerity, and so forth. Downcast eyes readily suggest shame, low status, or evasiveness. McCain had been coached by a good media coach to respond to his interview with direct eye contact, often using his name, and then to pivot away toward the audience within one to two seconds. Democrats routinely fail to make use of people who can help them enunciate their positions with strength, conviction, and humor.

4. Avoid dispassionate, meandering, intellectualized answers. Nuance and emotional appeal are not mutually exclusive. Sure, it’s harder to enunciate a principle that recognizes ambiguity than one that emanates from a Manichean worldview of the good guys vs. the bad guys. But people are often relieved when someone speaks to their ambivalence. It isn’t hard to say that business is the engine of our prosperity but that leadership is about keeping that engine on the right track. Nor is it hard to say what most people feel in their gut, that government shouldn’t be in the business of forcing one person to live by another person’s faith, which is why Sarah Palin has no right to plan our families for us, but that you ought to have a very good reason (e.g., the mother’s life or health is seriously in danger) to abort a late-term fetus.

5. Inspire and indict. As I argued in The Political Brain, and in multiple posts here, you can’t win a campaign with one story (about why you should be elected), and no one has ever won the presidency by saying only nice things about himself and his opponent. You have to control the dominant story of who you are (and answer attacks on that story directly and immediately) and the story of who your opponent is and why he’s not the right person for the job or the times.

6. Don’t run from any issue. State your principles clearly and with conviction, and if you worry that the public isn’t with you, turn that into a virtue (by making it a mark of genuineness and courage). The failure to state a clear position on hot-button issues has been a standard Democratic error for decades. Republicans never make this mistake. They’ve been running on a position on abortion that’s at 30% in the polls for years–that life begins at conception, and there’s no room for compromise–and this year they’ve even taken the more extreme position that every rapist has the right to choose the mother of his child. If Democrats don’t run on abortion and contraception this year, when Republicans have governed or threaten to govern with positions so far to the right that you can’t find them on a map of America (e.g., forcing teenagers to have their rapists’ babies, perpetuating the cycle of poverty by making contraceptives unavailable to poor women, teaching only abstinence when it’s nearly impossible to name a Republican who ever practiced it–they deserve another 3 Alitos and a Scalia for good measure.


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