How to win a Presidential debate

Am I the only one who notices that when a Republican loses a debate it’s because he’s not as smart as the Democrat but when a Democrat loses a debate it’s because he “wasn’t prepared” or “wasn’t on his A-game”?  Indeed, when Ronald Reagan had a poor first-debate performance against Walter Mondale in 1984 the pundits even went so far as to question whether senility had set in.

I’m not arguing that Barack Obama isn’t intelligent – there’s no question that he is.  But I am arguing that when a Ronald Reagan, John McCain, Bob Dole, Dan Quayle, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or Herman Cain has a bad debate performance, it feeds into the elitist narrative of the Left that Republicans just aren’t as smart as Democrats.  In contrast, when a Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, or John Kerry says something that is mind-bogglingly off-key, the misstep is explained away or more likely ignored.

The pundits on both sides seem to agree that Barack Obama had a poor performance in the first Presidential debate.  We’ve already heard the theories – he was overconfident, he underestimated Mitt Romney, or he didn’t prepare enough (because he was dealing with the problems of the world).  What will come next will be advice to President Obama as to how to do better in his next debate.  Undoubtedly that advice will consist of the following:

  • Be more assertive
  • Stick to clear, well-defined talking points
  • Don’t react to your opponent
  • Take the debate to your opponent – force him to respond on his weaknesses
  • Prepare some zingers that can be readily repeated on blogs and the news

I suspect these are good pieces of advice, but that’s not really how to win a Presidential debate.  The secret is actually much simpler.  I don’t mind revealing the secret to President Obama, because although the advice is simple, he will have no chance of making use of it in the second debate.

As a college professor, I frequently have to give feedback on student presentations and student papers.  One of the things I often see in student papers is an over-reliance on quoting the source.  A student may be asked to write a summary of some complicated primary text.  The typical student will wait until the night before, which is a bad strategy, because it is hard to understand a complicated text on the first or second read through.  The student senses his or her own lack of understanding, but figures he or she can’t go wrong by including a lot of quotations from the text.  After all, the original author has already stated the ideas perfectly.  Plus, there can be no question of getting anything wrong when you use the author’s actual words.  And finally, as long as you use quotation marks and cite the source, it’s not plagiarism.

The problem is, it’s not much of a paper either.  I have seen student papers that look more like a collage of quotes than a true student composition.  The resulting summary is very difficult to read, it’s disjointed, and it has no central narrative.  Worse, if I were ever to test the student on the material that was quoted, or ask the student to orally present the ideas in his or her own paper, the student would fail miserably.

I encourage my students to write the composition without having the source material at hand.  This is a very difficult thing to do.  It ensures that you can’t quote a single thing (unless you have a photographic memory), and it also ensures that you understand the material before you begin to write.  It’s sort of like giving a speech without using a teleprompter.  If you understand the material then you have organized the information in your own mind, and that organization, if transferred adequately to the composition, provides a narrative structure for the paper.  Also, if it is both in the paper and in the mind, the information is at hand later when the student is asked to talk about it or answer questions about it without any notes.

And so while I think that debate prep is certainly better than no debate prep, it’s not as good as understanding the material.  That’s what made Bill Clinton such a powerful debater, and that’s what makes Mitt Romney a powerful debater.  Ronald Reagan, who is often disparaged as an actor who could memorize his lines well, was in truth a powerful debater not only because he could deliver beautifully a well-rehearsed “There you go again”, but because he had been deeply immersed in small-government philosophy for decades since his conversion from a union Democrat to a Goldwater conservative.  He spoke of being overly rehearsed in that first “senile” debate against Mondale, and deciding to just be himself in the memorable comeback debate in which he graciously promised not to hold Mondale’s youth and inexperience against him.  Reagan being Reagan also came out in his most memorable speeches, as when he insisted on the importance of the “Tear down this Wall” line.

Mitt Romney has had to think on his feet and respond to skeptical challenges his entire life.  As a venture capitalist who made a living rescuing failing companies, he had to convince fellow investors to put their money on the line in projects that were, by definition, high risk.  He had to convince other businessmen to shift strategies.  You don’t succeed in that kind of high-pressure environment without knowing the material inside and out.  You don’t succeed in that kind of environment without being able to think on your feet, project confidence, and build consensus.

When Mitt Romney ran for governor of Massachusetts, and when he later governed Massachusetts, he had to deal not only with what every Republican has to deal with – a deeply skeptical media – but with a deeply skeptical media who were already preaching to a choir of a strongly Democratic voting base.  He also had to work with a state legislature with a huge majority of Democrats.  He faced skeptical challenges every day.  He was constantly getting practice with the sort of one-on-one and even many-on-one scenarios that make Presidential debates so intimidating.

I’m not saying that Barack Obama is not intelligent, or that he doesn’t understand the material, but I really don’t think he’s had much experience in defending fundamental principles or future goals.  His political experience is relatively limited, at least by the standards of someone who has been President for three and a half years.  As a state senator in Illinois, he voted “Present” (cast no vote) over 100 times rather than stick out his political neck.  He ran for U.S. Senate in a deeply Democratic state with a friendly media.  He was essentially a back-bencher in the Senate before running for President, and during his candidacy, faced very little vetting by a cheerleading media.  Some of the only challenges he ever received came from the capable Hillary Clinton, but the media even turned on her campaign when her surrogate, Geraldine Ferraro, had the audacity to suggest that Obama was receiving kid gloves treatment because of the desire among many to see a racial first – a black President.

One only has to imagine George W. Bush being President when an American Ambassador is assassinated in Libya, or during 43 straight months of over 8% unemployment, or during a period in which the national debt topped $16 trillion, to recognize how relatively unchallenged President Obama has continued to be.  Even when concerns about the growth of government spending and the rising national debt led to the formation of a large, grass-roots Tea Party movement of concerned citizens, the media ignored and denigrated those challengers.  To be sure, a vibrant skeptical community exists on Talk Radio, but to my knowledge neither the President nor any of his top surrogates have ever reached out to those audiences or deigned to sit for an interview.  Instead the President prefers more friendly audiences and interviewers such as David Letterman and the cast of The View.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, spoke before the NAACP and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and of course cannot avoid 60 Minutes or the other traditional political outlets in the mainstream media.  I am not suggesting that these venues are always hostile to conservative candidates.  But I do think they usually do their job when interviewing conservative candidates, whereas they sometimes seem to to abrogate their jobs with a liberal.

In any event, here’s the bottom-line.  The secret to winning a Presidential debate is this: live a life in which you are constantly being challenged to know your stuff and perform on the spot.  Preparing for a debate, memorizing zingers, and adopting a good debating strategy are all useful bits of advice, but they are no substitute for having done it again and again.  That’s why I say there’s no danger in telling President Obama the secret – there’s no chance to go back in time and get that lifetime of experience that Mitt Romney has already obtained.  To go back to my student paper analogy, President Obama – smart as he is – is starting the night before.  Mitt Romney started when he left home and created Bain Capital, and he hasn’t stopped since then.

And again, like the student paper situation, the other advantage is that when you know something inside and out, you can perform when you are tested on it later.  While I agree with the voices that are saying that conservatives shouldn’t get overconfident based on one good debate, I do think there is every reason to believe that Mitt Romney will nail it in the second debate and nail it in the third debate.  President Obama is certainly capable of doing better, but I don’t think there’s much chance that Mitt Romney will blow it.  A students aren’t A students because they are “on their game” or because all the stars aligned, they are A students because they’ve spent a lifetime developing good habits for deep encoding of information.  And that information is down there deep with Mitt Romney.


  1. Excellent, but that may be because I agree.

    Perhaps another way to look at is, paraphrasing Sarah Palin, you can put lipstick on a pig, but…

    The point is that Democrats, and liberals in general, seem to think that style trumps substance on every occasion. Unfortunately, for the country, they are too often right. This does, however, point to the validity of your theme which is that they tend to blame various extenuating circumstances rather than questioning their various fundamental premises and positions.

  2. […] facts.  Economic conditions strongly favored a changing of the guard.  Candidate Romney did a magnificent job laying out the facts:  unemployment higher than when the President took office, anemic GDP growth, […]

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