When President Obama and Mitt Romney stride onto the stage at the University of Denver tonight, there will be a dramatic contrast between the former law school professor and the former private-equity executive.
Whichever candidate is best prepared to play the hero in this drama will win tonight and, most likely, on Election Night. Whoever merely memorizes zingers or crams for a quiz show may as well start drafting a concession speech.
Debate-prep is stagecraft. Bill Clinton understood this, and as a campaign speechwriter, I saw him perform masterfully. Of the other two nominees I worked for, Michael Dukakis prepared for policy seminars—not debates—with predictable results, while Walter Mondale rehearsed, stealthily but skillfully, for the one memorable moment when he upstaged the Gipper.
While devouring the briefing books that his policy experts had compiled, Clinton prepared as if he were rehearsing for a reality show. Instead of answering questions from staffers, as Dukakis often did while practicing in 1988, Clinton’s debate prep consisted almost entirely of sparring sessions with stand-ins for his rivals. Washington lawyer Bob Barnett, who’d portrayed George H. W. Bush for Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988, reprised his role. Oklahoma Congressman Mike Synar, a populist policy expert who would die too young four years later, played Ross Perot, with his Texas twang and downhome digs at professional politicians.
Understanding that campaign debates are theatrical events, the debate-prep team included TV producer Harry Thomason and an actor-turned-media-trainer, Michael Sheehan. Even the room was arranged to approximate the layout of the auditorium where the debate would be held.
Prompted by debate-prep coordinator Tom Donilon (now President Obama’s national security adviser) and campaign strategist James Carville, Barnett and Synar laced into Clinton. Responding to attacks on his record in Arkansas, his antiwar protests during the Vietnam era, and the Democratic Party’s supposed free-spending ways, Clinton practiced counter-punches that later scored heavily against Bush, and occasionally Perot. Clinton’s greatest challenge was honing his greatest hits down to the 90 seconds required by the debate format in 1992. While tonight’s debate won’t have rigid time limits, President Obama and Mitt Romney would still be well-advised to tighten their responses.
Clinton’s preparation produced not scripted sound-bites but persuasive arguments that responded to his adversaries and resonated with his audience. For instance, when Bush criticized Clinton for supposedly having participated in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam as a Rhodes Scholar in Britain, Clinton responded: “When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. And a Senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
Imagine if tonight, if Romney fails to distance himself from the most extreme elements in his own party, President Obama were to update Clinton’s counterpunch: “Back in 1964, the party of Abraham Lincoln was captured by those who wanted to turn back the clock. And a governor from Michigan named George Romney walked out of the Republican convention. Your father was right to stand up to the extremists of his era. And I had hoped that you would do the same.”
Still, the most memorable moment of the debates was one for which the instinctively empathic Clinton had spent a lifetime preparing. During the second debate—a town hall with “ordinary Americans” in Richmond, Virginia—a woman asked the three candidates: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives. And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?”
Fortunately for Clinton, his answer came after Perot took the question literally and discussed the national debt, while Bush fumbled it completely, admitting “I’m not sure I get it.”
Clinton, in contrast, understood the question was really about how economic problems affect most Americans. Walking into the audience, he explained: “I see people in my state, middle-class people, their taxes have gone up in Washington and their services have gone down while the wealthy have gotten tax cuts. I have seen what's happened in this last four years when in my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by their names.”
If another game-changer occurs on Wednesday night, it will most likely be because one candidate was alert enough to offer the right response at the right time to a remark by his opponent.
While most pundits remember Ronald Reagan’s “There you go, again” rejoinder to Jimmy Carter during their 1980 debate, fewer recall that it came in response to Carter’s repeated (and accurate) claims that Reagan had initially opposed creating the Medicare program. Reagan’s disarming smile and shrug made his response so effective.
Four years later, when Walter Mondale warned that a re-elected Reagan would have to raise taxes or cut Medicare, Reagan used his old line again. But Mondale was ready with stagecraft as well as substance.
Turning towards Reagan, Mondale said: “Now, Mr. President, you said, 'There you go again,' right?” Reagan responded, “Yes.”
Then, Mondale replied, “You remember the last time you said that?” Uncertainly, Reagan replied, “Mm-hmm.”
With a look of authority, Mondale concluded: “You said it when President Carter said that you were going to cut Medicare, and you said, ‘Oh, no, there you go again, Mr. President.’ And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare. And so, when you say, ‘There you go again’—people remember this, you know.”
Although he didn’t know if or when the opportunity would arise, Mondale had practiced “the pivot” in debate prep and executed it masterfully against a professional actor. The cameras caught Mondale looking tough and Reagan looking timid. Watching Mondale the next morning on the campaign plane, a senior staffer said fondly but philosophically, “Whatever happens from hereon out, the man deserved a moment like last night.”
Will there be a similar moment tonight? Will it affect what happens from here on out?