One of the triumphs of Mitt Romney's performance in the first debate was that he told an enormous number of outright falsehoods (see here) with virtually no response from Obama, or at least no effective response. So one of Obama's challenges tomorrow night—perhaps the key challenge—is how to handle it when Romney says things that aren't true. What he can't do is what he did in the first debate, offer a muttering response filled with details and failing to emphasize his central point.
I realize there's at least some chance that the President is too busy to be reading this blog today. But just in case, let me offer a suggestion. What Obama needs is a set of responses that cover the topic at hand, but that all follow a single theme. He needs, to put it bluntly, a single phrase that he will repeat every time he's refuting a Romney falsehood. It could be something slogan-y, like "That's another Romney Reinvention," or could be something simple, like "Once again, Governor Romney thinks he can fool you and get away with it." It almost doesn't matter what it is, so long as he repeats it every time. The repetition acts as a signal to the viewers, linking that particular part of the debate to what they've already heard. This would not only make Romney's deceptions the headline of post-debate analyses, it would also probably freak Romney out a bit during the debate. As long as Romney knows that Obama's reaction to anything he says is going to be some weak, "Well, I'm going to take issue with you there," Romney can forge confidently on ahead, since people watching will have no idea who's telling the truth. But if he's wondering whether what he had planned to say on a particular topic is going to play right into Obama's hands and send him deeper down a hole Obama has dug for him, he won't be nearly so bold.
Let's take an example. During their last debate, one of the lies Romney told was that "pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan." When it came time for Obama to refute it, he said this:
But let's go back to what Governor Romney indicated, that under his plan he would be able to cover people with pre-existing conditions. Well, actually, Governor, that isn't what your plan does. What your plan does is to duplicate what's already the law, which says if you are out of health insurance for three months then you can end up getting continuous coverage and an insurance company can't deny you if you've — if it's been under 90 days.
This is just incredibly weak. Obama is correct about the details of what Romney's plan does and doesn't do, but nobody cares whether Obama knows the details of what Romney's plan does and doesn't do. That's something for the fact sheet your campaign puts out after the debate. What's important is that Romney was lying to make himself look like he cared about people and would help them, while the truth is that his plan would screw people. Obama knew the facts, so this should have been an opportunity for a confrontation that Obama would win.
He should have turned to Romney and said, "I'm sorry, did you just say pre-existing conditions are covered under your plan? With all due respect, I'm a little shocked that you would try to deceive people like that. You and I both know that your plan doesn't cover people with pre-existing conditions. It only does what current law does, which still lets insurance companies deny coverage to millions of Americans. Folks, this is one of the key differences between us on health care, maybe the most important difference of all. The law we passed, Obamacare, starting a year from January will make it illegal for insurance companies to deny you coverage if you have a pre-existing condition. Governor Romney believes insurance companies ought to be able to deny you coverage if you have a pre-existing condition. It's as simple as that. Now a minute ago, he tried to fool you into thinking he has the same position as I do. But he doesn't. He believes insurance companies ought to be able to say "tough luck" to you if you have a pre-existing condition. He just told you his plan does just the opposite, but what he said was false. Now Governor, maybe you just misspoke. Would you like to take some of my time to take that back? Maybe you might want to apologize?"
When Romney lies, what Obama needs viewers to take away from the exchange isn't that there's some dispute about the details of policy, but that Romney is lying. That isn't to say Obama shouldn't explain what the facts are, but when he does, he also needs to make a connection between this deception and the last one he called out, and the one before that and the one before that. He needs to have a rhetorical siren he can set off.
Rhetorical signaling is something Obama doesn't do nearly as often as he should, and he could learn from Bill Clinton how to do it well. Clinton's rhetoric is full of signals to his listeners that emphasize certain points. He's constantly saying, "I want you to pay attention to what I'm about to say," or "This is the important part," or "Here's what you need to understand." Especially for someone droning on the way Obama sometimes does, this kind of signal wakes the audience up a bit. And of course, the thing you follow it with has to be a clear, simple, strong point. Obama needs to create a signal that he repeats every time he catches Romney saying something that isn't true. He'll have plenty of opportunities, I'm sure. What I'm less sure about is whether he'll manage to use those opportunities.