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A Brief Guide to the Debates

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In the first debate, Obama did what he needed to do: convince a majority that he has what it takes. But there is room for improvement.

1. Obama kept working within McCain's frames: Earmarks, tax policy, military policy as foreign policy, and so on. McCain would say something false using one of his frames, and Obama would be lured into correcting McCain in McCain's own frame and then stay in it. Rule 1: Change to your frame.

2. A simple thing: Instead of saying "I agree with Sen. McCain ...", Obama should try "Sen. McCain agrees with me that ... " The former frames McCain as setting the standard. The latter frames Obama as setting the standard. Or try " Sen. McCain and I agree" if you are stressing bipartisanship.

3. Obama's answers kept drifting off and falling in intonation at the end. Both beginnings and endings should be short and passionate.

4. Obama missed a great opportunity when McCain said he would freeze nonmilitary spending. A short, but powerful list of what would be cut and how it would affect people's lives could have been devastation. This can still be done however, even by Biden on Thursday.

5. McCain used "no second holocaust" to effect last week in courting the Jewish vote, which could be decisive in Florida. Obama and Biden need to use it, while pointing to Olmert's anti-bombing position along with Olmert's reasons.

6. Obama didn't take the opportunity to talk about foreign policy at the level of the person, not the state--about foreign policy issues like poverty, hunger, disease, clean water, women's oppression, ethnic cleansing, refugees, global economics, and so on. Military experience doesn't help with these vital issues, and McCain is inexperienced in them.

The reason the list is short is that Obama did so well.

The Democrats are assuming that Biden will win easily over Palin. I hope so, but Palin should not be underestimated. She is being tutored and much of what she will do should be obvious. She will attack Obama viciously, but with humor. I think she will come out as a populist identifying Obama and Biden with Wall Street and say that McCain improved the Paulson bill by going to Washington. She may argue that a corporate income tax cut will put money in the economy. That one's easy to rebut: corporations that need bailouts have losses not incomes and so cutting their taxes would be pointless. But such logical arguments won't carry the day with Conservative Populists. Biden will have to come on at the beginning as a populist attacking the need for such a bailout. Remember that polls among conservative populists are running more than 100-to-1 against. Also remember that conservative populists see liberals as elitists, and will see Biden negatively if he comes on as a policy wonk trying to upstage Palin on her ignorance about issues. Biden needs to be short, to the point, passionate, and should not forget the Big 5 reasons people vote for a presidential candidate: Values, Authenticity, Communication and Connection, Trust, and Identity. He has to undercut McCain on these, and support himself and Obama on them.

Again, look for the obvious from Palin: She will repeat "That's gotcha journalism" when asked embarrassing questions. She and McCain are the populist reformers fighting Wall street, indentifying Obama and Biden with Wall Street, and touting no taxpayer bailout, private insurance, cutting corporate taxes, cutting spending, the defense of Georgia from the Russians, and drilling to lower energy costs. She will drop the names of the leaders she met in NY at the UN. She will call Obama too liberal and an orator with no content. She will bring back Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers. She will talk about being pro-life and saving the family and the Second Amendment.

Biden will have to practice not falling into any of these frames, but responding (or if possible starting) with framing of his own that casts McCain in a bad light in all these cases and draws her into his framing. I assume those prepping him for the debate will have already told him all of this.

Biden should go after McCain. He should call him a Yes-man for Bush 90 percent of the time, especially on deregulation of Wall Street (which caused this economic crisis), on refusing to fund alternative energy, on starting the Iraq War and not going after Osama bin Laden, and on privatizing--and eventually ending--social security. A debate on whether McCain is Yes-Man will displace the maverick frame from public discourse.

Biden should go after McCain's gambling, and point out his gamble last week, which resulted in his messing up the bill to fix the economic crisis. In a crisis, you need a cool head, not an impulsive gambler. There should be a public discussion about McCain as a gambler.

Biden should not let McCain get away with his remark about freezing all spending except for the military and veterans. He should look at the audience and say, if you have a child who has or needs college loans, Sen. McCain will take them away. If your schools get federal funding for education, say for special needs, Sen McCain will eliminate it. If your town gets ......(fill in your favorites) , Sen. McCain will cut it -- and give your money instead via tax breaks to wealthy people and corporations who don't need it.

Biden should also go into the nonmilitary aspects of foreign policy, especially those at the level of the person: poverty, hunger, disease, water, ethnic cleansing, women's oppression, and so on. McCain has not experience working on such people-oriented issues, where military experience doesn't count.

Biden should criticize Palin for making women who've been raped pay for their own rape tests, on not being pro-life after birth because of her views of children's health care, on helping to raise the rate of teenage pregnancies and hence abortions by being against sex education, and on helping to bring back back-alley abortionists by supporting laws that would have the government interfere with the intimate decisions that only individual women should be making. Lack of sex education, lack of pre-and post-natal care, and bringing on the return of back-alley abortionists supports a culture of death, not life.

This is the opportunity to bring up Palin's Road to Nowhere, built from earmark funds, and going nowhere, routed through a nature preserve--a place that shouldn't even have roads.

Biden doesn't have to prove himself in this debate. Palin does have to prove herself. That means Biden can hold back, give short but powerful responses, and try to prevent gaffes.

Finally, there is "gotcha journalism." If Palin brings it up, the right response is that journalists have a job to do, to find out what candidates know and believe, and that experienced candidates know how to respond by communicating clearly what they really do know and do believe.