Obama's Can't-Lose Debate Strategy

10/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joseph Romm Editor,; Author, 'Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln & Lady Gaga'

Part 1 explored why debates are typically won by the candidate who presents the most compelling and persuasive character. If I can convince you I'm an honest, straight talker, you'll believe what else I say. If you can't, you won't.

The corollary, of course, is that another way to beat your opponent in a televised debate, or the equally important post-debate spin, is to find and repeat endlessly one or more sound bites from the debate that undermines your opponent's character. And such a strategy has the best chance of succeeding if that character attack fits the negative frame or extended metaphor you have created for him.

Since I doubt Obama is suddenly going to stop being a "Smart Talker" and suddenly become a blunt-talking man of the people, this counterpunching strategy is his best hope for winning the debate. Team Obama must simply make the entire post-debate spin about the various lies and out-of-touch, intemperate statements that McCain inevitably makes.

Unleash Hell On Al

That was the exact strategy used by the Bush team to trample Al Gore in the pivotal first debate during the 2000 campaign. In that campaign, a key Bush metaphor was that he wasn't the slick-talking "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" Bill Clinton.

Bush was then, much as he is now, the blunt, trip-over-his-own tongue, regular guy. And it seems hard to believe know, but his message was "restoring honor and dignity to the White House," as British journalist Martin Lewis has written. Gore also tried to distance himself from the President, refusing to let Clinton campaign; choosing for his running mate Senator Joe Lieberman, a religious and moralistic man who had publicly criticized Clinton's behavior; and famously kissing his wife Tipper at the end of his acceptance speech. All this helped put Gore into the lead going into the first presidential debate.

But the Bush team better understood how strategy and rhetoric work together, how to create a successful extended political metaphor. As Lewis explained, the Bush team came up with a plan to "take all of Gore's perceived weaknesses and find a way to characterize them as all being part of the same character flaw. And the kicker was that it would be the self-same defect that the public had detected in Clinton." Now that is extending a metaphor.

The Republicans had long mocked Gore for perceived exaggerations, tainting him effectively with twisted or out-of-context versions of various claims, such as his statements that he had taken the initiative on legislation that created the Internet (which in fact he had). For the first debate, Bush's opposition research team established a "massive database of every utterance in Gore's 26 years in public service," and waited for him to make a slight misstatement. In a BBC interview, Tim Griffin, the GOP's Deputy Head of Research explained the value of opposition research with the politics-as-war metaphor: "Research is a fundamental point. We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war. Research digs up the ammunition.... We make the bullets."

Griffin extended the military metaphor with a sign he erected in the Bush team's War Room, the term for the rapid response headquarters James Carville set up for Clinton in 1992 that was popularized in the movie of the same name. The sign read: "On my command-unleash hell on Al." This quote, minus the "on Al," came from the blockbuster movie of that year, Gladiator. It was uttered by General Maximus (Russell Crowe) before the Roman legions launched their massive firepower on the barbarian hordes.

When Gore said, incorrectly, that he visited fire sites in Texas with FEMA Director James Lee Witt, the Bush team opened fire. As one GOP opposition researcher put the spin, "The man can't tell the truth. He uses legalisms and he parses words just like his master, Bill Clinton, to get out of trouble." Lewis writes, "The New York Post trumpets LIAR LIAR on its front page--and the post-debate spin cycle becomes about Gore's perceived chronic character flaw." This is especially impressive political spin given that Gore did visit fire sites in Texas with a different FEMA executive, and at other times he had visited Texas with Witt.

To be effective, an extended metaphor in politics doesn't have to be entirely true, especially if your opposition lacks the language intelligence to fight back. The best way to respond to this sort of attack is probably with humor, a trait Gore was unable to marshal in his public speeches.

The Bush team actually got a two-fer from the debate because Gore's sighing played into the spin that he was a condescending intellectual elitist. The result was the poetically rhetorical phrase "sighs and lies," with Gore becoming another too-clever liar. So we once again had the classic storyline in the 2000 campaign: The plain-spoken man of the people versus the fellow of infinite forked tongue.

Unleash Hell On John

Again, I seriously doubt Obama is suddenly going to become plain spoken -- it will probably take all of his effort during the debate merely to avoid appearing like Carter Dukakis Gore Kerry an over-educated smart talker. Indeed, you really don't want to try to be something you're not in debate. It simply takes too much mental energy and distracts you from the far more important task of focusing on good, concise answers and listening to your opponent's words for anything to pounce on.

But Obama does have an obvious counterpunching strategy for winning the debate once it is over. The supposed straight-talker John McCain has jumped all-too-willing into the serial liar frame, which has finally been well-reinforced by team Obama and has even been picked up by many in the media. The fact that the uber-deceiver of the GOP, Karl Rove, criticized McCain for going too far with his lies is evidence that he understands the serious jeopardy McCain has placed himself in, assuming the Obama campaign puts as much planning into this as Bush did in 2000.

McCain is clearly one of the worst candidates at maintaining message discipline while speaking off-the-cuff in modern GOP history. He blurts the most absurd things in the world in debates and town halls and even prepared speeches (see, for instance, The real, Luddite McCain: "The truly clean technologies don't work"). Moreover, in the last few weeks, he has been telling so many lies on so many different subjects that he appears to actually believe them.

So it is completely inevitable that he will make multiple statements that are all far closer to outright "lies" than anything Gore said in 2000. The Obama war room must make make identifying and documenting those statements the almost exclusive focus of their real-time debate work. And all of the surrogates must repeat the message post-debate. As an aside, I hope they use John Kerry, since he is certainly one of their best on foreign policy matters. I suppose there is no escaping using foreign-policy maven Joe Biden, who has in recent days vindicated everyone's fears he would be a unstoppable gaffe machine, a messaging Terminator.

But I digress. If team Obama is any good, they should whip together an ad immediately built around McCain's lies. And they should also get Claire McCaskill out there repeating her terrific message:

This is a good example of what I'm talking about. You know, honor is talked about a lot in this campaign. Honor comes with honesty. And you've got to be honest about the facts.

If they do this right, the Obama campaign should get a two-fer. In addition to "liar," McCain's performance in the debate is sure to reinforce either that he is out-of-touch or that he lacks the temperament to be President.

The beauty of this strategy is that it can't lose. It doesn't matter how bad or well Obama performs if people come to see McCain as the out-of-touch temperamental (or intemperate) serial liar that he is. If Obama performs poorly, then the debate would be a draw, which is a win for Obama given that he is currently ahead in the polls and foreign policy is supposedly McCain's strong suit. And if Obama performs well, then he would get an outright win and just about put the election away.

Part 3 will focus on how Obama can use McCain's character flaws to incite the hot-headed Arizonan to make the maximum number of mistakes and tell the maximum number of lies.