10/02/2012 10:39 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Mitt Romney's "Factual Dexterity" and the Presidential Debates

If past is prologue, Mitt Romney will reaffirm tonight that having a superior command of the facts is a temptation and a blessing.

Throughout the Republican primaries, Romney conveyed a mastery of policy minutiae that allowed him to parry and thrust with quickness and precision. Such dexterity helped him to put away his foes, but it also showed that Romney knows the dirty secret of the high school debater, namely, that knowing your facts well means knowing what you can get away with.

"He clearly did not tell the truth," Rick Santorum groused after the final Republican debate. He was referring to Romney's repeated claim that he never supported a federal version of the individual mandate that was the centerpiece of his Massachusetts health care law. This despite the fact that he voiced enthusiasm for two Senate bills that included mandates, described the Massachusetts law as a "model for the nation," and even touted it on Meet the Press as a "terrific idea" for other states, one that would pave the way for "a nation that's taken a mandate approach."

So was Santorum right to accuse Romney of "serially" telling audiences "that he did not do what we now know he did repeatedly"? That depends entirely on how you define what Romney actually "did."

For example, in the Jan. 26 debate, Romney said, "I didn't advocate federal mandates." If you look closely at the transcript, however, it appears that Romney is referring to his 2002 book Saving Lives and Saving Money, which he had mentioned a few sentences before. As a literal matter, then, what Romney said is true -- he did not advocate federal mandates in his book -- but the frustration for Santorum is that the statement is delicately misleading. It gives you the impression that Romney has never supported the idea of a federal mandate, when the actual claim is far more limited, giving Romney wiggle room if challenged.

This is a classic debater's trick. You rely on the inconclusiveness of language to make broader arguments than you could otherwise defend, and switch to definitions that are rigid and favorable when challenged. Romney might never have said the words 'I advocate federal mandates,' but there are many ways of saying the same thing, and for anyone to require proof that he used these exact words in order to conclude that he meant them is to hold the rest of the world to an evidentiary standard that is not unreasonable so much as absurd.

Which is not to say it isn't also a clever debate strategy, though it is very hard to pull off. You have to have a gift for keeping track of what you've actually said, for understanding what others probably heard, and for consistently exploiting the grey area in between. All this, while also being able to size up the likelihood not only that your opponents will challenge you, but that they will have the facts at their command to do so capably.

To get a sense of the perils of this approach, take what I consider to be the quintessential exchange in the Republican debates showcasing Romney's talent for factual dexterity.

Now best remembered for Romney placing his hand on Rick Perry's shoulder, the exchange started with an attempt by Perry to turn the tables on Romney, who had repeatedly accused him of not taking seriously the problem of illegal immigration. Describing this as the "height of hypocrisy," Perry accused Romney of actually contributing to the problem. "[Y]ou hired illegals in your home," he declared, "and you knew about it for a year."

If you watch a video of the exchange, you'll notice that Romney's reply is cautious. Instead of denying the charge outright, he laughs woodenly and says, "Rick, I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life." Then he adds, "I'm looking forward to finding your facts on that." This is a nimble move by Romney, for in previous debates, Perry had shown himself incapable of marshaling facts that warranted a meaningful reply.

This time, however, Perry was prepared. "I'll tell you what the facts are," he says and ominously mentions "your newspaper." Here, Romney cuts him off, and his whole disposition changes. He immediately goes from chummy and confident to irritated and shrill, repeating "I'm speaking" three times, reiterating the rules of the debate ("I get 60 seconds and then you get 30 second to respond"), and even appealing to the moderator, Anderson Cooper, to referee.

Romney clearly knows that Perry has his facts straight, or at least straight enough that his statement "I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life" is about to come under serious scrutiny. In fact, after finally being granted the chance to speak uninterruptedly, Romney doesn't even address the accusation, hoping it will get lost in the barrage of criticism he unleashes on Perry's immigration record.

But Perry doesn't take the bait. Instead, he refers to two stories by The Boston Globe documenting Romney's decade long use of a lawn care company that employed undocumented workers. The first exposed his use of the company -- Romney is described as occasionally extending a "buenos dias" to the workers -- and the second reported a year later that Romney still retained it. (Romney promptly fired the company afterward.)

"You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth," Perry concluded, anticipating Santorum's charge. Again, Romney's reply is instructive. He defends himself with the kind of factual care that makes it clear he knew exactly what Perry was talking about all along. In keeping with his original statement, Romney doesn't cop to knowingly hiring an undocumented worker, nor even to hiring one directly. Instead, he says, "we hired a lawn company to mow our lawn, and they had illegal immigrants that were working there. And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go." Then he goes on to lament how hard it is for "individual homeowners" to know if their contractors "have hired people that are illegal" and promises as President to implement an "E-verify system" -- a system, he pointedly tells Perry, that "you have opposed."

Voila! Case closed.

Or it is? The problem with a strategy like this is that it assumes that all debates are won on points. That may be true in a high school debate tournament, where pettifoggery is often rewarded as is the ability to escape a round without conceding a point, but presidential debates are a different matter. They are not only subject to post facto scrutiny, they are ultimately scored by voters who give far more weight to the style and sincerity with which something is said than to whether it passes casuistic muster.

Romney should take note. Most people know that facts can either shade or illuminate, whereas the truth depends on how they are deployed. In advance of Wednesday night, he should try to forget the high school debater's dirty secret, and he should instead learn the smart-aleck's stubborn mistake: Keeping yourself from being proven wrong doesn't mean you've been proven right.

John Paul Rollert teaches leadership at the Harvard Extension School.