How Mitt Romney can dominate the TV debates

Winning a debate against Barack Obama is easier than pundits realize. Photo: Steven Senne/AP

HONOLULU, October 2, 2012 – Don’t be so quick to write off the first televised debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama as a Waterloo for the Republican Party. Romney’s greatest strength is that as a candidate he is coachable and has surrounded himself with a wide field of experienced and highly talented advisers. In politics, the ability to send a candidate to a match without home court advantage and still dominate someone favored to win is the essence of adroit campaign management.

Sun Tzu teaches, “Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.” President Barack Obama, for all of his alleged charisma and oratory skill, will be highly vulnerable in a debate due to the fact that his core strategy necessarily involves defense of the political establishment and ownership of everything his administration did over the last four years.

This is not 2007, when Obama as a political outsider could portray then-Senator Hillary Clinton as an elitist and part of the old Democratic apparatchik, nor is it 2008, when Obama, riding the momentum of being a youthful, energetic and reform-minded candidate went against an easily agitated and ramble-prone Senator John McCain.

This is the year 2012, four years later and neck deep into an economic crisis where 18 year old college freshmen who voted for Obama as a hope, change and reform Democrat in 2008 are now 22 years old, still stuck with part time jobs that a high school grad could do, internships that gave experience but no wealth, and the prospect of paying for healthcare insurance that they don’t actually need or want.

Obama will certainly claim that he created thousands of new jobs, but for every recent graduate and unemployed/layed off middle age worker that doesn’t have an interest in working for an renewable energy firm that is funded by stimulus funds, being a construction worker on a public works project, or becoming a nurse, the celebration over “new jobs” means absolutely nothing.

When you’re running for office the first time, you can promise to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil” and change out misplaced priorities and realign a country from where it is to where it should be. When you’re an incumbent, you’re benchmarked against reality. Obama’s greatest strength – his appeal as a “change” candidate – is no longer available to him head-to-head with Romney.

Secondly, political psychology studies reveal that individuals who ask questions are perceived to be more authoritative by viewers than those who answer them. The strategy for Romney then is to insert as many rhetorical, pointed questions as possible into his responses to push Obama on the defensive. In 2008, Obama could ask all the questions. Now it’s time to give answers to his opponent.

Romney should spend the remaining hours before the debate watching clips of older Obama debates – especially the Democratic ones – and watching for what kind of situations provoke him to go on the offensive and what kind of statements agitate him most. For the purpose of this debate, rather than thinking like a Republican, Romney should think like a Democrat and judge President Obama not against conservative values but against the liberal and progressive values he pledged to uphold but failed to deliver on. All of Obama’s books should be read, digested and intellectually assimilated as rapidly as possible. “Mr. President, on page-such-and-such of The Audacity of Hope, you said this … and then while in office, you did this. Why?” Romney will never defeat Obama on what conservative doctrine says, but he can and will divide and conquer soft Democratic partisans by holding him to his own standard.

Barack Obama is expecting to debate Mitt Romney. If Mitt Romney wants to win, he must make Barack Obama debate Barack Obama and all the highest ideals of his own party and movement. That is how you outthink and outlast your opponent.

The same “zingers” that Hillary Clinton used effectively against Obama in early 2007 debates are, in fact, still effective against him today in 2012. The object is to enter into the decision-making cycle of your opponent and interdict it by using his own doctrine against him.

It’s been said that a wise man siezes the very things that his enemies take confidence in. If Romney is prepared, read-in, and willing to fight fire with fire, he will dominate and win the debates.

Join Communities staff as we watch, comment and debate the debate tonight strting at 9:00pm EDT


Daniel de Gracia

Daniel de Gracia



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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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