What Obama Needs to Do to Nail the Debate
It was Tuesday afternoon last week, and I was heading back from San Diego to the East Coast when I caught a piece of a speech on the economy by Barack Obama. I almost missed my flight because I couldn't walk away from it. My immediate response: This was a game-changer, and we ought to see a five-point shift in the polls if he keeps this up for the rest of the week.
I was wrong. The shift was bigger. He leapt from 2 points behind John McCain to 6 points ahead at one point by the end of the week. His newfound voice in fact yielded dividends. The question is whether he and his campaign will draw the right conclusions about why he earned those dividends or whether they do what they have done so many times before: drop their gloves and start getting beaten up again after having their opponent down on the canvas.
Mark Sept 16, 2008 as the date Obama may have turned the election around. What he did in that speech in Colorado was something he had only done once before, in his convention address: not just to inspire voters about himself and his vision for the future, but to make the case against John McCain. The truth, he stated with the razor sharpness of a good prosecutor making his closing statement, is that what McCain was saying in response to the extraordinary financial crisis that was unfolding "fits with the same economic philosophy that he's had for 26 years...It's the philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise. It's a philosophy that lets Washington lobbyists shred consumer protections and distort our economy so it works for the special interests instead of working people...We've had this philosophy for eight years. We know the results. You feel it in your own lives. Jobs have disappeared, and peoples' life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet. The cost of everything from gas to groceries to health care has gone up, while the dream of a college education for our kids and a secure and dignified retirement for our seniors is slipping away. These are the struggles that Americans are facing. This is the pain that has now trickled up."
What had he just done? He had said implicitly, as he later made explicit, that the economic pain Americans are experiencing isn't accidental. It isn't an act of God. It is an act of ideology and incompetence, and it reflects the failed ideology of the Republican Party and the conservative movement whose standard bearer in this election is John McCain. And he had spoken in evocative ways about what is happening in real people's lives, not just about how McCain wants to privatize Social Security or seems indifferent to big businesses that are increasingly considering their obligations to their retiring workers optional, but about how the dream of a "dignified retirement" is slipping away. His terms were evocative, up close, and personal.
He went on to compare and contrast what he and McCain had done that might have prevented the collapse of the housing market (and with it the largest asset most middle class Americans have, the equity in their homes) and the tumbling of seemingly rock-solid financial giants like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. He took his listeners back two years, to February 2006, when he introduced legislation to prevent fraudulent or abusive mortgage practices. "A year later," he went on, "before the crisis hit, I warned Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke about the risks of mounting foreclosures and urged them to bring together all the stakeholders to find solutions to the subprime mortgage meltdown. Senator McCain did nothing." After walking his listeners through a timeline of events that transformed a topic that could so easily have seemed dull and lifeless into a riveting whodunit, he made clear that the mystery had been solved: "This is what happens when you confuse the free market with a free license to let special interests take whatever they can get, however they can get it. This is what happens when you see seven years of incomes falling for the average worker while Wall Street is booming...Americans have always pursued our dreams within a free market that has been the engine of our progress. It's a market that has created a prosperity that is the envy of the world, and rewarded the innovators and risk-takers who have made America a beacon of science, and technology, and discovery. But the American economy has worked in large part because we have guided the market's invisible hand with a higher principle-that America prospers when all Americans can prosper. That is why we have put in place rules of the road to make competition fair, and open, and honest."
This is the language of the heart, not the cerebrum. It raises not just the pocketbook issues that have Americans so worried but the values of honesty, fairness, and community that are central to what parents teach their children. It speaks of "rules of the road" rather than just "regulations." Sure, his words reflect a grasp of the issues that shines through, giving voters the sense that this is a man and a mind who understands what's wrong and how it needs to be righted. But what was present in this speech was precisely what has been absent from his campaign from the start: a sense of outrage at what Bush and those such as McCain who have been complicit in his malfeasance and mismanagement have done, and a willingness to put aside the campfire songs to tell a campfire story about his opponent as someone who is not the right person to lead.
It is no accident that his poll numbers jumped after his convention address, when commentator after commentator said something along the lines of, "Hey, he can throw a punch." And it is no accident that his numbers jumped again after a speech -- and several days of continued attack on McCain's ability to lead the nation out of the economic wilderness -- with words like these: "Make no mistake: my opponent is running for four more years of policies that will throw the economy further out of balance. His outrage at Wall Street would be more convincing if he wasn't offering them more tax cuts. His call for fiscal responsibility would be believable if he wasn't for more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more of a trillion dollar war in Iraq paid for with deficit spending and borrowing from foreign creditors like China. His newfound support for regulation bears no resemblance to his scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement. John McCain cannot be trusted to reestablish proper oversight of our financial markets for one simple reason: he has shown time and again that he does not believe in it."
But what was different about this speech wasn't just the words. It was the way he delivered them. Obama has always been a brilliantly inspiring orator, at least when he chooses to turn on the electricity. But he has always seemed to shy away from a fight, and you don't beat an incumbent party on the ropes by making the election a referendum on the challenger. This time Obama spoke with a dignified but aggressive air of authority that screamed the words, "Commander-in-Chief." He made people feel comfortable with the thought of putting their families' economic security in his hands. He stood tall, with his tall visage framed between two flags, in a way that seemed both presidential and unwavering. And he did not waver the rest of the week, as he peppered his speeches -- and McCain -- with the kind of tough humor we have not seen from him, as when he taunted, "If you think the fundamentals are sound, I have a bridge in Alaska to sell you," and "The old boy network? In the McCain campaign, that's called a staff meeting."
I hope he and his advisors do not take away the wrong message from this speech, that it was his six-point policy prescription at the end that turned things around. Sure, that prescription was good to hear, just as the meat he put on the bones of change in his convention address was important in spelling out what change it is we are supposed to believe in. But I left for the East Coast before he ever got to those policy prescriptions, and I already knew this speech was a game-changer.
What Obama Needs to Do in the Debates
Unfortunately, with a four-point lead that means little, especially for a black candidate who needs to be up by 10 points in battleground states to be safe, the game isn't over yet. The next potential game-changer is his first debate with John McCain, and what he needs to do in the debates is precisely what he has not done thus far in that format, and what no Democrat other than Bill Clinton has done effectively in decades: to connect with voters in a way that makes them feel like they know and share his values, feel confident that he will keep them and their families safe, and will do right by people like them.
How does he do that? By following some basic principles, many of which Democrats would do well to follow in every debate at every level of government:
1. Think of your answers as sandwiches, with emotionally evocative and values-driven language at the beginning and end and with the "meat" in the middle. Emotionally evocative opening and closing statements serve three functions: they draw voters' attention (one of the major function of emotions from an evolutionary standpoint), they signal voters what you are passionate about, and they provide the sound bites that will be replayed over and over on television. The emotional "bread and butter" at the beginning and end can elicit or address voters' anger, hope, concerns, sense of patriotism, faith, or whatever informs your position and moves voters, or it can be a story from your own life or the lives you've encountered on the campaign trail. That is the bread and butter of what voters will remember.
Follow it with the "meat": first, how we got here (indicting the GOP for what it has done and making the causal link to the pain people are experiencing and our moral standing in the world), and second, a very brief bulleted description of what you plan to do (no more than three points, which is the most voters will remember). For example, on health care, start with something like, "I believe in a family doctor for every family. Right now, 50 million working Americans and their families can't take their kids to the doctor, and the rest of us are watching our co-pays shoot through the roof and our security disappear as insurance companies are raking in record profits."
Then compare McCain's "you're on your own, pal" plan that would knock 150 million people off their employer-provided insurance (which would scare the hell out of most voters if they only knew about it -- and for good reason) with your own, emphasizing the most central points of your plan: if you're happy with your doctor or health plan, you will be able to stay with what you have; if you're not, you'll have choices, including not only an array of private plans that will have to compete for your dollar but the same plan members of Congress get. End with something that again inspires emotion, "If that plan is good enough for people like me in the Senate, it's good enough for the people who pay my salary -- the American taxpayer."
2. Clearly enunciate your principles in virtually every response. Why do you take the position you do, and how does that principle reflect mainstream American values? Get to the specifics after you've established the principle, because it cues voters that you're a person of conviction. The usual Democratic statements such as "I'm for the Second Amendment but for limited regulation of x,y,z" is not a principle, any more than was Al Gore's debate response in 2004, that he supported regulation of new handguns but not old ones. (What's the principle? That old guns are rusty? Voters saw through it and thought he wanted to support gun control but didn't want to say it.) Here's a principle, and one that distinguishes him clearly from McCain and the GOP: "My basic principle on guns is this: I believe in the rights of law-abiding Americans. That's why I support the rights of law-abiding Americans to own firearms to hunt and protect their families, and why I support the rights of parents to send their kids to school in the morning and know they'll come home safely." That sets the framework for a principled position, for example, against assault weapons (e.g., "If you're hunting with an M-16, you're not bringing that meat home for dinner").
3. Look at the audience and know where the camera is at all times. In his Saddleback performance, Obama split his eye contact between his interviewer, Rick Warren, and his shoelaces. He rarely turned to the camera and his broader television audience. Eye contact and body posture are crucial nonverbal cues in primates including humans, and voters unconsciously process those cues about dominance, sincerity, and so forth. Downcast eyes readily suggest shame, low status, or evasiveness. McCain had been coached by a good media coach to respond to his interview with direct eye contact, often using his name, and then to pivot away toward the audience within one to two seconds. Democrats routinely fail to make use of people who can help them enunciate their positions with strength, conviction, and humor.
4. Avoid dispassionate, meandering, intellectualized answers. Nuance and emotional appeal are not mutually exclusive. Sure, it's harder to enunciate a principle that recognizes ambiguity than one that emanates from a Manichean worldview of the good guys vs. the bad guys. But people are often relieved when someone speaks to their ambivalence. It isn't hard to say that business is the engine of our prosperity but that leadership is about keeping that engine on the right track. Nor is it hard to say what most people feel in their gut, that government shouldn't be in the business of forcing one person to live by another person's faith, which is why Sarah Palin has no right to plan our families for us, but that you ought to have a very good reason (e.g., the mother's life or health is seriously in danger) to abort a late-term fetus.
5. Inspire and indict. As I argued in The Political Brain, and in multiple posts here, you can't win a campaign with one story (about why you should be elected), and no one has ever won the presidency by saying only nice things about himself and his opponent. You have to control the dominant story of who you are (and answer attacks on that story directly and immediately) and the story of who your opponent is and why he's not the right person for the job or the times.
6. Don't run from any issue. State your principles clearly and with conviction, and if you worry that the public isn't with you, turn that into a virtue (by making it a mark of genuineness and courage). The failure to state a clear position on hot-button issues has been a standard Democratic error for decades. Republicans never make this mistake. They've been running on a position on abortion that's at 30% in the polls for years--that life begins at conception, and there's no room for compromise--and this year they've even taken the more extreme position that every rapist has the right to choose the mother of his child. If Democrats don't run on abortion and contraception this year, when Republicans have governed or threaten to govern with positions so far to the right that you can't find them on a map of America (e.g., forcing teenagers to have their rapists' babies, perpetuating the cycle of poverty by making contraceptives unavailable to poor women, teaching only abstinence when it's nearly impossible to name a Republican who ever practiced it--they deserve another 3 Alitos and a Scalia for good measure.
7. Don't run from any attack. Answer it with an attack on the attacker. The two biggest mistakes Democrats repeatedly make are to fail to answer an attack and to get on their heels and try to answer every charge. Answer the weakest link in your opponent's attack and go after him for making it. For example, Obama could easily have addressed the "elitist" charged by simply saying, "Let me get this straight. The guy who has to ask his staff how many homes he has, whose wife says you just can't get around Arizona without a private jet, and who's worth over a hundred million dollars is calling the black guy who just recently paid off his student loans elitist? That dog ain't gonna hunt."
8. Don't worry about looking like the angry black man. People don't see you that way. Your bigger worry is that you don't look masculine, muscular, and aggressive enough. Don't let grandpa push you around. (And Joe, that goes for soon-to-be Grandma Palin.)
9. Remember your first mission: to convey, particularly to white voters who are on the fence, that you share their values and understand and care about people like them. Speak their language, talk about what you want and fear for your kids (which is likely the same as what they want and fear for theirs), and don't hide your values in the fine print of your policy prescriptions. Speak from the gut about what matters to you. A campaign isn't a debate on the issues. One strong values statement (e.g., "It's time we had an economy that works again for people who work for a living") or one strong metaphor (okay, something other than lipstick on a pig) is worth a thousand ten-point plans.
10. Remember your second mission: to make people worry about what would happen if they vote for McCain and Palin. Do you really want to lose your employer-based health insurance and be left on your own to fend for yourself? Do you really want a return to coat-hanger abortions and increase the rate of unwanted pregnancies among poor women and teenagers? Do you really want your teenage son drafted (since there's no other way to maintain our security while keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and deterring people with "the right stuff" from signing up and staying in the military)? Stress your theme of unity, and contrast it with the hate-fest in Minneapolis and the divide-and-conquer tactics the Republicans have been using since Lee Atwater and Karl Rove came on the scene.
11. Use humor, especially when throwing a punch. Humor is disarming, and well-timed lines will be replayed on cable over and over and will be the only thing people who didn't watch the debate will know about your performance.
12. Don't "dumb down" your language, but use words that connect with people and don't make them feel ignorant. They don't need to hear about "marginal tax rates." They need to hear what's going to happen to their paychecks if you're in charge of the tax code. Avoid all acronyms and Washington inside baseball. If you're about to say "S-CHIP," try instead, "I believe people who work for a living ought to be able to take their kids to the doctor when they're sick. Plain and simple. My opponent thinks that if your kid has asthma or you have a bad back and can't get health insurance because of a 'pre-existing condition,' tough break."
13. Keep in mind at all times what stories the other side has effectively told about you (you're an empty celebrity, uppity, elitist, weak, and outside the mainstream) and counter them at every turn. Keep in mind at all times what stories you want voters to be telling the next day about your opponent (that he's out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans; that if you like how things are going now, vote for him; and that he claims to be a straight-talking maverick, but it's hard to know which McCain would show up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because he's been on virtually every side of every issue), and reinforce them at every turn.
14. Remember who your two audiences are: the people who support you already who you want to show up at the polls, and the people who are on the fence who you want to get off on your side. Don't worry about offending people who already detest you and everything you stand for.
15. Be genuine. Don't take any position you don't really believe in. People can tell. And you don't need to be anything but genuine. The American people agree with you on about 80% of the issues, and as Stan Greenberg and I recently found in polling 10,000 likely voters and putting together a Handbook for Progressive Messaging, Democrats can win on every one of the major issues, from economics, to abortion, to national security, to the role of government, with well crafted, emotionally evocative messages.
This isn't an exhaustive list, but it's a start. Personally, I'd throw away the briefing books and study this list. The debates won't be won or lost on who jams the most facts into 90 minutes. McCain can't tell a Sunni from a Shiite. If you don't know your position and the reasons for it on every issue after two years of campaigning, you're not going to learn it this week, so don't bother trying. There are more important things to get right--like making eye contact with your audience.
People want to know who their potential President is, and they want to like, trust, and be able to identify with him.
That's what Obama needs to accomplish in the debates.