Five Debate Night Ideas for Romney and His Team | | 10.02.12

Last week Peter emailed me an invitation to join the Ricochet gang. I immediately said yes.

As he explained in his generous introduction below, Peter and I met in Ronald Reagan’s White House, where we both served as speechwriters, first to Vice President George H.W. Bush, then to President Reagan.  Peter was one of the smartest and wittiest members of our speechwriting crowd.  I am humbled and delighted to join him here at Ricochet, another passionately committed and dazzlingly brilliant collection of writers.

As he did with Peter, Troy asked me to suggest things for Romney during the debates.  In my case he asked for five things. Here’s my list, things Romney should do on stage and things his team should do behind the scenes:

  • Challenge the Obama narrative:  The president’s mantra has been that low tax rates, predictable and lower regulations, restrained growth in domestic spending, stable monetary policy and increasingly open trade – Reaganesque policies that gave us 25 years of nearly uninterrupted growth – “got us into this mess.”
    • Wrong. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and crony capitalism from their friends in Congress (notably rolling the dice by Barney Frank, Chris Dodd and, yes, Senator Barack Obama) created this crisis. Romney should say so.
    • He should also say that Obama’s 180-degrees-opposite-of-Reagan policies are prolonging the downturn. The reason is simple. New business creation and global trade in both directions have driven our economic growth for more than three decades. The Obama administration’s policies of higher tax rates, harsher and more arbitrary regulations, and bigger federal spending and borrowing that crowd out private investment have made it harder to start and grow businesses and compete in the global economy. Recovery requires reversing those policies.
    • This is the true narrative of our times. In the debate, Romney should hammer on it.
  • Walk in with several good soundbites:  Memorable moments define campaigns.  Politico has a list of ten memorable debate moments. But seven were self-inflicted wounds (Dukakis’s cold response to the hypothetical rape of his wife; Ford insisting that Poland was not under the Soviet thumb). In only three was a candidate taking the fight to the opposition. Two of these moments were Reagan’s (“There you go again” and “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”). The other was from Lloyd Bentsen (“Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine”). The three winners were planned. Romney needs to have zinger lines ready in advance.
  • Don’t be afraid to use humor: Oh, one other thing about killer debate lines. Note the difference between Reagan and Bentsen. Bentsen was crude and nasty. Reagan was deft and “youth and inexperience” drew a big laugh, including from Mondale. Humor is memorable and likable. Follow Reagan. Use humor.
  • Remember, Twitter is the new spin room: Who wins the interpretation goes a long way to determining who wins the debate. As we saw in the Obama campaign’s “lies” tweet during Paul Ryan’s convention speech, Twitter is the new spin room. Romney and his staff must not be content with a first-rate debate performance. They must have a first-rate debate follow up, starting during the program, which means having a Twitter strategy for reaching the media throughout the evening.
  • Buy an insurance policy:  How did the Obama campaign get a bump from their bumbling, angry, banal convention, while Romney got none from his?  Could it be that the Obama people doubled up their advertising in those two weeks, running more than 40,000 spots nationwide, twice as many as the GOP? This is October, and Team Romney should be firing all ad guns anyway. But for each of the debates, they should surge the day before, the day of and the day after.
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