Debate Strategy: Romney’s Zingers Versus Obama’s Nuance

Last updated on July 18th, 2023 at 11:18 am

In an age where sound bites carry the news cycle, Romney might win this first debate per the media. President Obama is not known for his ability to deliver one-liners or go on the attack. Obama is a man of nuance and policy, and those things don’t play as well to the pundits. The president has been working on shortening his answers, which tend to be longer and more substantive. Obama won’t be delivering sound bite happy zingers, though. “That is not what the president’s focus is on. If you are expecting that, that is probably not what he is going to deliver on. He is speaking directly to the American people and we know what they want to hear is what his plan is for moving the country forward.”

Romney’s debate strategy is always the same. He vacillates between pandering (also known as lying) and attacking. His biggest weakness is talking to average Americans, because he tends to talk down to them, talking over them while pointing his finger at them and ordering them in a peeved tone to let him finish. Wednesday night will offer Romney the best case scenario because it’s not the town hall debate, and he won’t have to interact with the public. He can just focus on attacking Obama with his rehearsed zingers. Romney’s other strategy is not answering the questions as they are asked, but rather just saying what he wants to say.

Romney’s attacks will play well with what’s left of his base, because aggressive put downs and condescension are all the rage on the Right. In round 500 of the race game, today Fox “News” announced that Romney “looks more like a President” and yesterday Fox reminded Americans that yes, indeed, Obama is black. The fact that no one cared is causing Republicans to double down on race, like the winners that they are. They’re going to want red meat tonight, but if Romney’s smart he’ll keep it subtle. The President’s popularity with Americans puts Romney in a weak position when he attacks, yet his base needs the attacks to turn out the vote.

But if Romney won’t get specific, he won’t be able to turn this around. What’s at risk for Romney is actually losing ground due to the debates. Romney has another weak spot — his temper; Romney gets angry easily and loses his cool, especially when he feels exposed. In his debates with Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney gave vague, rather silly answers and grew agitated when Ted Kennedy knocked down Romney’s promises by saying things like, “We already have tax incentives. They aren’t working.” In the Republican primaries, Romney became a petulant teenager policing the rules when he felt Rick Perry talked during what should have been his time. The Romney team has been working on his anger issues and practicing appearing empathetic.

Obama has a way of using his opponent’s weaknesses against them, goading them — seemingly by doing nothing — into exposing themselves. We saw him do it to John McCain in 2008. So Romney is risking being hoisted on his petard with his rehearsed zingers and evasion tactics. Obama ha already put him on notice that specifics will be required tonight. Obama’s set ups usually take an uncomfortably long time to play out, so the payoff might not come tonight. In the meantime, Obama will just stick to policy and facts, and speak directly to the people. The President plays the long game.

Don’t be surprised if the pundits call this one for Romney; they called Palin the winner in her debate against Joe Biden, and Romney is the challenger. The bar is lower for Romney, even though he’s had nothing but time to practice while President Obama has been rather busy with his day job.

As Obama adviser David Plouffe pointed out, “We know the news media is anxious to write the Romney recovery and comeback story.” So expect that. The media can’t wait to deliver a comeback kid (somehow they never manage to see this narrative in Obama, who is actually quite the comeback kid given the relentless attacks he’s endured, but our media isn’t known for thinking outside the box).

If Romney is true to form and continues to lie as badly as he has thus far, the day after will be a brutal post mortem for the challenger, but that won’t be as damaging as a Mittfit. Obama’s priming the pump, we’ll see if Romney can avoid taking the bait.

Sarah Jones

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