The Hill newspaper reported on Tuesday “The word on the street is that Mitt Romney has been rehearsing some little zingers he will throw at President Obama during the imminent debate.”
The Hill added that Obama, too, is taking time off to prepare, but the president says “It’s a drag… They’re making me do my homework.”
The media is filled with advice for both; mostly along the lines of “come out strong,” directed at Romney, and “play defensively,” aimed at Obama.
Some go as far as saying they needn’t worry about memorizing the facts and figures.
As Realclearpolitics.com quoted one Democrat “coach” who has helped candidates prepare, “This is not a debate; this is a beauty pageant.”
This is a debate, and neither zingers, nor the most applause lines nor even “scoring” by pundits in the aftermath will matter.
What counts is persuasion.
That’s what a debate is, classically. It’s a way to reach the truth. A proposition is put forth, one side urges listeners to adopt that proposition, and one side defends the status quo.
Listeners decide to either adopt the proposition, or to reject it.
This is exactly what will take place tonight, and twice more between the presidential candidates.
There’s a proposition — tonight, it’s the economy (more broadly, “domestic policy”).
Mitt Romney’s task isn’t to zing the president, to overwhelm him with statistics, or even to outshine him with charm and “presidential bearing.” It’s to convince his listeners — in particular, the undecided voters — that the status quo needs changing. That shouldn’t be a hard case to make. Unemployment is high, job creation is low, consumer confidence is down and the stock market is worried.
President Obama’s task will be to defend the status quo (there’s one caveat to that). He’ll need to make the case that while the economic indicators are bad, they’re at least moving in the right direction. He’ll need to point out the positive things his administration has done (portions of the health care reform bill are popular, if not the bill in its entirety).
The one caveat — the one time Obama doesn’t have to stick to defending the present state of affairs — is what debaters call a disadvantage. It’s an important part of the debate. It’s where he can point out the bad things that might happen if the change is adopted.
What’s an example? President Jimmy Carter pointed to Ronald Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric, and warned that war could result.
And Obama is already making the case that Romney’s economic ideas mirror those of President George W. Bush, and “that’s what got us here.”
(Though that proposition is, itself, debatable).
What both candidates need to realize tonight is that the goal here isn’t to win points, win applause or even “win” the arguments. It’s to win over the undecided voters.