A few weeks before the debate I finished a really great e-book by Barry Eisler. He’s one of my favorite thriller writers, but he also writes a decent amount about communication. In his book, The Ass is a Poor Receptacle for the Head: Why Democrats suck at Communication and How They Could Improve he basically explains why the President lost the debate. Even though the book was written in May of 2011.
Republicans are just better at getting their message out there than Democrats are. Eisler uses a decent amount of examples from the debate over the Affordable Care Act. In using these examples, he pretty much explains why lying isn’t always bad, especially in our modern media environment. If news organizations are more concerned with balance than truth, lies get treated as truth and are given the same weight as the truth. Death Panels were never going to exist, but that doesn’t really matter, because once I force you to disprove my claim, I’ve won the argument. You’re now arguing on my terms. I’m controlling the debate. That’s the first chapter of Eisler’s book: Whoever Chooses the Topic Wins the Argument.
Mitt Romney did this the entire debate. President Obama had to defend and explain, which meant Mitt was controlling the debate. You’re going to cut Medicare. You gave 90 billion to green energy companies that failed. You want to designate banks as too big to fail. President Obama had to defend against all these claims and more, many of which just weren’t true.
Of course, as the incumbent President he actually has a record that can be attacked. Mitt Romney hasn’t governed in a while and can only be held accountable for his ideas (which change to the opposite of whatever you’re attacking him about). This is probably why most incumbent presidents lose their first debate, as Rachel Maddow showed us, they must defend their record.
That said, Barry Eisler’s next recommendation is to counter-punch. That doesn’t just mean throwing your own punches it means “using the openings your opponent’s own punches create. Or, if you like, rather than boxing, think judo, which is predicated on the notion of using against your opponent the very force he generates.” (according to my kindle that’s location 190 of 620. It’s in Chapter 3)
When your opponent attacks you on something, turn the argument around on them. A famous example in the book, that’s been shown a lot recently, was the question of Reagan’s age. Asked if Reagan is too old to serve a second term he responds with, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It’s a funny line, but it also illustrates how you take an argument and re-frame it against your opponent.
The key is to get your opponent defending their positions. Defense does not win games, offense does.
This book should be required reading for all Democratic operatives. The Republicans already do most of what’s in this book, so they don’t need it.
I look forward to seeing the next two debates and seeing if Democrats can control the conversation and make Romney and Ryan defend themselves.