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Reflections of an Ex-Debate Prepper

What to do if you find yourself on a debate stage with Donald Trump.
September 29, 2020
Reflections of an Ex-Debate Prepper
The stage of the first US Presidential debate is seen on September 28, in Cleveland, Ohio. - Tuesday's clash in Cleveland, Ohio, the first of three 90-minute debates, represents the first time voters will have the chance to see the candidates facing off against one another directly. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

During my years as a political operative, nothing was more enjoyable than preparing a candidate for a debate. For one thing, it was a chance to give full voice to all of my resentments and dissatisfactions with clients, by throwing them the most hostile questions imaginable. More broadly, it was a chance to test just how accurately we had understood the political terrain, and the likely strategies and tactics of our opponent.

I took from those years several lessons, which have not lost their salience, and may offer some clues as to what we might—or should—see Tuesday night.

(Note: I’ve put these as points the Biden camp may want to think about, since the idea of President Trump pursuing a coherent strategy is applicable only on Earth 2.)

(1) Concede A Point—Up To a Point. Candidates acknowledge error with the same frequency as a visit from Halley’s Comet. It’s in their nature to explain, contextualize, evade. But when you know that your opponent, or a moderator, will raise an issue, employ political judo by saying “Yes.”

Not “Yes, but . . .”

Example: Our candidate had put a congressional aide on the payroll of his brother’s oil company. It was legal, but sketchy. After endless push backs, he agreed to this answer: “It was wrong, it shouldn’t have happened, it won’t happen again.” That ended the controversy.

If—I should say, when—Trump raises the issue of Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma, it would do Biden well to say: “Even though a Republican Senate committee found nothing illegal, Hunter shouldn’t have taken that job.”

If Biden is tempted to talk about the 14 trademarks China granted Ivanka Trump, it would be more effective to wait a few moments, and then say, “Speaking of family . . .”

(2) Less is More. One of the best features of general election campaign debates is that there are much less rigid time limits than during the multi-candidate primary mashups. The downside is that it can tempt a candidate to go on and on and on . . . a temptation Joe Biden has yielded to throughout his long public life. Sometimes, a very short answer—a sentence, a couple of words—will throw an opponent, who is assuming there’ll be a minute or so before it’s his turn, well off his stride.

(3) Pre-Empt Your Opponent’s Favorite Lines. Remember that moment in Patton as the great American general is pounding the German forces in North Africa? Patton exclaims, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

Nothing is more likely to discomfit an opponent than hearing his favorite lines in the mouth of the opponent. If a debater can say “You claim [x], but the facts are [y]; you claim [a] but you forgotten [b], [c], and [d] . . .”—it can put the opponent back on his heels and maybe even force him into robotic repetition, as Chris Christie did to Marco Rubio in 2016.

Now lapsing into repetition might not bother Trump, who is more than happy to repeat the same thought three or four times in a sentence. But viewers will notice. And they won’t like it.

(4) Try An Occasional Grace Note. Often a debate moderator will ask the candidates to praise a quality of their opponent. The usual answer is to say something nice about the fellow’s family.

In the case of the Trump family, that might be challenging. So Biden would be better off praising the Second Chance Act that gives ex-convicts a path to employment and a better life. There’s also no cost in praising the opening of relations between Israel and some of her neighbors.

(5) Enjoy Yourself—But Not too Much. For all of the obsession with “zingers” and “moments,” debates are usually won by the candidate who seems in command of the room, who can take questions and reshape them to his own end, and who seems confident in his own skin. (This was the key to Mitt Romney’s performance in his first 2012 debate with President Obama.)

An occasional turn to humor goes a long way; but Biden came close to a line back in 2012 with his constant chuckles and smirks when he debated Paul Ryan. (On the other hand, it’s hard to know what line Biden could cross with Trump, who has said among other things that if Biden wins, “there will be no God.” That’s a straight line begging for an answer.)

(6) It’s Much Easier to Know Exactly What To Do in a Debate If You’re Not the One Debating. My old boss, political strategist Dave Garth, used to tell a story about heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and his trainer Al Weill. Before every fight, Weill wold tell reporters: “We’re gonna jab in the first round; then we’ll work the body in the next couple of rounds; then we’ll hit him with a right. . .”

When a reporter asked Marciano about all that “we” talk, Rocky replied, “All I know is that when the bell rings, the last thing I see is Al Weill’s fat ass going through the ropes.”

Jeff Greenfield

Jeff Greenfield is a five time Emmy winning television analyst and author.