What We Learned From Four Debates.

1. Say what you believe.
2. Short is better than long.
3. Be specific…
4. But don’t get buried in detail.
5. What you do matters more than what you say.
6. Talking points and zingers are bullshit.
7. Don’t whine to the moderator.

So, from a communications coach who never took a debate class, here’s my view, presented at lower decibel levels than when I yelled at the TV screen over the past weeks.

1. Say what you believe. When Mitt Romney said in the last debate that Putin wouldn’t get more flexibility after the election, as President Obama had told him, “He’ll get more spine,” it was a solid hit. Romney believes that, it’s not just a message point, he believes he’s a tough negotiator. He said it with conviction and it rang true. Not true in an ultimate sense, but true in his voice, in his guts. And when Obama said several times in the second and third debates, “Governor, everything you said is just not true,” he had more color and variety and inflection in his voice than in his other points. “You’re the last person who’ll get tough on China,” Obama said, with a solid ring. Even though that was no doubt a practiced line, the president believes it, and you could tell it in the passion in his voice. The stuff he said before that was just blah-blah and he delivered it to the moderator — then he turned to Romney and said it to his face, “Governor, you’re the last…”

In my coaching, i have people start a talk or an interview with what they most believe. No warm-ups, no preliminaries, get what you care about out right away. It brings out the real person, not the practiced person or the image one has decided to project. Imagine — say what you believe. It comes out more concise, in more conversational language, and with more of the speaker’s personality and passion engaged and evident.

2. Shorter is better. Obama often went on too long. He’d make a strong point, but had to layer on more context, which obscured the original point. Romney’s “He’ll get more spine” was powerful because it was short. So was Biden’s “But I always say what I believe” when Paul Ryan said Biden knows about how words don’t always come out the way one wants them to. Romney looked the worst when he was challenged and would go into a filibuster, flooding the room with verbiage in a faster higher voice that made him sound like a kid trying to explain about the cookie jar.

Say what you have to say and shut up.

3. Be specific… Assertions with no examples or specifics to back them up are just marketing blather. I’ll cut the budget. HOW? WHAT? Obama said Romney’s foreign policy is the same as Bush’s. How much stronger to back up that assertion with “Seventeen of your twenty-four advisers on foreign policy served in the Bush administration that got us involved in a disastrous war on false pretenses. Why should we believe you’ll do any better with this crowd?”

4. But don’t get buried in detail. When Obama explained for the second and then the third time, in the first debate, how his health care board was constructed and what it would do, you knew he was toast. Too much ‘splainin’. The point is — “Would you rather have insurance companies deciding what gets covered and for how much, or representatives of patients and medical staff?”

5. What you do matters more than what you say. Obama lost the first debate before he had two sentences out of his mouth. As so many have observed, he looked down, he looked pissed, he looked like this whole thing was just too stupid for words. Watch Bill Clinton in his recent talks for Obama — the guy’s alive, having fun, smiling — you want to hear him. In the second debate, Romney walking up to the president and saying, over and over like a petulant kid, “Have you looked at your pension, have you looked at your pension…” looked like a jerk and gave the president an opening for a smartass cutting retort. Which brings us to…

6. Talking points and zingers are bullshit. Obama said “My pension isn’t as big as yours, Governor, it doesn’t take me that long to look at it.” Clever, made his supporters feel good, and probably doesn’t sway anyone. Same with “Horses and bayonets” and “The unraveling of the Obama foreign policy” and all the canned talking points and practiced zingers. They sound canned and practiced. Real people respond to people who sound like real people. Even better if they actually are real people who speak like people in my Point 1.

7. Don’t whine to the moderator. When Romney kept saying to the moderator that the president had the first answer so he should get the next one and that he should be able to finish — he looked like the dweeb running for student council vice president. And when Obama did the same, he sure as hell didn’t look like a man who could run a country or stand up to Putin or Boehner or anyone.

I’ve said many times I’d like to see debates with no moderator. The two candidates in a room, start the camera, see what happens, no rules. And in another debate have a town hall audience, they ask questions, but no moderator, see how these two people handle themselves as human beings.

I believe the more a person is himself or herself — not some practiced line-spewer — the more people respond.

But that’s just my opinion, and I could be wrong (thanks, Dennis Miller).

— Bruce Benidt

(Photo from npr.org)

“Vision” and “leadership” with neither clarity or courage.

By the quaint standards of the “reality based” community, Barack Obama “won” last night’s debate handily. He offered a serious, nuanced view of how foreign policy works with ideological zealots like Iran — (News flash: It’s a wee bit more complicated than “projecting strength” or buying more boats for the Navy). But command of nuanced reality isn’t what matters in politics.

Mitt Romney’s people are sounding quite pleased that their guy once again avoided damage. And he did it as he always has, by maintaining a nearly completely opaque wall around what he would actually do about any of the serious problems of our times. … other than “keeping America strong and confident and creating 12 million new jobs” … details to follow … maybe … talk to my scheduling secretary.

Thanks to the heavily negotiated/litigated rules for these debates (and for the moderators), the mano a mano phase of the campaign has ended with no discussion at all of social issues, like abortion, the Republican machine’s anti-gay marriage and Voter ID initiatives and … oh, yeah … climate change. The latter of which might have some very serious impacts on “foreign policy” in the not at all distant future.

I’m certain that if Romney had been asked what he would do about carbon emissions he would have assured us that he has a “vision” to act with clarity, authority and strong leadership … without ever actually being clear, or demonstrating any kind of authoritative grasp of the subject matter and therefore betraying a profound lack of personal courage, a principal asset of leadership.

The fact there is a debate designated solely to foreign policy is because earnest thinkers believe presidents are never more presidential than when managing international conflicts and crises. This plays in the face of the fact that your average persuadable voter is far more interested in which guy will put more money in his pocket, and probably knows so little about international geography he thinks Iran and Syria share a common border. With that in mind the Romney strategy of avoiding mistakes — by again saying nothing and revealing nothing while suggesting something strong and leader-ly — pretty well satisfied their campaign needs for another night.

Since Obama clearly demonstrated both a willingness to debate the interlocking mechanics of foreign policy and remind voters of how he’s already pulled that off, I won’t bore you with a lot of moderator-bashing. Except to say … veteran journalist Bob Schieffer seemed content to play clock keeper and wallpaper. Schieffer knows enough about the nitty-gritty of foreign policy to have interjected a much deserved “and how, exactly … ” a couple dozen times last night. But as I say, his role has been negotiated down to an edge-less nub by strategists for the two campaigns.

My newest brain storm:  A channel that runs the debates on a five-minute delay with “real-time” fact-checking for your average “apology tour” and “private credit was available to GM” moments. That gimmick would have spared the crowd at our debate party last night a lot of spontaneous profanity. (I hope the friend of our friend from St. Paul wasn’t horrified when a scene from “Casino” broke out … three or four times.)

Barring an October surprise from one of the GOP’s leading intellectual lights — like Donald Trump — my prediction is Obama will win by something around 1.5% and a bit less than 300 electoral votes.

But as a kind of horror movie thought experiment consider the psycho-dynamics of a Romney presidency.

In George W.Bush liberals like myself saw a guy manifestly unequipped to be President of the United States. Intellectually lazy, glib to a fault, dismissive of any countering logic, content to be steered by authority figures out of a past generation and incapable of serious reflection and self-criticism. … but affable. A guy you probably would have a beer with. (Dick Cheney … well, only if I could slip sodium pentothal into his mug.) And all our original fears were born out in a genuinely disastrous administration. It was an eight year-run of reckless foreign adventurism and profligate spending that will require another 10 years of repair to set right … assuming we don’t reignite it.

But Bush had friends when he arrived in the White House. Not those who egged his limo on the way to the inauguration, but within his party. People who liked him, personally. Does Mitt Romney?

Based on the primary season I think we can conclude that Romney is despised nearly as much by his own party as a Democrats and liberals. His insular, highly deceptive “leadership style” has quite thoroughly infuriated his own party, and liberals, again judging from my contacts and the venom thrown at his image last night, deeply, genuinely and with multiple valid reasons hold him in utter contempt. I have to go back to Richard Nixon for a candidate whose personal ethic I find as loathsome as Mitt Romney’s.

And that would be his situation at the start … widespread contempt and deep mistrust, with abundant good reason —  before the first shell is lobbed in the political wars. And well before he could commence his vision to “bring America together” … through strength and clarity and leadership … details to follow.