2012 Election: How Obama and Romney Prep for the Debates

Success in the October debates depends heavily on being prepared. So what does history teach us?
Photograph of Barack Obama courtesy of spirit of america / Shutterstock.com. Photograph of Mitt Romney courtesy of spirit of america / Shutterstock.com.
Photograph of Barack Obama courtesy of spirit of america / Shutterstock.com. Photograph of Mitt Romney courtesy of spirit of america / Shutterstock.com.

From June through October of a presidential election year, a
small group of experts serve as trainers, coaches, and writers for the
gladiatorial spectacles that are the presidential and vice-presidential
debates. This year’s face-offs—the first in Denver on October 3—offer one
of the last chances to change the race’s dynamics before the November 6
election.

Debate preppers must create a comprehensive and hard-to-debunk
yet readable compilation of all policy issues the candidate might get
asked about. When I worked on debate prep for the Bush/Cheney campaign in
2004, I mused that this universe might be as large as 40,000 questions.
Gary Edson, who had also done debate work for the 2000
Bush campaign, added: “Forty thousand potential questions, but there are
only 40 answers.”

In addition, preppers “watch tape” like football coaches. Some
act as substitute opponents or media questioners. Many iconic moments in
debate history originated in debate prep, including Lloyd
Bentsen’s
devastating reply to Dan
Quayle
—“You’re no Jack Kennedy”—and
George W. Bush’s firm stand in the face of Al
Gore’s
bizarre lunge toward the Texas governor.

This time, the stand-ins for the debate will be Senator
Rob Portman, playing President Obama for
Mitt Romney, and Senator John Kerry,
playing Romney for the President’s sessions. The roles require policy
smarts, political savvy, deftness with the media, and the psychoanalytic
ability of a motivational speaker. Here are some of the lessons history
provides.

1. Debate prep really
matters.
President Gerald Ford began the
process of serious preparation in 1976. Jimmy Carter
mocked the concept: “I am not going to go off and practice against a dummy
opponent or memorize any cute speeches or anything like that.” By 1980,
though, according to debate historian Alan Schroeder,
Carter had dropped his objections. He did a full-on session at Camp David,
bringing in California political scientist Samuel Popkin
to play Ronald Reagan.

2. Make sure the answers make
real-world sense.
Unfortunately for Ford, his prep session
may not have helped. In the debate with Carter, Ford claimed there was no
Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an answer that hurt him. According to
Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger, during the
practice session, Henry Kissinger aide William
Hyland
had pressed Ford on this very issue. Isaacson writes that
the answer the National Security Council had prepared in Ford’s debate
book didn’t differ greatly from the one that ended up flummoxing the
President and paralyzing his campaign during a crucial pre-election
stretch.

3. Know your opponent.
Ohio congressman Dennis Eckart, the stand-in
for Quayle in Bentsen’s prep, listened carefully to Quayle’s campaign
speeches, including a reference to how he and JFK were of similar ages
during their runs. According to Schroeder, Eckart tried the line on
Bentsen in a prep session and Bentsen shot back: “You’re no more like Jack
Kennedy than George Bush is like Ronald Reagan,” a version of what became
his famous line.

Inside the George W. Bush 2000 camp, Portman, the Gore
stand-in, had seen the Vice President approach his opponent in his debate
against Bill Bradley and filed the scene away. During a
mock debate, Portman says, he did the same to then-governor Bush, getting
right up in his face. The room broke into laughter and Bush even broke
character, kissing Portman on the head and saying, “Rob, he’ll never do
that.” Portman replied: “I’ll bet he will.” Portman was right. As he
described it, “[Gore] did it, and Bush handled it beautifully.” Gore came
right at Bush, but Bush dismissed him with a perplexed look and a
dismissive nod. Bush’s cool demeanor won plaudits from audience and
pundits alike.

4. You can’t change your
candidate.
In 1988, Massachusetts governor Michael
Dukakis
assembled an all-star roster of preppers, including
Robert Squier, Susan Estrich, Ted Sorensen, and now-Obama
national-security adviser Tom Donilon, as well as cameos
by Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, and Bill
Clinton.
However, even that assemblage of Democratic superheroes
failed to save Dukakis from his technocratic impulses.

When CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked in the debate if
Dukakis’s anti-death-penalty view would change if his wife were raped and
murdered, Dukakis should have been prepared. According to Bob
Drogin
of the Los Angeles Times, Dukakis’s briefing book
featured a tough anti-crime answer as one of six “mandatory points” he was
to make. It called for Dukakis to refer to his late father’s mugging and
his brother’s death in a hit-and-run accident. Neither of these humanizing
points made it into Dukakis’s answer, which seemed heartless and included
a weak call for a multinational drug summit.

5. Don’t pull punches. Portman also ended up
doing prep work for Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004
and Senator John McCain in 2008. The key to being an
effective stand-in, Portman says, is to be so tough that “the candidate
and his family really don’t like you.” In fact, Cindy
McCain
walked out of one of his Obama-channeling attacks, telling
him later, “I was about to throw something at you.”

Of course, you have to wonder how sympathetic any good debate
prepper really is. A sign hanging in Portman’s office from the 2000
Danville, Kentucky, Dick Cheney/Joe
Lieberman
debate is inscribed by Cheney: “Rob, you were much
tougher than my opponent.”

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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