10 Pieces of Advice for the Presidential Debate

President Obama Mitt Romney First Debate - H 2012
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Having already been disappointed about the country and what it means that we still find a need to televise debates, you’d think there would be no television advice in the world that I could still dish out.

Thinking is not allowed, people -- that was the whole point of my vice presidential debate column! Follow the narrative flow! Anyway, part of this job is advice (in addition to bitter recriminations, scorn, mockery, snark and heartfelt pleas to watch shows the rest of the country is fleeing from). So we present 10 Pieces of Advice for the Presidential Debate: five for the debaters and five for moderator Candy Crowley.

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For President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney:

  1. As the first debate proved, the nation is not worried about content so much as it is about one of you staying awake. So, say anything. Just don’t look around or down at your notes before you do, otherwise the next morning’s headlines are going to be about your befuddlement. Not one of them will talk about the answer you gave.
  2. Two words, gentlemen: split screen. I’m assuming you’re up to speed on the technology there. When one man is talking, everyone at home can see the other dozing off, not listening, smirking, laughing, making faces and otherwise trying to steal the spotlight. As Vice President Joe Biden proved, if you want everyone to be talking about you after the debate and into the next day, be proactive in the split-screen mugging department. There was a time where that might have been “unpresidential” or “lacking respect toward the president,” but those days are long gone. Feel free to wear a hat with slogans on it like that guy on 30 Rock or hold up hand-lettered cards with snickering phrases or cartoon drawings directed at your opponent.
  3. Say whatever you want and cite whatever polls, outdated figures, incorrect voting records, past statements or uncorroborated evidence you wish. This isn’t a court of law. It’s not even a debate. It’s a dog-and-pony show where you’re gonna need a cute dog and a pretty pony, so don’t get bogged down in facts. The idea is to create enough media-friendly superficial topics -- smirking too much, witty zingers and am-I-right-or-what? disdainful laughter -- so that nobody actually focuses on the substance.
  4. Tell a heartfelt story about your parents. Talk about people you’ve met on the campaign trail – by name, even if those people don’t actually exist – and really hit the high points of their tales of woe. That’s your heart-string moment. Also, don’t forget the military. You might want to drop in some military lingo, like “My opponent does not have the track record to stay frosty.” “Where was my opponent when we were trying to pass legislation that would improve the lives of military families? About five clicks away -- on vacation -- which resulted in that legislation being FUBAR.”
  5. Lapel flag? Check. Firm but respectful pre-debate handshake? Check. Ability to call Candy Crowley “Candy” without laughing? Check. Control over hands while making a point (no fists, keep the thumb upward; no frantic waving; no touching your nose)? Check. Practiced pause at emotional moment in family story? Check. Ability to look right into the camera with authority? Check. Plan to one-up opponent in post-debate handshake? Check. Order of which family member will kiss you first or which child you will pick up first after debate? Check. Memo to family to smile respectfully at opponent’s family? Check. OK, you’re good to go. 

Now, some advice for Crowley:

  1. Watch the Jim Lehrer video. Do not repeat. It’ll be a very long week if you do.
  2. This debate is supposed to focus on the concerns of “undecided” voters. Take the first five or so minutes to mock the concept of anyone being undecided in this race. Bring up the theory that avowed “undecided” voters are just seeking attention and have sad need to be wanted or to be special in some way.
  3. Even though you’re a television reporter, it’s not about you. Repeat that. Put it on a Post-It note next to your follow-up questions, even though this debate stipulates that you not ask follow-up questions (early points for Crowley for not signing that nonsense). But also be aggressive in cutting off answers that seem to be gratuitously in-depth or larded with facts. Bor-ing! That’s not why we’re watching. If you feel like either man is bullying you or pushing the boundaries on time while not directly answering the question, feel free to say, “I call bullshit on that.” In fact, the more you say that, the better the critical response to your “performance” will be. And trust me, you’re being judged.
  4. Since you were allowed to ferret out the questions posed by these ordinary folks and so-called “undecided” voters, keep in at least four or five of them that display the rampant anti-intellectualism of a good percentage of the country. Remember “Boxers or briefs?” Leg-en-dary. Hold up some of those handpicked questions to the camera so we all can see the racial insults, offensive and offensively misspelled rants and the egregious inability of the most angry Americans among us to understand the difference between “your” and “you’re.”
  5. Editorialize with your face. You never know when the split screen will turn into a triple screen, and you want to be ready. It probably wouldn’t hurt to make a little fun of Wolf Blitzer as well. 

OK, you're good to go.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com.

Twitter: @BastardMachine