Like most Democrats, I watched the debate on Oct. 3 in frustration. As an unabashed Barack Obama fan and unapologetic progressive Democrat, I felt that, from the start, Gov. Mitt Romney was winning. Tuesday, the president must come ready to present his case for re-election, looking forward as well as back, while nailing Romney on the inconsistencies of his many positions on a host of issues.
Obama's mistake in Denver was that he came determined to argue policy. You cannot successfully argue policy in a debate, with just a few minutes to make your point, against an opponent who frequently changes his position. Tuesday's town hall format offers Obama the opportunity to drive home the key points he left hanging in Denver, while connecting with the lives and personal circumstances of each questioner.
The American people are interested in the issues, but they aren't interested enough to parse the complex financial distinctions in policy arguments over $5-trillion tax cuts and $716-billion Medicare cuts. Politicians at every level always miss the point that the people they seek to persuade are just not as into the details as they are.
What most "normal" people can quickly assess is character. And that is what the president should focus on Tuesday. Obama has in his arsenal clear, incontrovertible evidence that his opponent has a distinct character deficit. Every time he spoke in the first debate, he added more proof. To put it plainly: Romney just doesn't tell the truth.
It's not that he fudges the facts on things like the $716 billion in Medicare cuts -- I don't know a politician who doesn't do some fudging. But Romney, more than any politician I can recall in our lifetime, has a voluminous record of saying one thing on Monday to one audience, the opposite on Tuesday to another, and something completely different on Wednesday. He says whatever he needs to at the moment to get himself elected, and he has done it throughout his political career. Sen. Ted Kennedy, when he debated Romney in 1994, said that while he was pro-choice, Romney was "multiple choice."
Romney could argue the merits of his tax policy to confusion and blur the specifics of his policies and their consequences -- all of which he is entitled to do. But he cannot argue repeatedly, for months, that he will cut taxes on the wealthy to one audience, while denying it categorically in front of a national debate audience, without calling into question an essential element of character: honesty.
So Obama must come to the Hofstra stage prepared to remind Romney of his many past positions, and leave it to the audience to figure out which man is the "real Romney." There are many examples to draw upon, and Tuesday is not the time to be polite about it.
Debates are not held to change the minds of committed Democrats, like me, or committed Republicans, and they rarely do. Debates are held to convince the undecided "middle." The back-and-forth of complex policy leaves a muddle in the middle, and substance fails before style. The president needs to come to Hofstra having learned that, when faced with the contradictions of complex policy arguments, voters will default to the intangibles: likability and character. His goal must be to unmask Romney's character deficit, while convincing the public that he is still the likable leader they elected four years ago.
With the town hall approach, Obama can respond to questioners with empathy while using each question to hit Romney hard on his many inconsistencies.
Character, in any politician, is the essential quality that voters rely on. When all else fails, can you believe in him or her? Mitt Romney's shifting positions, on issues great and small, on policies complex and simple, are both many and provable. They make the case that you just can't believe what this guy is saying. And that's the case the president must make at Hofstra Tuesday, and again next week in Florida. If he makes character the argument, that's a debate Mitt Romney cannot win and Barack Obama cannot lose.