"Mr. President, I have Bill Clinton on the line." (Sigh.)
"All right, put him through."
"Good morning, Mr. President. My guess is that right now, you're feeling as down as the hound dog who couldn't catch the rabbit. Hope you don't mind my giving you some post-debate advice."
"Everybody else certainly is."
"Yeah, well, everybody else isn't me. Nobody understands what happened to you the other night better than me. I know what that presidential bubble is like: You walk into a hall and everybody stands. You got people bowing and scraping all day long.
You get deference up the wazoo. But come on, the debates are a whole other deal. You got a guy whacking you upside the head for 90 minutes, telling you stuff you don't want to hear. And guess what? He doesn't think you're the smartest guy in the room.
So you can't just meander along like an ivory-tower prof with academic tenure."
"Bill, give my best to Hillary."
"Whoa, now, I ain't done. Let me ask you something: You ever heard of the War Room?"
"The Situation Room, yes - where I deal with international crises."
"Not that. I'm talking about the campaign operation we set up in '92 to answer every Republican charge. Rapid response, delivered in plain and simple language. Which is what you should've done on Wednesday night, instead of letting Mitt Romney clean your-"
"That's not fair. I believe that I held him accountable to the satisfaction of the populace."
"Name one time."
"Well, when Romney attacked Obamacare and promised to repeal it, I explained that at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the best health-care systems in the world, they actually provide great care cheaper than average. And the reason they do is because they do some smart things. They say, if a patient's coming in, let's get all the doctors together at once, do one test instead of having the patient run around with 10 tests. Let's make sure that we're providing preventive care so we're catching the onset of something like diabetes. Let's pay providers on the basis of performance as opposed to on the basis of how many procedures they've engaged in. Now, so what this board does is basically identifies best practices and says, Let's use the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid to help to institutionalize all these good things that we do. ... Hey, you still there? Bill!"
"Thanks for waking me up."
"Anyway, that's what I said. That's right from the transcript."
"Uh-huh. Let me ask you something else: Do you really think the harried suburban Ohio mom, glancing at the TV while paying bills and telling the kids to pipe down, is going to remember a single wonky word of that? She wants passion!"
"I believe it is important to remain presidential."
"You want to remain presidential? Then you'd better fight harder for the job. Are you aware of what Romney said just last week on 60 Minutes? He said that uninsured people can always go to the ER. But just two years ago, he said the exact opposite. I got the quote here somewhere - yep, here it is: 'It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to have millions and millions of people who have no health insurance, and yet who can go to the emergency room and get entirely free care for which they have no responsibility.' The man flips more than a weather vane in a hurricane! You got to call him out on stuff like that."
"I may exercise that option in a future debate, if and when I have completed the process of taking copious notes."
"And how about when Romney said that 'trickle-down government' hurts the jobless and 'people in poverty'? What a laugh that was - Romney defending the 'people in poverty'! But you let him get away with that one, too. And you know why? Because you never brought up the fat-cat fund-raising video of Romney insulting '47 percent' of Americans as government-dependent slackers. Those 'people in poverty' are part of that 47 percent. They need the programs Romney hates so much. You could've mentioned that video right off the bat and put Romney on his heels in the first 15 minutes, when the most folks are watching. You could've given 'em something to remember, a sweet sound bite for the news cycle!"
"I intend to bequeath my copious debate notes to my presidential library-"
"And how about that zinger Romney had obviously rehearsed? 'I got five boys. I'm used to people saying something that's not always true.' He called you a liar, and you didn't even hit back! Next time, try not to act like you're on pain meds."
"Well, if you really think you would do so much better, why don't you just fill in for me next time?"
"Oh, man, don't you go tempting me."
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.