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Dear Mr. President (I Have Some Advice for Your Second Debate)

There is no avoiding it--your first debate was absolutely awful. Your opponent, Mitt Romney, was passionate and mature; he put you on the defense and made your points look petty and partisan. Meanwhile, you looked lazy, unprepared, and uninterested--like you didn't want to be there. As a result, independents and women are flooding to Romney in a nearly unprecedented one-way exodus from the undecided category.

Something needs to change next time, that's for sure. If you fail to at least put up a fight in round two, your campaign will never recover.

The chatter seems to be that you need to be more aggressive--to really go on the attack. Liberals are embarrassed and pissed off about what a "p**sy" you were the first time around. Liberal constituents and commentators have been giving you a lot of flack for it. And you yourself recently opined that you were probably "too polite" last week.

Don't buy it.

Don't misinterpret me--you did plenty of things wrong last week. You were completely unprepared for Mitt Romney's lurching veer toward the center despite numerous hints from the Romney campaign that it was coming (remember that "Etch-a-Sketch" comment you and your friends made such good fun of? Not so funny now, is it?). You underestimated your opponent and overestimated the strength of your own position. You came prepared to debate a caricature of Romney--one Romney himself helped to create, but which he is now shedding like a sneaky, smirking moderate butterfly--as if the Mitt Romney who won the Republican primary was just a figment of the liberal media's imagination, not a cocoon carefully crafted by Romney and his advisors to keep him competitive with the likes of Santorum and Perry.

It sucks, no doubt about it. Wrong, even. But that doesn't mean you have to get negative and angry this next debate. Mark my words: if you do, Romney will win.

If there is one thing you have going for you this campaign cycle, it's your likeability. Radical conservatives have been very loud in their utter hatred for you, but they do not reflect the opinions of the overall population. In actuality, people want to vote for you. They believed in you in 2008, and they don't want to feel that they were duped. They understand that you were dealt a pretty sh*tty hand, and that the other side has done pretty much everything they can to make your promise of change--not only liberal change, but movement toward civility and bipartisanship--unachievable.

Despite everything against you--the horrendously slow recovery, the mounting deficits, the political gridlock--you have led the polls fairly consistently for the past year. Even after this absolutely awful week, Romney is only beating you by 1 or 2 points on average, and he hasn't yet broken the 50 percent barrier in any consistent way.

People want to vote for you because they like you, and because the uncompromisingly conservative platform presented by the various Republican candidates (including Romney) earlier this year makes them nervous.

Don't ruin it by turning yourself into a negative, contentious little b***h next week.

Romney wants you to call him a liar. He and Ryan have laid mines for that line of attack. It is not coincidence that right before every major speech and every campaign ad release, one of them gives an interview in which they predict that Democrats are going to "distort" what they say and "call us liars." Ryan gave just such an interview three days ago, in anticipation of his debate tonight.

It's a clever strategy, really. Step One: "my opponent is going to attack me, to claim I'm a big fat liar, but you know better America." Step Two: lie and distort. Step Three: opponent says "you're lying." Step Four: "see? My opponent should be ashamed of himself."

Don't call him a liar--show us. Challenge him, don't attack him. Ask him, earnestly and on behalf of the voters, for specifics. Ask him repeatedly to identify what programs and loopholes he would cut as president. If he refuses to answer, identify specific loopholes that effect the middle class and ask for his position regarding them.

To do this effectively, you will need to be very well-studied on the numbers. If Romney says he won't change the child tax credit, or the mortgage interest deduction, you need to know how that will effect his ability to achieve revenue-neutral, across-the-board rate cuts. Conversely, if he says he will cut these loopholes, you need to have actual figures on how that will effect middle-class Americans, backed up by serious studies. And if Romney says he will make the decision once elected, with the input of both parties, accuse him of running on wishful thinking--on a plan to come up with a plan at some point down the road. Throw Romney's statements about leadership back in his face. Point out that you can't just walk into Washington and expect that everyone else will work with you, as you know from experience.

You also need to prepare your own answers to these questions. Romney can and probably will try to flip the table on you by asking "well, what would YOU do, Mr. President?" If you try to dodge that retort, you will look weak and hypocritical.

You also need to highlight Romney's flip-flops from the last week. Taxes, abortion--there have been several. People are unlikely to vote for someone with vague or waivering convictions. Ask Romney if he plans on leading from an uncompromisingly conservative position, or if he honestly wants to bring the parties together to craft bipartisan solutions. If he says the latter, ask why people should trust him on that point, given the show of conservatism he presented during the primaries.

Finally, you need to highlight the potential consequences of Republicans gaining control of the Senate and presidency in 2013. Point out that conservatives already control the House and the Supreme Court. Ask the American public if they want a federal government in which all three branches are controlled by conservatives. Ask them to consider what that would mean for issues like abortion and gay rights, regulation of Wall Street, and the quest for social mobility. Ask them whether they think Romney will be a force for moderation in Washington, or a rubber stamp for the more radical elements of a conservative Congress.

In summary, your strategy should be to earnestly and politely do three things:

(1) demand specifics (and be prepared to discuss Romney's answers in depth);

(2) highlight Romney's slippery, vague personal convictions; and

(3) highlight the concerns raised by conservative control of all three branches of government.

If you do these three things in a way that appears mature and presidential, you will have a strong debate and take the wind out of Romney's sails. If you play into his game by bickering, making divisive comments, and calling Romney a liar, you will lose horribly.

It's your choice.
 
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