My high school debate coach was a diminutive, brilliant woman named Susan. All of 5-foot nothing, she had enormous glasses, a high, raucous South Carolina accent and a mind like Google for obscure facts. Once, during a break in a debate competition where I'd blown an argument, she said something totally incongruous that snapped me out of a growing funk.
She cocked a finger and beckoned me to lean down. She whispered, "Stop thinking about making points. You know the arguments. You just go in there and knock his pecker in the dirt."
That's exactly what Mitt Romney should be thinking about tonight.
Debate training (under the extraordinarily capable tutelage of Rob Portman) will have prepared him with the facts and messages that work, driven by the research on what we need to move targeted voters. He'll have a nice statement to open and close. He'll have, as one of his consultants infelicitously leaked, “zingers” with which to tweak this notoriously thin-skinned President.
But in these battles, nothing substitutes for the knowledge that you're going to knock the other guy down on the merits of being a better candidate and a better man. Mitt Romney will square off tonight against Barack Obama the man, with no intervening filter, and no contemporaneous hallelujah chorus of media. (The spin room will be a different fight, of course.)
Romney should walk on to the stage in Denver knowing he's arguing against a man who is held aloft on a creaky, tottering artifice of broken jobs promises, failed policies and a promised age of social and economic miracles that never came. President Participation Trophy isn't the giant, transformative figure of 2008: he's got a record now, and it's ugly.
Romney should be confident that the guy he's debating has an economic track record no amount of blame-gaming George Bush, the evil rich, or whatever posse of oligarchical, private-jet-millionaire-and-billionaire strawmen he imagines can salvage. Barack Obama will promise everything, to everyone...but we've seen this movie.
We've seen “millions of green jobs” sink into a morass of cronyism and corruption ... and Obama has promised more.
We've seen the maxing out of the national credit card, time and again ... and Obama has promised to spend even more.
We've seen the lowest percentage of Americans actually working spun as a revival. Family income plunges and Obama promises a recovery ... any minute now.
In short, we've seen America's economic Ike Turner promise that he'll be better this time, baby.
Romney should know he's facing a man who is just the latest avatar of a discredited central-planning fantasy that almost always ends in North Korea, not Sweden.
Romney should walk to that podium knowing he's on stage with a man who plays the role of President but lacks the qualities of one: responsibility, probity, trust in the goodness of the people, and an unshakable conviction that America's blessings and sterling qualities outweigh our failings.
To be sure, Romney will face a powerfully compelling, at times brilliant, debater who doesn't play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules ... but that brilliant debater also comes with a glass jaw and a seething knot of resentments and anger that shows when he's pushed. Obama will show no mercy when it comes to distorting Romney's positions with this usual tumbrels-and-guillotines class-warfare claptrap. Romney should return the favor.
So go out there, Mitt, knowing you're facing a peer, not a demigod. Go out there because you've ground it out just for this moment: toe-to-toe with Barack Obama the man, not Obama the media confection.
Go out there loaded for bear and ready to brawl with a diminished President and a lesser man.
Knock him in the dirt.