For the opponents of Ron DeSantis, that leaked memo from a consulting firm allied with a DeSantis super PAC was a godsend. On Wednesday, I fully expect each of the governor’s debate foes to come armed with that memo, ready to call him out for echoing a talking point offered by that firm. (Those with semi-long memories will recall how in 2016, Chris Christie eviscerated Senator Marco Rubio for repeatedly acting out “a memorized 30 second sound bite.”)
I felt a pang of sympathy for the operatives behind the memo, who were trying to offer DeSantis advice without running afoul of rules forbidding a super PAC from directly communicating with a campaign by putting that memo in an obscure corner of a website. Why? Because before taking the vow of journalistic purity, I spent a decade in the political arena, where “debate prep” was one of my specialties. Reading that memo — with its proposed attack lines, strategies to improve the candidate’s “likability,” and how to deal with the Trump factor — brought back past campaigns, where providing a candidate with swords and shields was a critical, in some cases decisive, job.
Some advice in the leaked memo, offering guidance on how to deflect questions about Trump, suggests advice that would be offered to almost any candidate: answer the question you want to answer, not the question you were asked. If, for instance, you’re asked about foreign policy, and your strong point is domestic policy, begin by saying: “We can’t be strong abroad unless we are strong at home.” (JFK did this in his first 1960 debate with Richard Nixon.) But you have to be subtle enough to appear that you’re answering the question. This is a challenge for many American politicians, who did not spend years in the give and take of parliamentary debate, and who will fall back on obvious pre-packaged talking points.
Another piece of guidance for any candidate: Know where your opponents are likely to attack. In “Patton,” the general exults as he bests Erwin Rommel at a crucial battle by shouting: “You son of a bitch, I read your book!” If you respect your rivals enough to look deeply into their campaigns, you will be prepared for an effective counterpunch. For instance, when John McCain was challenged about whether he was really an Arizona resident, he answered that he probably spent the longest residency of his adult life in the Hanoi Hilton, where he was a prisoner of war.
Third, be prepared to acknowledge a mistake. Nothing can change the atmosphere of a debate more than a candidate who abandons a defensive posture and frankly says “I was wrong.” One of our clients had put an aide on the payroll of his brother’s company. It was legal, but ethically sketchy. It took repeated efforts, but we finally got the candidate to hone in on one answer: “It happened; it shouldn’t have happened; it will never happen again.” That answer put the issue away for good.
In candor, some of that DeSantis memo struck me as deeply cynical, even by the standards of political campaigning: For instance, the advice to search his family history for affecting moments of warmth or the advice to attack Vivek Ramaswamy while gingerly avoiding any frontal criticism of Donald Trump. More risky is the attempt to arm DeSantis with attacks on Ramaswamy’s conservatism. It is a cardinal rule of debate prep not to load so many talking points on your candidate that he or she will falter under their weight. In late 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a formidable presidential candidate who’d made a point of promising he’d abolish three federal departments could not remember which departments he’d abolish. His campaign never recovered.
In looking at the advice for DeSantis you can see some “guidance” that highlights fundamental dilemmas for the governor. If “hammering” Ramaswamy suggests that DeSantis’ team fears the strength of the entrepreneur, it implies an underlying weakness. A posture of looking over one’s shoulder at a dark horse does not suggest a strong contender for the nomination. And “defending Trump … in response to a Christie attack” recalls the doomed strategy of Trump’s 2016 primary foes: Cozy up to Trump on the hopes you will inherit his followers when his campaign collapses. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.
Finally there’s one invaluable debate asset that no consultant or adviser can supply, and that’s confidence in your ability to stand on your feet and engage your opponents (and your journalist-moderator). More than any clever sound bite or talking point, that ability is the surest way to dominate a debate. It’s why some consultants, after providing mountains of advice, end by telling a candidate to “be yourself.”
In the case of Ron DeSantis, that may be the biggest challenge of all.