Monday, October 11, 2010

My Take On The Debates Debate...

Today Governor Martin O’Malley and former Governor Bob Ehrlich will debate for the first time during this year’s electoral contest. A lot of pundits and political observers have speculated on what to expect from this latest showdown, so allow me to add my voice to the mix.

Specifically, I’d like to suggest three areas in which each candidate can improve their performances. Let’s start with my old boss, Bob Ehrlich:

1)    Drop the insider rhetoric: Bob Ehrlich is a wonk who likes to show his mastery of the details of state policy. So, when he’s asked a question, he genuinely likes to answer it. That is both a good and a bad thing. While he provides substantive answers, he also relies on insider language (e. g. “Thornton,” “dedicated funding”) not well known to most debate viewers. Ehrlich can make his answers a bit sharper by resisting the impulse to demonstrate how smart he is.
2)    Pick your pitches: In 2006, whenever O’Malley was attacking an aspect of Ehrlich’s record, the then-governor could be seen scribbling notes. When his time to respond came, he quickly ticked through his laundry list of rebuttal points without explaining some of the context and terminology necessary to guarantee his message was fully grasped by with viewers. This time, Ehrlich should pick the two most persuasive points of rebuttal, and use the time allotted to him to make sure each is fully developed.
3)    Don't smirk: As I have written before, Ehrlich has a hard time concealing his disapproval when confronted with ideas or questions he himself would characterize as “goofy.”  The inevitable smirk that results causes Ehrlich to appear dismissive and arrogant, handing O’Malley and his spin machine another avenue of attack. Ehrlich needs to let his words, and not his expression, convey his responses.

As for Governor O’Malley…

1)    Dial back the purple partisan rhetoric: Governor O’Malley frequently stressed lofty “Republican bad, Democrat good” themes in his debate performances against Ehrlich in 2006. Given the state’s blue bent and the anti-GOP sentiment that year, it was probably smart strategy. But this year, O’Malley is running as the incumbent in an anti-incumbent year. People want to know which candidate can best fix the economy, and why. O'Malley needs to take a page from Ehrlich’s playbook and incorporate more specifics into his answers.  In other words, he must have the factual ammunition on hand to both defend his record and articulate a vision for the future that will energize the dispirited Democratic base.
2)    Convey more authenticity: O’Malley’s performance in 2006 had something of an “Iceman” (yes, the character from Top Gun) quality. He hit all the points he was supposed to hit, and worked the debate format in the ways he was supposed to do. Still, juxtaposed against Ehrlich’s clumsy sincerity, O’Malley seemed a bit robotic and aloof at times. He can change this by talking about the people he has met during the past four years, and tying the lessons learned from these experiences directly to actions he has taken as governor.
3)    Be humble: Like Ehrlich, O’Malley is a competitive guy whose likes to spike the ball with every answer he gives in a debate. This can convey arrogance. He can mitigate this by giving answers that conveys less of a desire to win, and more of a desire to serve.  Talking a little about what public service has meant to him, and why specifically he wants to do it for another four years, would be a good start.  

Now let me give a little advice to both candidates: Please don’t let this debate become a squabble over your respective records. Leave past disputes – especially the BGE rate increase – behind.

Bob Ehrlich especially has to resist the temptation to rerun the last election. His job is to convince voters to fire O’Malley and to rehire him.  Rehashing who taxed more and who spent less in the past detracts from his ability to articulate the kind of forward-looking vision voters want to hear. Anything that feeds the perception that this is round two of the Ehrlich-O’Malley feud ultimately benefit the incumbent, because it distracts voters from envisioning a second Ehrlich term as real change.

As Bill Clinton’s campaign theme song famously proclaimed: Yesterday’s gone, and it’s time to think about tomorrow.

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