Dear Mr. President:
I disagree with most of the advice you have been getting regarding what you should do in Tuesday night's debate, as I do with the analysis from the same critics from my fellow liberals in the Democratic Party regarding your performance in the first debate on Oct. 3, two weeks ago.
After your last debate, I saw your chief campaign strategists doing what they appear to be advising you to do — attacking Romney personally for being untruthful in the positions he took — some even using the word “lie,” challenging his honesty and character.
I hope you reject this advice. I have three simple suggestions for you:
1) Be respectful and gracious to Romney — look at him while he is talking and listen to what he is saying — not because it is better than the appearance of disrespect you conveyed in the first debate by looking down and taking notes, but because he is a good man, a good dad, a good husband and a successful businessman and politician who is deserving of respect.
2) Be firm and strong when you challenge him on his policy positions — but don't interrupt or raise your voice, and concede him the merits once in a while (since it is neither true nor politically effective to declare that he is 100 percent wrong and you are 100 percent right).
3) Most heretical of all — concede a little when you can when the truth requires that you made some mistakes in your first term — and aver that will make you a better president in the second term.
For example, you could say you regret not making a greater effort to break the logjam of the supercommittee on dealing with the then $15 trillion debt. You could say you wished you had done more to reach out to the Senate and House Republicans on the committee and intend to do so in your next term — and to do a better job seeking the counsel of senior Republicans who are, in fact, interested in achieving solutions and bipartisan consensus, particularly on making real progress on reducing the nation’s unsustainable national debt, such as Sens. John McCainJohn McCainEx-Bush aide Nicolle Wallace to host MSNBC show Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Top commander: Don't bet on China reining in North Korea MORE (Ariz.), Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissGOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race Democrats go for broke in race for Tom Price's seat Spicer: Trump will 'help the team' if needed in Georgia special election MORE (Ga.) and Orrin HatchOrrin HatchWhen political opportunity knocked, Jason Chaffetz never failed to cash in Ginsburg pines for more collegial court confirmations Senate's No. 2 Republican: Border tax 'probably dead' MORE (Utah).
A close friend of mine — a strong supporter of yours, even before you declared for president — once told me when I was defending President Clinton on everything, no matter what, “If you are going to be credible, you have to give up a little — concede a little. You will be much more persuasive if you do that.”
Great advice — from a wise, pro-Obama Democrat. I hope you take it.
So, Mr. President — to sum up:
Reject the advice of those ardent supporters who want you to go on the attack on Tuesday night and infer or state directly that Mitt Romney has been untruthful or worse in staking out more moderate positions in the recent debate. Avoid attacking him personally, or his character.
Instead, focus on the issues — on the basic policy and issue differences between Romney and yourself — for example, on the need for tax equity, the role of government as a partner and catalyst with the private sector, which you should stress is the chief job creator and must be encouraged, and on the right of privacy and choice for women.
That is my advice. I may be right or I may be wrong. But I know one thing for sure: If you are aiming for the small percentage of undecided voters or “soft” leaners who are truly open to persuasion to vote for you, this advice is more likely to win them over than going on the “attack,” as if this is a prize fight.
These voters want you to be presidential and strong — but respectful and gracious too. In my view, these are not inconsistent.
Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel (1996-98) and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is a partner with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in Purple Nation Solutions, a public affairs-strategic communications company. He is the author of the forthcoming book Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life, to be published by Simon & Schuster. He can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.