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John Kerry’s Debating Lessons

The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

First of all, Kerry was not a poor debater–unlike Al Gore four years before him. Kerry, in fact, was a fairly decent matchup for George W. Bush in 2004. But one key to that was realizing what Gore had not–that Bush was a much better debater than he often got credit for. Kerry learned not to underestimate his opponent, and it served him well. Obama has thus far indicated that he plans to underestimate Romney. But Romney is a fine debater, and Obama isn’t. (Though Obama surely will be better this time around, Hillary Clinton ran circles around him in 2008.)

Both Obama and Romney, in fact, have something to learn from Kerry’s 2004 debate performances. In the second debate, for example, Kerry was asked about his reputation as a flip-flopper (“wishy-washy” was actually the way it was phrased in the debate question). Kerry responded first by naming the things he had been accused of changing his mind on–mistake No. 1–and then refuting the argument that he had changed his mind at all. His explanations were sound, but he was playing on Bush’s terms. He then, inexplicably, repeated the phrase “wishy-washy” twice while wrapping up his response. Romney must avoid this trap when he is inevitably accused of the same.

Bush then made a very clever move by using the phrase “I can see why people think that he changes position quite often, because he does.” Bush had been accused of accusing Kerry of being wishy-washy; Bush instead argued off the premise that the American people had already come to the conclusion Kerry was wishy-washy, and he could easily explain why. Yet Bush’s response was even more effective because he was not wishy-washy and made a point of saying the presidency requires consistency. Obama, as a fellow flip-flopper, may not be in quite as strong a position as Bush was to deliver that line of attack.

In the third debate, Kerry turned a question about flu shots into an answer about health care coverage. He said:

Five million Americans have lost their health insurance in this country. You’ve got about a million right here in Arizona, just shy, 950,000, who have no health insurance at all. 82,000 Arizonians lost their health insurance under President Bush’s watch. 223,000 kids in Arizona have no health insurance at all.

All across our country — go to Ohio, 1. 4 million Ohioans have no health insurance, 114,000 of them lost it under President Bush; Wisconsin, 82,000 Wisconsinites lost it under President Bush.

This president has turned his back on the wellness of America.

How this type of question plays out in the fall will obviously depend on the Supreme Court’s ruling on ObamaCare. But on this question, both Kerry’s attack and Bush’s response to it may be used against Romney. Kerry’s tactic of naming all the uninsured in swing states was a smart move, and if Romney advocates against universal coverage he better have an answer to this. Bush’s response began with this line: “I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints.” Some version of this may also be employed against Romney’s critique of ObamaCare. In Romney’s case, he will be ready with a plan, and he’ll have to lay it out convincingly (and he won’t have a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation with which to do so).

One other element of the Bush-Kerry debates is instructive: the argument about Social Security reform. Bush proposed the option of partial privatization, which was not particularly popular and is not being proposed by this year’s candidates. But Romney does have something of a plan: slowly increasing the retirement age and slowing benefit growth for high earners. Romney’s embrace of the premium support model for Medicare will also be fair game in the fall.

Despite the fact that Kerry should have had public opinion on his side, his handling of the Social Security question was disastrous. When Bush was asked about the costs of his plan, he said: “The cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is OK, far exceeds the costs of trying to make sure we save the system for our children.” That’s a line we can expect Romney to drive home if he’s attacked on entitlement reform. But Kerry, if he’s honest, will urge Obama to study his own response to the question and avoid it at all costs.

First, Kerry began by noting that Bush suggested allowing Americans to invest some of their entitlement payments into their own accounts. “Now, my fellow Americans, that’s an invitation to disaster,” he said. Any politician with this low an opinion of the American people should at the very least hide it. This disdain dripped from Kerry like beads of sweat. Then he said all we had to do was put more Americans back to work, adding: “Now, if later on after a period of time we find that Social Security is in trouble, we’ll pull together the top experts of the country.”

Outright promises to kick the can down the road sound appropriately absurd to the American people. If this is why the Obama campaign brought John Kerry on board, they may reap dividends. If it was because he’s a rich guy from Massachusetts, Kerry may yet again be part of a losing effort.

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