There’s still no word on whether tonight’s presidential debate will proceed as planned. Personally, I feel that if Sen. McCain doesn't show, it will prove disastrous for his campaign. His calls to put ‘country first’ and return to Washington to help broker a deal earlier this week was the proper, presidential thing to do. But yesterday’s antics have caused a new wrinkle in this vignette; and the appearance has shifted almost 180 degrees to now where both his and Obama’s insertions are having almost a deleterious effect. I could write an entirely separate column on the optics of yesterday’s meltdown at the White House, but for now, I want to highlight a brief playbook on what each candidate must do tonight:
* Elaborate on Afghanistan – There’s no cleaner or clearer link with the war on Terror and in Iraq right now than Afghanistan. Frankly, the Democrats have scored a lot of political points bashing the Bush Administration and Republicans on the “real war in Afghanistan.” While very small and myopic, they do have a point. And we all know where McCain stands on Iraq, so what he should do tonight is contrast and compare that vision with what he hopes to do in Afghanistan. This also lets him return to the one thing Americans want most out of the Middle East – Osama bin Laden’s head on a platter. Every person I know thinks UBL is hiding in some cave in Afghanistan, just there for the taking. McCain should address that fact and lay out the significance of Afgha nistan as part of his larger plan in that part of the world.
* Lay out the beginnings of a McCain Doctrine – McCain doesn’t need to coin some catchy foreign policy phrase tonight such as ‘containment’, but he does need to discuss how his vision will restore America’s place in the world – both in a humanitarian sense as well as reasserting its economic hegemony through trade and a stronger dollar. Yes, our economic situation has roiled markets across the globe, and touching (albeit briefly) on the economy tonight allows the senator to get a free plug in for his economic vision – an area where he is decidedly weaker.
* Keep his cool – Put simply, when McCain gets mad, he looks bad. He looks old, even. So he must not clench his jaw when Obama says some outlandish things. But at the same time, he can’t smile that Reagan “there you go again” smile either, because that looks condescending.
* Be broad, yet specific – If there was one criticism of his grand speech in Germany earlier this year, it was the fact that Sen. Obama spoke largely in glowing terms (mostly about every country but his own), yet offered very few specifics on how America was going to play a prominent role in foreign policy. He needs to borrow a page from Sen. McCain’s playbook and assert that America can and should lead in the most dangerous parts of the world. As for being broad, Obama needs to show he has a fundamental understanding of countries around the world. So mention Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and then weave them together in a larger vision for the world in an Obama administration. Right now, when it comes to foreign policy, the majority of Americans just know Obama wants to bring the troops home. That’s not leadership and it falls short of having true foreign policy bona fides.
* Don ’t ramble – This is one area where Obama sounds and acts more like Joe Biden than any other. His lofty, rambling rhetoric may work on the stump or in a steamy church on Sunday morning, but it won’t work during the debates. Obama needs to answer the question, and then allow viewers to see some of the thought process that went into his decision. But these are debates, not speeches, and there’s little time to massage answers like we all did with our college term papers.
* Sound less like a Democrat – I’ve noticed lately that Sen. Obama is sounding more and more like your average, run-of-the-mill Democrat. They’re not exactly known to be foreign policy experts when you look back through the years. No, what makes him unique and different is his supposedly “fresh” vision fo r the world, so he needs to exhibit m ore of that this evening.