Remember the difference between a debate and a battle? A battle has two sides; a debate has three sides. In a battle, you’re trying to defeat the enemy. In a debate, you’re trying to win over the audience. In a debate, you shouldn’t attack your opponent if you believe that the audience admires him. This is the situation that Romney faced. A lot of Americans (a majority according to polls) like Obama even if they disagree with him. We admire the president or, at least, feel sympathetic to him. If Romney attacked or belittled Obama, many people would think, “Wait… that’s not fair…” Instead of winning them over, Romney would be pushing them away. This was why I wrote a few months ago that it was dumb for Democrats to criticize Ann Romney, who is a very sympathetic figure.
So Mitt Romney took a different tack last night — one that Greek rhetoricians would have admired. Rather than attacking his opponent, he expressed sympathy for him. With messages like “we all rallied around him”, “I wanted him to succeed because I want America to succeed”, Romney expressed his solidarity with Obama supporters. Then he tried to peel them away, saying that Obama’s administration didn’t work out the way we expected. He didn’t fulfill our hopes. Romney used a tone of regret and disappointment rather than anger and attack. His message boiled down to this: “I’m like you… I like the man and I respect him … but it didn’t work out … it’s very sad but it’s OK to change direction”. It may or may not work but it’s a much smarter rhetorical strategy than a head-on attack against a popular opponent. Just ask Sarah Palin.