Debate advice: Obama, light a cig; Romney, throw deep

Updated 6:59 PM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012

Story highlights

CNN asked two political contributors for advice for the presidential debaters

Paul Begala, a Democrat, says Romney should admit flaws in GOP orthodoxy

Alex Castellanos, a Republican, says Obama should relax, act presidential

He urges Obama to signal to political center that he will focus on cutting spending

(CNN) —  

CNN asked two contributors, both steeped in the political arts, to give advice to the candidates for Wednesday night’s debate. Here are their thoughts:

Paul Begala’s advice for Mitt Romney:

A quarter-century ago, George F. Will wrote that in a meeting with atomic scientists, President Ronald Reagan quoted Jack London:

“I would rather be ashes than dust,

I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze,

Than it should be stifled in dry rot.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

I would rather be a superb meteor,

With every atom of me in magnificent glow,

Than a sleepy and permanent planet.”

The Gipper followed that powerful poetry with some classic Reagan common sense. He said the Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler was asked what London’s lines meant. Stabler replied: “Throw deep.”

  • Watch Wednesday's presidential debate and CNN's exclusive expert analysis starting at 7 p.m. ET on CNN TV, and CNN's mobile apps. Become an analyst for your friends with our new online clip-and-share feature that lets you share your favorite debate moments on Facebook and Twitter.

How to watch, Clip and Share the debate

That should be Mitt Romney’s strategy in tonight’s debate: Throw deep.

Here’s the problem: the one time in his cautious, careful, risk-averse candidacy that Romney gambled, he lost. Putting Paul Ryan on the ticket has been a disaster. Ryan’s budget ideas – voucherizing Medicare, privatizing Social Security, gutting education and giving tax breaks to the rich – are toxic. The Romney-Ryan budget plan has cemented Romney’s image as Gordon Gekko on a bad day; Thurston Howell III on a good one.

Opinion: How will debates sway the undecideds?

Romney’s aides are right when they tell the press a debate is a series of moments, and they are wise to try to craft some moments. But they are fools for telling The New York Times: “(Romney’s) strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.”

First, let me assure you our president reads The New York Times and has almost certainly deployed his Spock-like mind on avoiding smugness or evasion. Any strategy that relies on your opponent to err is a hope, not a strategy.

Instead of hoping for President Obama to be a jerk, Romney should surprise us by being human. He should acknowledge the obvious: that his party made a hash of things the last time they ran the economy: squandering the surplus, generating trillions in debt, deregulating Wall Street, waging war on the national credit card.

Opinion: Debate is all about trust for Romney

By pushing off the GOP’s errors, Romney would build credibility as a sensible moderate. Then, and only then, he could be believable when he attacks the Obama economic record.

Breaking with the failed orthodoxy of his own party’s past was something Ronald Reagan was capable of. But Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. And he’s certainly no Ken Stabler. Romney was not a quarterback, throwing deep. He was, and remains, a cheerleader, furiously praising his team’s efforts. Even when they have demonstrably failed.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, is senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, the biggest super PAC favoring President Barack Obama’s re-election. Begala was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Opinion: Candidates, stop vying to be debate underdog

Alex Castellanos’ advice for Barack Obama:

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

Mr. President, my advice for you in your debate tomorrow: Have a cigarette.

No, seriously. If I were your advisor, I’d urge you to remember that you are the president, and we only have one of those. A president’s stature is hard to match. Don’t throw it away by becoming a political attack dog. Yes, you need a good offense or Romney will put you on defense, which you don’t want. Hey, you’ve got a lot that needs defending! But keep your famous cool and make Romney come up to your level.

Eatocracy: How the candidates should eat before the debates

Remember, a tie goes to the incumbent. Mitt Romney has to make the case for change or Americans will keep what they’ve got. The pressure is on him.

Keep your chin down. No, literally. You tend to get a bit arrogant sometimes. At times, you’ve even bragged about your modesty. Debate night is not the time to repeat your suggestion that you might be one of the four greatest presidents in American history.

Opinion: Why debate is crucial for Obama, too

Quote Bill Clinton. I know this one sticks in your craw: You don’t believe Clinton is in your same league. Remember, however, that his speech at the Democratic convention wasn’t just an endorsement, it was a campaign plan. Follow it.

Tell America that Clinton was right, things are getting better and your priority for the next 4 years is reducing the deficit.

Give voters a signal that you won’t need the Democratic Party’s left wing after you are re-elected. Let the center know you may have fooled around with crazy spending your first term, but if re-elected, you’ll be faithful, live on the family budget and settle down at home with them.

Oh yes, and mean it.

Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, is a Republican consultant and the co-founder of Purple Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.