The defining moment in last night’s debate was the exchange between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders on gun control. While both candidates had strong performances overall, Clinton decisively prevailed in the debate over guns. Sanders spurned conventional debate prep for this contest, and his approach on gun control revealed a candidate in need of coaching. To address this issue in future contests, he should consider these three changes to his debate strategy.
Stop policing others' tone.
I was surely not the only one who saw the irony in Sanders, the loudest voice on stage, lecturing Clinton about the need to stop ‘raising our voices’ when discussing gun control. It was an ineffective and condescending attempt to explain his past votes against the Brady Bill. The dilemma for Sanders is that the appeal to pragmatism on guns is wildly out of line with his call for political revolution on other issues. I actually found his call to compromise persuasive, but it did not play well because he looked defensive and rattled from the moment Anderson Cooper brought up gun control.
Pivot to his core message.
The best debaters can connect nearly any question to the themes and policies that drive their campaign. Sanders should consider citing studies that link economic inequality to gun violence. Such a move would allow him to stay on offense and tie gun violence to the issue that defines his campaign. Sanders came close when he made a plea for stronger mental health care, but it got lost in a rambling defense of his voting record. A message that discusses how gun control advocates have failed to address root causes of violence can turn a weakness into a possible strength.
Minimize differences between himself and his opponents — except on the issues he wants to talk about.
Great debaters isolate a single issue that distinguishes the two sides. From the start, Sanders let his opponents define him as the ‘pro-gun’ candidate. To correct this, Sanders needs go beyond a simple list of his votes for gun control. He should push his opponents to identify meaningful differences. A close look at his record on gun control reveals that there are only a few differences between the candidates. Were Sanders to soften his opposition to gun-shop liability, he could limit Clinton’s ability to attack him (given her own penchant for ‘evolving’ policy positions). Once he does that, he can push the debate on guns towards the root causes of violence or his experience serving rural Vermont and navigating partisan tensions on divisive issues — much more favorable terrain for his campaign.