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It has been clear since each parties’ chance to lay out their case in consecutive weeks at the conventions, and Democrats from the Presidential race on down made a sustained rise in the polls, that when we go toe to toe with Republicans and engage the debate, the Democrats win. Obama just flat-out failed to engage in the debate the first time around, but this time he came to play. And won decisively. When we debate, we win the debate.

This is the lesson cautious and wonky Democrats need to internalize. When we, as my friend Bob Creamer likes to say, listen to our mother and stand up straight, we win. When we are clear, strong, and decisive on defining the differences between Democrats and Republicans on policy, we win. When we engage the debate on philosophy and values, we win and win decisively.

Stylistically, Obama was of course a lot better than last time. I loved his toughness, his body language was so much better, his language was crisper and cleaner. But he won last night because he directly, forcefully took the debate straight to Romney. From the first question to his home run of a final answer where he took apart the philosophy Romney exhibited in the 47% video, he laid out for the country the differences between the men and their parties.

There is no question voters still have their doubts about Obama, which is natural given the crushing nature of the financial collapse suffered under Bush and the deepest darkest recession this country has seen in 80 years. But when voters hear each party’s case as to how they want to improve things, when they really hear the debate, they side with Democrats because a majority of voters know that our country and our economy work better when we are in it together, when we help lift each other up, when America tries to be more like a family or a community rather than each person for themselves and devil take the hindmost. They prefer the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy to that of Ayn Rand and the Social Darwinists, who- along with Romney and Ryan- preached that anyone who was wealthy was a productive person to be rewarded by government, and anyone who struggled was a leech on society.

The ironic thing is that we can win the debate, as Obama did last night, even when the Republicans try to run away from the philosophy and policies they realize are unpopular. Romney again last night tried to sound far more moderate. He talked about expanding Pell Grants even though his and Ryan’s budget would slash them. He talked about compassion even though his and Ryan’s budget ends Medicare and slashed Medicaid and pretty much every other program to help people in the federal budget, and even though his own 47% video show a man utterly devoid of compassion for anyone other than the poor oppressed wealthy. He contradicted his own long standing policy on contraceptive coverage. Yet even though Romney was scurrying away from his own unpopular platform all night long, Obama still won the debate by stating clearly the difference between the men and their parties on issues, philosophy, and values.

Here’s what else Obama figured out how to find the right balance on: the balancing between trying to oversell economic improvements and still laying out the good things he had accomplished in his first term. I was pretty worried about how he would strike that balance, because he was way over to the overselling side on the first debate. But this time, I thought he found the golden mean.

Even though the domestic-oriented debates are over, we need to keep the bigger debate over our values and policies alive. Whenever we engage, we win. Whenever we force Republicans to defend what they have said they believe, we win. And whenever we remind voters what Romney has shown he believes about the 47%, we win.

We also need to nationalize this debate. I liked the way Obama took on the Republican House last night as well as Romney. This election is about big things, and the Republican philosophy is an anchor around their necks up and down the ticket. Obama and the Democrats need to drive that message home: that this isn’t just Romney and Ryan, it’s the entire Republican party.  

Whenever we engage the debate, we win the debate. Let’s keep doing it, and lock this victory down.

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