Debate Prep

October 1, 2012 - 6:07 AM

The first B*I*G* D*E*B*A*T*E takes place in Denver on Wednesday night.

A political debate has as much to do with a classical debate as a Formula One race has to do with a Monster Truck show.

A classic debate has two teams (or two people) debating an agreed-upon topic for an agreed-upon amount of time.

A political debate is a verbal prize-fight with the referee sitting in the second row.

I was a debater in college. I can't remember, now, what the debate topic was, but this is the topic every debate team, at every high school and college will be debating this semester:

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.

Doesn't matter whether that would have been your choice of topics nor mine, but that's the subject for this year.

When I was a sophomore in college I joined the debate team, largely because I had gained too much weight to be the coxswain on the Marietta College (45750) crew as I had been as a freshman.

My debate partner was a delightful young woman from New Zealand. Her accent got us through many a close contest.

We were junior varsity debaters, as opposed to varsity debaters.

The principal difference was, the varsity debaters had actually been to the library and pretty much knew everything that had ever been written on the subject.

As JV debaters we had file boxes of index cards but we hadn't done nearly the level of research as the varsity.

Here's a story I've told over the years which is not true, but is a good story nonetheless:

One time we were up against a really good team that had us boxed into a logical corner.

When it was my turn to speak I rifled through my evidence box; drew out a three-by-five index card; held it at eye level; and, almost shouted a quote from a magazine that completely destroyed our opponents' argument.

I had made it up.

I have no idea what was actually typed on that card, but it wasn't what I was trumpeting.

That would never have worked in a varsity debate because they actually knew everything ever written on the subject. But, when I realized I could get away with it in a JV debate I realized that I had found my calling: Politics.

In the olden days when I did debate prep with Congressional candidates I made sure they understood that the moderator could ask whatever question he or she wanted to ask, but the candidate was free to answer any question he or she wanted to.

The answer didn't have to respond directly to the question.

Candidates have to play to their strengths. If they are good at data - quote data. If they are good at anecdotes - quote an anecdote. The worst thing a candidate who is good at anecdotes can do in a debate is try to quote data - or vice versa.

I also counseled the staff to seek out every reporter they could find and declare, following the debate, a shockingly superior performance by their candidate.

I told them I didn't care if their candidate threw up on his shoes during the debate. Say it was a victory for anyone in the District who had ever suffered gastric distress.

Watch for the answers by Obama and Romney. See how closely they track Jim Lehrer's questions. Also watch for the post-debate "spin" and see how "shockingly superior" the performances were for each candidate according to their official spinners.

I know we've been through this before, but it bears repeating. Reporters will watch the debate on TVs placed in an enormous tent.

There was a time when reporters sat in the hall and watch the debate from there. Until the debate between Senators Dan Quayle (R-Ind) and Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex).

That was the infamous "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine and you, Senator, are no Jack Kennedy" debate.

Reporters in the hall - notwithstanding the uppercut to Quayle's jaw by Bentsen - thought Quayle had done plenty well enough. He knew his stuff and hadn't wilted under the pressure.

But people who saw the debate at home, on TV, saw it as a completely different program with Quayle looking weak and small.

That's why reporters now watch debates on TV like you and me and 50 million other Americans as opposed to the 2,500 people in the hall.

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On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to this years debate and discourse topics, to the Quayle-Bentsen debate and to a Mullfoto you might well want to put up on your fridge.