Perils of Debate

Being a moderately successful debater at both the high school and college level, makes presidential debates an ambivalent experience for me. On one hand, the competitive juices are aroused vicariously. How should arguments be marshaled? What constitutes persuasive evidence? How can the weakness in our own arguments be explained or at least hidden? How should time for various arguments be apportioned for effective presentation? On the other hand, we must recognize that presidential debates are not debates in the classic sense. The debating propositions are usually ambiguous and ill-defined. There is little chance for rebuttal and no opportunity for cross examination.

It is, therefore, difficult for me to arrive at a dispassionate assessment of presidential debates. The nature and technical flow of the arguments are confused with the simple ethos and likeability of the candidates. Candidates are not only selling their arguments, but themselves. Voters often make an assessment as to the glibness, passion, and affability of the candidates. It is this mix of selling of the argument and marketing of the candidate, I find difficult to separate. Frankly few would want most technically excellent debaters to be president.

By nearly all accounts, Democratic candidate John Kerry bested George Bush in the recent debate. Not only was Kerry smoother, Bush frowned in such a way as to reduce his likeability. In all likelihood, the polls should show slippage for Bush. Since, people have seen Bush for four years they have a fairly fixed opinion of him so the consequences for him are smaller. A similar performance by Kerry would have been more devastating.

However, the victory may yet prove Pyrrhic for Kerry. Kerry was an academic debater and suffers from an affliction common to ex-debaters: the excessive concern for winning the present argument and the arrogance to believe that they can, if necessary, talk in enough circles around others to obfuscate their positions.

Winning an argument is the essence of academic debate. The truth or falsity of the debate proposition is irrelevant. Indeed, the best debaters typically win regardless of which side of a proposition they are asked to argue on. Everything is contained within the content of a debate. No one is expected or wants to make consistent arguments over the long term. What a debater says in the morning is irrelevant to the argument he makes in the afternoon. Debate is about developing rhetorical skill. Rhetorical skill is uncorrelated to the ability to correctly choose those themes and goals for which those rhetorical skills are deployed.

However, consistency and belief are ultimately measured in a campaign. Kerry’s reputation for flip-floppy is partly the result of the academic debater’s instinctive tendency to please the audience immediately in front of him; to win the present argument irrespective of long term consistency.

Early in the primary campaign, Kerry was hawkish on the war because he felt that would play well in the general election. He quickly switched to a more dovish position, when it appeared that Governor Howard Dean was igniting support among Democrats. That is why it is so easy to find contradictory statements from Kerry.

Not long ago Kerry said that Iraq was the “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Now he says he will persuade allies to join us in pursuing the war. It is even hard for a clever debater to convince allies to join in what Kerry has already so forcefully and categorically characterized as a mistake.

As a measure of his rhetorical skill, in a single response, Kerry was able to say that both no country would have a veto power in preventing actions to defend the United States and at the same time saying some “global test” would have to be passed. These examples represent contradictions that are difficult to sustain.

As forceful and fluent as Kerry’s words were in the debate, they will come into direct conflict with contrary with equally eloquent words he has already spoken. Campaigns are not a debate, where the arguments in the previous rounds are ignored. Kerry has laid the foundation to sustain the Republican argument that Kerry has no fixed position.

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