Debate as Debate: When Your Opponent Won't (or Can't) Argue

The first presidential debate seems like it happened a million years ago, with all of the drama about the financial crisis that has transpired since Friday. Still, with the vice presidential debate scheduled for tonight, and two more presidential debates yet to come (pending more dramatic announcements), it seems like a good moment to reflect on the first debate and perhaps its most trenchant lesson for those who watch tonight's debate.

Sadly, Maureen Dowd's op-ed in this past Sunday's New York Times seemed correct when she impatiently described "what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines." Yet despite an initial consensus among pundits that Obama and McCain had essentially debated to a tie on style (or whatever it is that one uses to judge a joust), at least some polls showed that Obama won the debate in the minds of more voters. (A TIME poll of independent voters, for example, has Obama winning the debate, 41-27, among likely voters.)

I readily admit that I have an old-fashioned view about debates. Like many academics, I was actively involved in high school debate for four years. I then participated in parliamentary debating throughout my college career. During my first year of grad school, I helped a friend start the parliamentary debate team at Harvard. (Harvard had long had an excellent team that competed in so-called on-topic debate but did not have a team that engaged in the extemporaneous parliamentary style of debating.) I ended up being an advisor for that team for nine years, through three national championships (the 1986 championship team: Michael Dorf and Benjamin Alpers), and I advised the Wellesley College team for a year when I was a visiting professor in their economics department.

This experience, far from qualifying me to judge American political debates, usually severely handicaps me. I pitifully tune into each debate somehow convinced that the contestants will actually argue with each other, then I sit in disgusted silence as they trade scripted sound-bites. When real debating does happen, though, and when one candidate actually wins the debate on the merits, the pundits generally ignore the obvious and focus on, say, whether one candidate sighed too much.

As I watched the debate last Friday, though, I had an unexpected sense of a different kind of deja vu. I was not watching the usual U.S. political debate. I was back on the debate circuit, watching a clearly superior debater and a clearly out-matched opponent, with the inferior debater so insistently refusing to argue that he was (almost surely inadvertently) dragging down his opponent with him. Political preferences aside, I felt sympathy for Obama as I watched him try to engage his opponent, only to find himself facing a blur of non sequiturs, naked assertions, and unprovable claims from McCain. I had seen this before. When a good debater faces a bad debater, it is difficult for the good debater even to figure out where to begin to respond. What ends up being a clear win on the merits (and has the potential to be a blow-out) ends up getting uglier than necessary, because there's both so little and so much to argue against.

For example, one of McCain's most frustrating tendencies is simply to announce things. "I know the veterans. I know them well. And I know that they know that I'll take care of them. And I've been proud of their support and their recognition of my service to the veterans. And I love them. And I'll take care of them. And they know that I'll take care of them. And that's going to be my job." What does one say to such a thing? "No, John, you don't love the veterans, and you don't know how to take care of them"? There is an opportunity to point out that McCain has opposed shortening tours in Iraq as well as the proposed new GI bill, but in the moment it's not easy to find that opening when faced with an opponent's blunt assertions that he'll "take care of" veterans. Similarly, McCain is fond of asserting that he has been places and knows how to do things: "And I know how to work with [David Petraeus]." I asked myself, if I were debating McCain, how could one respond to such a bald assertion? "No, you don't" isn't debating. (Insert Monty Python joke here.)

To the extent that there were actual arguments (or "clash," as the debaters say), it was again quite frustrating to watch. McCain faulted Obama for not holding hearings as chair of a Senate subcommittee. Obama responded by saying that the issues at hand are not in his jurisdiction. McCain's response? "By the way, when I'm subcommittee chairman, we take up the issues under my subcommittee." Right. That's just what Obama said. On a judge's "flow sheet" (notes of the debaters' arguments and responses), this is a clear win for Obama; but it at least appears that McCain has responded, and it would surely be unclear to me (if I were in Obama's shoes) wether I should spend precious time pointing out that my opponent had not responded to my point.

This was even more at play in the exchange over McCain's attacks on Obama for saying that he would meet with world leaders "without precondition." McCain would attack, Obama would respond, and McCain would repeat his original claim that it's bad to agree to talk to an enemy without preconditions. On that issue, though, a different kind of odd argument intruded. McCain claimed that meetings with adversaries would legitimize their views. Obama, quite understandably, replied that sitting down to talk with adversaries has often been useful in the past, and he stated simply that he would talk to anyone "if I think it's going to keep America safe," which would surely include considerations of propaganda advantages. Rather than challenging Obama on what would satisfy that premise, however, McCain ended the segment by saying : "So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'? Oh, please." Not only is that completely non-responsive, it also displays a complete lack of understanding of how one talks to adversaries (something that McCain "knows how" to do). This part of the debate also devolved into another "no, it isn't" exchange about what Henry Kissinger had said. At least that can be fact-checked.

In other words, this was one of those debates where the losing side wasn't, as they say, "dancing around the issues." This was simply a debater who did not know how to debate. Every time I saw something like this when I was a debater or a judge in a debate, the frustration was palpable. Never, however, did the superior debater lose. It was always uglier than it should have been, but an inability to make real arguments and to respond on point is not a winning combination.

The final point, regarding tonight's vice presidential debate, is obvious. I'll be watching to see who argues versus who asserts, who responds to points and who misses or misconstrues them. I will not be watching to see who can joust better.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Through October 15, I am cross-posting on the Concurring Opinions blog.]