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How to Judge a Political Debate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When is a debate not a debate? When it’s televised, media-umpired, poll-monitored, spun to death and endlessly second-guessed. Then it’s less a debate than a spectator sport.

The rules of formal debate, with its scorecard of categories to judge, don’t apply. This is a combination quiz show, beauty pageant and sparring match in which talking points are repeated as if they were actual thoughts.

The whole country looks on, waiting for the clouds of rhetoric to part and give us, as they inevitably and unfortunately say, A Defining Moment. It’s got to be there somewhere, we tell ourselves, like a needle in a cliche stack.

The winner is the debater who breaks through all the hokum long enough to give the proceedings a touch of reality. And puts a human face on politics.

Which is no small challenge. How best meet it? By recognizing that political debate is a branch of drama, of theater, of showbiz. As the great modern presidents — one thinks of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — well understood.

Having suffered through more hours of political debate than is good for either mind or body, or soul, I take the great liberty of offering five simple — maybe too simple — tips to any aspiring political debater:

1. Be happy to be there, be honored to be there. Think of it as an outing. Take control from the first. (“Nice to meet you. … Hey, can I call you Joe?”) The winner approaches a debate not as something to be endured but enjoyed. The loser looks at his watch and just wants it to be over.

2. Know thyself. (Yes, I know that’s not an original rule.) And be true to it. Be clear and direct. It’s the rote pretense and empty garble-and-gabble of politics that drives so many of us to tune out. Pauses help. They clear the mind of the speaker and focus the attention of the listeners. When your opponent tries to give you the runaround, don’t let him. Pin him down. For example, if you happen to find yourself up against somebody who voted to go to war but now says he wasn’t really for it, kindly ask for an explanation.

(“You’re one who says, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice-versa. Americans are craving that straight talk and just want to know, hey, if you voted for it, tell us why you voted for it — and it was a war resolution.”)

3. Be unrehearsed even if you have to rehearse it. If that sounds like Zen, it is. Speak plain. Don’t be afraid to say what you’re thinking. (“It’s so obvious that I’m a Washington outsider and I’m someone who’s just not used to the way you guys operate.”)

4. Don’t think you have to answer the question. Rise above it. The way a question is framed can put you in a defensive crouch. Don’t play that game. Direct your answers to the voters; they’re the ones you’re accountable to — not the moderator and certainly not your opponent. (“I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people….”)

5. Talk to the future, to the next generation. Your greater object isn’t to win the debate, or even the election. There will be other debates, other elections. A great debate is about winning the future. A great debater doesn’t argue facts; we have fact-checkers for that. A great debater argues great ideas. See Lincoln, A., and his debates across the Illinois prairie with the senator who was supposed to be the greatest orator in the country. Does anyone remember anything Stephen A. Douglas said on those occasions? Can anyone forget that a house divided against itself cannot stand? Mr. Lincoln, let it be noted, lost that election to the U.S. Senate; he won only the future.

One can judge a political debate in any number of ways. A hair-splitting rhetorician can walk away from a debate convinced he won every exchange when he’s actually lost the whole debate. Judging by these five rules, there’s no doubt in my mind who won the vice presidential debate. Nor about which which candidate the American people tuned in to hear, and which one caught and held our attention. You betcha.

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