This is an excerpt from the new book Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again
How many times have you watched the presidential debates in the post-Reagan years with your hands half-covering your eyes, just dreading that moment when that gotcha question comes “our guy’s” way?
You can almost sense it coming too, can’t you? Just when “our guy” seems to have the momentum and a head of steam, you know the liberal media member pretending to be an impartial moderator is going to drop the proverbial hammer right on our heads.
Come on, I can’t be the only grassroots conservative out there who has experienced this level of angst watching these things? Be honest with me now. Don’t leave me hanging. That’s what I thought.
I mean, heaven forbid our Republican “champion” actually has the worldview and shrewd communication skills to turn the question to his advantage. I mean, we’re only running for the highest offices in the land here, so it’s not like we should expect the best of the best to represent us or anything.
We’ve already written about not accepting the premise of your opponent, but the next step to winning requires borrowing a technique from the martial arts—using your opponent’s strength against him. In political combat we do that by first rejecting your opponent’s premise, and then we reverse his premise and use it against him.
Or, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, to “hoist him from his own petard.”
Reagan was a Jedi Master of this technique, and here are just a couple of many famous examples.
During a 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan responded to mounting criticism he was too old to be president by promising he would not “make his opponent’s youth and inexperience an issue in this campaign.”
That snarky retort even drew a laugh from Mondale himself.
At a press conference during his first term, ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Sam Donaldson asked Reagan if all the blame for the recession at the time rested with the Democrat-controlled Congress. “Mr. President, does any of the blame belong to you,” Donaldson asked Reagan.
Without skipping a beat, Reagan winsomely replied, “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”
You cannot successfully reverse your opponent’s premise if you accept it, and unless you know why you believe what you believe you will accept your opponent’s premise more times than not. In the first Reagan example we just cited, notice he rejects the premise outright that he’s too old for the job. So instead of arguing his qualifications, he makes a crack undercutting the qualifications of his opponent.
“But Steve,” some of you will say, “aren’t we tired of politicians who won’t answer the question they were asked?”
Yes, but if the premise of the question is flawed you should never dignify it with an answer. Gotcha questions with no attempt to address anything substantive are the Left’s version of “did you beat your wife last night?” Once you start going down that rabbit trail, you end up chasing your own tail. Instead, you need to reverse the premise and put them on the defensive.
On the other hand, you also don’t want to come across as evasive, which is why reversing the premise and using it against them is so key. You’re turning the argument of your opponent around on them to demonstrate the total lack of substance and merit of their argument.
Let them know that it ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun.
That’s how Reagan respond strangled Donaldson with his premise in our second example. Essentially Reagan said, “Fine, Sam. You want me to accept blame for what big government does to stifle capitalism and free enterprise? Sure, I should probably accept some of that blame for all the years I used to be a big government Democrat advocating these same failed policies myself.”
That, my friends, is what the kids today refer to as a walk-off shot or a mic drop.
Since we communicate in such a quick-draw style nowadays, it is imperative that we are quick-on-the-draw in the arena of ideas. Whether it’s a grassroots patriot standing up to speak at a local Tea Party rally, one of our elected officials or candidates on a national stage, or just a conversation about politics between you and your neighbor, if you can’t instantly grab people’s attention and make your case they just move on.
Furthermore, the other side of the debate has already boiled down their positions to emotion-driven clichés that are easy to embed into the subconscious of our fellow Americans (e.g. marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, government investment, income equality, fairness, diversity, standing up for the middle class, etc.) It’s easier to communicate emotion in a pithy fashion than it is logic and reason, which is often what we base our positions on, so we’re already at a disadvantage. That’s why we need to be intentional about equipping one another to communicate in a way that resonates with how most of our fellow Americans receive and distribute information.
One of the most effective methods of doing just that is to master the art of reversing the premise of our opponent’s argument and using it against them. Let me provide an example from my own experience.
During a nationally-televised interview I did during the 2012 presidential primary. I was challenged by the interviewer with how I, as a Christian, could talk about grace and love while at the same time argue to end government programs to help the poor and needy?
Again, this is the sort of question that all too often the Mitt McCains and George McDoles face from the national media that produces a cringe-inducing response. But if you have a solid worldview, it’s like sitting on a fastball with a 3-1 count.
“I think grace and love are measured in a culture not by how many people are in need of government assistance but by how many people no longer do,” I said. “What can be more loving than encouraging your fellow man created in the image of God that with the right training, tools, and opportunity they can rise above their circumstances and fulfill their God-given potential?”
There was no follow up question after that.
If the welfare state really meant compassion, then how come Democrats aren’t bragging about the fact there are currently more Americans on food stamps than the population of Spain? Shouldn’t they be thanking the taxpayers for all this “compassion?” Shouldn’t they be holding press junkets to boast their plan is working, and we’re the most compassionate society we’ve ever been?
Instead of screaming, swearing, and throwing things at the TV screen while Republicrats roll over and play dead for the liberal media, we’d be standing and applauding if more conservatives in the spotlight said things like that more often.
Reversing the premise of the Left’s arguments like this and using it against them is one of the most effective and devastating ways to make our point, but to pull it off we need to be confident of our principles and have the required courage of conviction.
Something that is sorely lacking in most of “our guys.”