Civil Discourse Now

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There will be no presidential "debates."

   People should not refer to the public Q & A sessions as presidential "debates."

   As a kid, I was interested in the idea that candidates for President of the United States engaged in debates. By the time I was aware of such matters, the "big" debates were in the past. Of course Lincoln and Douglas debated over a century before in their race for the United States Senate seat from Illinois. Those "debates" consisted of hour-long statements by each candidate in a Chautauqua environment. Chattaquas were gatherings of people to discuss, debate, and learn about issues of the day. Lincoln and Douglas were questioned and—in the tradition of British parliamentary debate, intentional or not—heckling and loud response from the audience.

   Missing from those debates was any sort of cross-examination of one debater by the other.

   The most recent debates between candidates for the Oval Office occurred during the 1960 campaign between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy generally has been recognized as having won those debates. Some commentators have blamed Nixon’s perspiration for his poor performance in the first of three debates. He had been so ill from a knee injury that he developed an infection and emerged from two weeks in the hospital to debate. In the first debate he appeared pale—he eschewed make-up—and noticeably sweated. The nationwide televisions audience compared him with the tanned (most people watched in black-and-white but tones were apparent), assured manner of JFK. Questions were posed by moderators.

   An irony is that Nixon had college debate experience. If one judges his performance in the debates by text, he did well.

   In 1964, LBJ refused to debate Barry Goldwater. Nixon refused to debate in 1968 and 1972. As my old man said about the 1972 campaign, "If you’re holding a full house, why ask for a re-deal?" At the time I thought the statement cynical. This was, after all, the election for President of the United States.

   In 1976 the "debates" resumed, and some credit Gerald Ford’s loss in the general election, at least in part, to his relatively poor performance in the debates. (As I recall, a really BIG reason was his pardon of Richard M. Nixon.) We have had such "debates" ever since. The format has remained roughly the same. A moderator or guest panelists asks or ask questions of the candidates in turn. Rarely do the candidates question each other.

   That is why I do not like to hear people refer to these Q & A sessions as "debates."

   "Debate is the process of inquiry and advocacy, the seeking of reasoned judgment on a proposition." Austin J. Freeley, Argumentation and Debate, 7th ed., p.3.  This is in contrast with individual decisions, group discussion, persuasion, propaganda, and coercion.  Id. at 6-10.

   I debated competitively in high school and college and coached a college team. There are marked differences between what is appropriate for a college debate round and a presidential debate. In the late 1960s, debaters began to "spread." Judges scored rounds based, in large part, by the sub-arguments won. Most kept what was called (yes, before computers) a "spread sheet" to chart the flow of arguments during a round. After while, debaters realized the more arguments a team could dump onto a judge’s spread sheet, the more likely that team was to win the round. By my senior year of high school, I spoke at a clip of around 200 to 220 words per minute. This is not an aspect of competitive debate appropriate for presidential "debates." I note this only for the differences. There were four constructive speeches (one per debater) of eight minutes each and four four-minute rebuttals.

   On the other hand, in high school each debater cross-examined a debater from the other team. Usually the second negative speaker cross-exed the first affirmative; 1st affirmative x-x’d 1st affirmative, etc. My first year of college, cross-ex had begun to go by the wayside in National Debate Tournament (NDT)-style debate. Coaches in the Southwest became alarmed over this and began the Southwest Cross-Examination Debate Association, later to become simply Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA). Over the years since it arose and came to dominate college debate, CEDA (last I heard and was a part of the debate scene) had degenerated to the forms that had damaged NDT so much. Amongst those forms was the "spread." (I acquired rationality about debate by my second year at DePauw and became anti-"spread." We still won, and with more rational and understandable arguments.)

   Cross-ex is the heart of debate. A question from a moderator can hold interest or confront. There is no mistake about the intent of a question from an opponent. That is why I wince when someone refers to the Q & A sessions to which we shall be witness as "debates." There is no cross-ex. I want to hear each candidate ask questions of the other. Each is an advocate and can say, "That did not answer my question." Let’s get some clash.


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Comment by Kurt Lorey on September 25, 2012 at 8:45am

Well, Don Quixote, what do you expect? Politicians (from either major party) don't want to "debate", because it is hard (for your talking points writers to prompt you when you are a deer in the headlights), and because actual opinions and agendas might tumble out of one's mouth by accident. But, you want to call it a "debate" because that sounds like something substantive is being presented to viewers. Propaganda, baby.

It is difficult to think on one's feet when one is standing under hot lights and the threat of millions of potential "likers" and "haters" watching, I'd imagine. Some take it more seriously than others, and appearing at ease would surely be taken into account far above its actual worth (a debate for another day).

I debated in high school for a year. I never, ever, saw a judge do anything close to what you were describing. I got all the draftee Moms who judged debates per their own perceptions of the question, rather than to any merits of (potential) arguments presented. To say the least, it's not surprising I only debated for one year. Then, of course, college debate was for those who were going to pursue Law (or politics, I suppose). I imagine that there weren't too many English Lit or Folklore majors on your teams. Still, being able to present a cogent argument within a presecribed time might have done all of us non-lawyers-to-be good.


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