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Good grief!  Presidential "debates" again!

A guide for the skeptical

September 2012

What's more amusing than a Presidential debate? Our role as audience is to pick out each side's embarrassing blunders. It's hoped that this guide will help you to know what to look for, and to recognize it when you see it. Christmas is "the season to be jolly." But before we get there this year, we have to go through the season of folly. We in the U.S. are about to be treated to three so-called debates between our sitting President, Barack Obama, and the man who would like to relieve him, former Governor Mitt Romney of the state of Massachusetts. These are two relatively intelligent men who, if previous presidential debates are a guide, will try to trick each other into saying things they wish they hadn't said, in order to quote any such unfortunate faux pas later in misleading and out-of-context negative advertising. Trying to keep the combatants on their best behavior is a so-called moderator, a harmless journalist who has been approved by both sides with the quiet understanding that he won't ask hard questions.

Both debate participants are by now fairly experienced at this kind of trickery, but to be honest, they're both still amateurs at the politician's fundamental skills of deception, deflection and avoidance. Every carnival hawker does it better, and you would expect politicians at this level to long ago have made these techniques a part of their repertoire. But all is not lost. They can still learn if they'll heed the words of advice below.

First, a basic fact of political debate: It's a zero-sum game, and what is summed is votes. Nothing else matters, of course. You win to the extent that your opponent loses. The purpose of the debate is to gain votes, or to cause your opponent to lose votes. A small number of (losing) political debaters in the past have thought their debating points ought to include new good ideas, or some ideological standpoint. This is of course passé and naïve. We know now that good ideas and standpoints are only worthwhile to the extent that they gain a vote.

So, to the tricks and the DON'Ts of a successful debate performance:

Two critical DON'Ts

  1. Above all, don't get into genuine issues. Fortunately, it's understood that the moderator won't ask about genuine issues, and there's zero chance that the opponent will take the conversation in such directions, so the set-up is fairly safe. We are guaranteed not to hear meaningful discussion of energy policy related to the coming transition to an essentially oil-free economy, which will be perhaps the most disruptive transition this country has seen. There will not be a word about preparations for climate change and the rising sea level, problems that may force us to abandon major coastal cities within a century. We won't hear a word about the continuing growth of the human population, which has exacerbated all of humanity's problems. There will be silence about demilitarization, a critical world need to free up the insane amounts of public funds that are everywhere wasted on subteen type posturing by nations. Little will be said about hunger and disease, in our country or elsewhere. Crime will hardly be mentioned, though the number of Americans killed by other Americans (15 to 20 thousand each year) makes the number killed by Islamists, terrorists, or other foreign agents seem vanishingly small. The fact that the main danger to Americans is other Americans will not be voiced.
  2. Almost as important, avoid responsibility for policy busts on your watch, but be sure to take credit for any positive results. You know that as a political executive you've had some misses – perhaps a real howler or two. And you know that your opponent will be pounding on those. May as well plan for those ahead of time: the key is to know whom you can blame. If the blunder happened early in your term, the blame clearly lies in the planning done under your predecessor. If later in the term, it's generally safe to blame Congress, since it is even less popular than you. On the other hand, successes early in your term belong to you alone, even though they were completely planned and set up by the former office holder. That should be clear; it just needs to be rehearsed so it sounds convincing.

Now to a few tricks. (No room here to discuss all thirty-some classical rhetorical tricks.) The reader who is a student of this has no doubt read Plato's Socratic dialogues, where Socrates employs most of these tricks to "logically" prove his theses. Of course Socrates' arguments are puerile and full of holes, but that'll suffice in a Presidential debate. If it was good enough for Plato, Socrates and their readers, it's good enough for Romney, Obama and the average TV audience. So here is a far from complete list of the little verbal frauds and sleights-of-hand (or mouth) that will gain you votes among the credulous. Bon appetit:

  • Deflection or Red herring: This very basic technique is, of course, in every pol's toolkit. Don't run for office until you've mastered at least this elementary trick: You're asked a question, and you simply deal with a different issue instead. Sounds simple, but the necessary transition is not easy. The best technique is to give a nod in the direction of the initial issue, like "Yes, that's very significant." Then the tricky part: The deflection should best sound like you're expanding the requested issue into an underlying matter that must be dealt with first. Obviously, if done badly this will just sound like evasion, which it is. By a master, however, the audience can actually be led to believe the question has been dealt with. The beauty is that the opposing debater will hardly ever call you on this trick, since he'll need it himself at some point in the debate.
  • Caricature or Straw Man: This is the well-known technique where you (intentionally) mis-characterize the opponent's views or record, caricaturing it as something silly, stupid, or evil, and proceed to argue against what you've constructed (the Straw Man). If you're lucky, people won't see through it. Naturally, in a debate the opponent is there to point out this little trick, so it really works better in ads or unopposed speeches. My bet is still that it will crop up in the debates.
  • Out-of-context quote: This, like all these tricks, is really safer to use when your opponent is not present. This year it's already been used to great effect on billboards and 20-second TV ads. Mr.Obama has done the best job with this so far and has had success with publishing unintended meanings of some of Mr.Romney's isolated phrases. The "I like to fire people" comes to mind (where Romney was talking about workers who don't do their job), or the "47 percent" of Americans that Romney told a private gathering of supporters that he wasn't going to worry about in the election because he couldn't get their vote. Obama played up that Romney as President wouldn't "worry about" 47 percent of the population. Nicely taken out of context and apparently effective with many of our fellow citizens.
  • Innuendo: This is akin to releasing a trial balloon – or perhaps like hurling a shovelfull of manure up in the air and hope you've calculated the wind right. It's often used with the trick of Association – as for instance the relationship of Mr.Obama with his long-time pastor in 2008, the infamous Rev.Wright who railed against America and its evils. In the current campaign a fairly effective use of innuendo has been Mr.Obama's billboards announcing that Mr.Romney paid 14 percent federal income tax. The implication is, of course, that he should have paid much more. A reasonable person might ask whether any of us sends the IRS more than the law requires us to send, whether in fact Mr.Obama sent the IRS more than was required. Congress determined the tax rates and the President signed the law, so it seems like Mr.Obama's criticism of Mr.Romney's tax rate should be directed there, but many voters will conclude from the innuendo that Mr.Romney is a tax cheat, and Mr.Obama is clearly hoping to benefit from that.
We will undoubtedly be treated to several more tricks of deception in the upcoming debates: exaggerations, misrepresentations, and other forms of lying-without-actually-lying. This is "reality TV" the way we like it – muddy, rough, dirty, and simplistic. I can hardly wait.

© 2012 H. Paul Lillebo

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