Many years ago, I used to teach a debate class. It quickly became my second-favorite course to teach -- after American Government -- because I never had to spend much time on “when will I use this?” I’d tell students that at some point, they’d have to argue with their bosses about paying for something expensive, whether it was a piece of equipment, a conference, or whatever. The boss would balk at the cost. If they could marshal a good argument with relevant evidence, one of two things would happen: either they’d win, and that’s lovely, or they’d lose but look good doing it. Either way, they put themselves in a good long-term position.
Debates come in different flavors and formats. We usually went with two-on-two or three-on-three “policy” debates. The “affirmative” would argue in favor of the proposition, which was for some sort of legal or political change. The “negative” would argue against it. The burden of proof was on the affirmative.
The beauty of the format is that it requires several skills: public speaking, careful listening, and good research all paid off. Over time, the best ones learned that public speaking involves a particular kind of poise.
Students frequently came in loaded for bear, only to find quickly that their enthusiasm could actually get in the way. If they couldn’t control themselves, they’d say something they regretted, or they’d lose a potentially valid point in a hail of undisciplined words.
Watching the first Trump-Clinton debate brought it all back. Both are experienced public speakers, and both can be effective in their own distinctive ways. But one was able to resist the bait, and the other wasn’t. The difference was obvious. Trump lost his composure, and his effectiveness, because he couldn’t restrain himself. Clinton was savvy enough not to respond in kind, but instead to (mostly) rise above it. As he self-destructed, she didn’t stop him. He did far greater damage to himself than she ever could have done to him.
Barack Obama made a similar move against Mitt Romney in 2012. His “please proceed, Governor” was quietly devastating; it was a knife wound so elegant that the blade emerged shiny. I actually gasped. That was the debating equivalent of landing a perfect triple axel while juggling. From a standpoint of pure craft, I had to tip my cap. That was textbook.
When the opponent is starting to self-destruct -- when he just can’t contain his own worst impulses -- it can be tempting to move into full-throated attack mode. But that can interrupt the spiral and give the opponent a chance to recover. Worse, if you do it wrong, you suddenly become the issue.
When the opponent is in free fall, the most effective move can be to step aside and let him go.
That’s a tough lesson for students to learn. It requires excellent timing, and a confidence that’s hard to fake. You need to be really sure you’re right, and you can’t let on that you’re doing it.
But when it works, it’s lethal. There’s really no response to it. It leaves you unscathed, and looking classy by contrast. And the opponent doesn’t merely lose the point, but his credibility.
Yes, sometimes, it’s about brute force. But sometimes it’s the punch you don’t throw that does the most damage. If you don’t believe me, ask Mitt Romney.