and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
October 2004 #1

Debate game isn't as easy as you might think
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, October 6, 2004

October: Debate month. 

Presidential candidates, vice presidential candidates, legislative candidates across the commonwealth; the amateurs on Showtime's "American Candidate."

If you are watching the amateurs on the cable channel's reality show, you won't be surprised to learn that I am rooting for Park Gillespie, the conservative candidate. I don't agree with him on all the social issues, but I admire his integrity and consistency, and I can't support Malia Lazu, the Boston liberal with the pierced tongue.

If you are not watching "American Candidate," you are now wondering: "Pierced tongue?" Never mind, the debate between the two pretend candidates was still easier to watch than the first real presidential debate. Park was not only very likable, he presented his positions well. Chip and I didn't have to yell instructions at the TV set.

I think I would have done better than President Bush in his encounter with John Kerry on Sept. 30 since, not being the president, I wouldn't have had to uphold the dignity of my office. I could have said to Kerry, "What the heck are you talking about, you pretentious donkey? You want my job? Take it. We'd all love to see you coax other nations into Iraq while you negotiate alone in Korea where we now have allies, and of course you'll do a better job in the Sudan where, by the way, your beloved United Nations is supposed to be preventing genocide now. How am I supposed to debate someone who is all over the world diplomacy landscape here? I'd have to be schizophrenic to follow both your positions on everything!"

Debate is what I do, and have done since I was six; though my parents and the nuns called it arguing. In a Catholic school, you argued to keep your mind alive in a hostile environment. At Penn State, my attitude was an asset; the teachers expected and rewarded it.

I was more polite then, of course. I debated to learn, to expose inconsistencies in order to find reality. When the discussion was over, the teacher had finally arrived at the whole truth of a matter or just given up, it was hard to tell sometimes.

As a Navy officer's wife, I began arguing against the military draft. I saw strong men on the verge of tears after an hour of debate with me. Of course, they'd had a few drinks by then, and I was seriously sober.

When I became a political activist, during the Proposition 21/2 campaign, arguing to win was part of my job.

It's easier when you like your opponent - Jim Braude, whom you may know today as a masterful co-host with Chet Curtis on NECN's NewsNight. 

Braude is a liberal political activist who was hired to defeat a 1990 tax cut initiative. He was a terrific debater, and we had a great time car-pooling around the commonwealth with our ongoing argument. We used a format developed by the Tab newspapers, which sponsored several events a format that should be used now for the presidential debates.

We'd flip a coin for going first or second: then each of us would do a ten-minute opening statement, then a five-minute rebuttal; followed by three minutes; then one minute back and forth. During reporter and audience questions, we would each do a minute followed by 30-second responses. At the end, we each did a three-minute final statement in reverse order from the opening statement; whoever got the last word at the beginning had to go first at the end. We couldn't interrupt or talk over each other, yet the audiences got to hear a real discussion. It was fun for us and informative for them.

But I sometimes did a bad job in debates with other people I didn't like. If I felt free to amuse myself by being aggressive or sarcastic as in my imaginary debate above with John Kerry I'd be fine. But if I tried to behave myself, I'd soon become bored, surly and defensive just like President Bush during the first debate.

Braude and I both had clearly defined positions that the other could bounce off. And if one of us said something inaccurate, the other had only to show proof of the error and it would not be said again. However, I've debated people who would state the same lies every time; I'd get exasperated and start to feel sorry for myself having to be in the same room with this person. I could see that exasperation on the face of the president last week.

It is also exasperating when people who are watching the debate from the comfort of their living rooms tell the debaters what they should have said. It's harder than you might think to quickly decide which of several approaches to take on any statement made by one's opponent, especially when you're attempting to look cool, struggling to recall the debate rules, watching the time, and trying to hide the fact that you really don't like your liberal opponent with the pierced or forked tongue. 

It must be even harder when you know the fate of the free world may depend on your winning the debate.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.