Republican Debates: Always Begin with What You are Winning
By Steven Kalani Farias, Associate Director of Forensics, University of the Pacific
One of the central themes I preach to my debaters is that in order to convince a judge, or a public, to vote for you they must agree with the premise of your arguments and the advocacy you are advancing. From a coaching stand point, this means I harp on them about one particular lesson: Always begin with what you are winning. If the judge starts by agreeing with you on your winning arguments, then it is easier to convince them both that your arguments are better in contrast to the other teams and that the other team is wrong.
In the Republican debates on Tuesday, eight candidates took the stage with an opportunity to distinguish themselves and gain public support after the previous Republican debate’s moderator debacle. In a debate centered on the economy and on jobs, the Republican candidates needed to start with what they could win in terms of the economy while pushing their primary themes for the debate. The winners all began with winning themes and carried those themes throughout the debate. The losers each avoided questions, focused less on what they were winning, and their themes focused more on what others’ were losing than their own agendas.
Sen. Rand Paul– The clearest winner of Tuesday night’s debate was Sen. Rand Paul, which is hardly surprising given his economic acumen. With a theme of limited government, Sen. Paul began with this winning theme over and over again. Discussing taxes and governmental spending, Sen. Paul consistently purveyed specific policies (such as eliminating the payroll tax and minimizing deductions) while emphasizing a reduction in overall governmental activity. When given the opportunity, Sen. Paul challenged his fellow candidates on the potential hypocrisy of their views as conservatives. He confronted Sen. Marco Rubio’s plans to expand entitlement programs and military spending, he dared Carly Fiorina to defend her position of a no-fly zone in Syria by suggesting she did not have the resolve to order U.S. pilots to shoot down Russian planes, and he defied Donald Trump’s anti-China and Trans Pacific Partnership stance by pointing out that China actually would be threatened by a U.S. free trade deal in the Pacific. Overall, Sen. Paul sounded intelligent and stately with a winning theme he pushed often and with resolve—limited government will only happen with true conservative values.
Carly Fiorina– The former CEO was also a winner as she continued to champion her consistent theme of being a Washington outsider. Fiorina consistently began her answers by noting how she would be a change in Washington and how that change could reverse a 50 year history created by both Republicans and Democrats. She advocated a free market approach to health care, zero-based budgeting for tax reform, and noted how she would refuse to speak from positions of weakness in foreign policy. Her final statement demonstrated that she may be the Republicans best candidate—an outsider who can defeat Hillary Clinton, who the moderators went so far to denote as the ultimate insider. Indeed, Fiorina may have what she herself called “the secret sauce”.
Sen. Marco Rubio- As an undergraduate, I worked in a small factory making hydraulic cylinders. I worked long hours, made a decent amount, and I built life-long skills of dependability, resourcefulness, and mechanical aptitude. So when Sen. Marco Rubio noted at the beginning of the debate that welders make more money than philosophers and that the United States needed more welders, I could understand what he meant. Sen. Rubio came out a winner by focusing on the theme of building a foundation for tomorrow. From his advocacy for education reform to his push for entitlement reform that assists working parents with child care, Rubio sounded presidential in his resolve to build a future for the country. He pushed winning positions about family values, the American dream, and a strong U.S. military to protect the country. He stuck with what he was winning throughout the debate, even when challenged by Sen. Paul on child services entitlements, and refused to back down from his theme of building a foundation for future generations.
John Kasich- Starting with what you are winning is an important strategy; but if you cannot maintain your theme or are derailed by issues that are irrelevant then your winning theme can appear as desperation. You cling to your arguments too much, fail to adapt to the climate of the room, and lose your audience. Unfortunately for Gov. John Kasich, this is exactly why he lost this debate. Gov. Kasich came out swinging, advancing his themes of executive experience and reasonable truths with authority and vigor. He challenged Donald Trump on questions about immigration and called for reasoned dialogue and policy options. However, when he was not allowed to speak on taxes and was left out of the foreign policy discussion, he became desperate. When asked about bailing out large banks, Kasich avoided the question to return to previous issues and when pressed by the moderators he could not provide a coherent response. He continued to push his executive acumen but his desperation to join in on arguments that did not matter derailed his night.
Sen. Ted Cruz- Besides being derailed by irrelevant issues, sometimes competitors can confuse one winning argument with the only argument worth discussing. As such, they often avoid arguments rather than answer them. In this debate, Sen. Ted Cruz performed poorly because he simply would not answer the questions being asked. He avoided questions on government spending, entitlement programs, and even avoided the question about tax reform despite this being his clearest winning argument. His flat tax proposal is the easiest to explain to the public, but he spent the first half of his response chiding government in general. To make matters worse, his responses to competitors were often incoherent—he tried to lead with sugar subsidies on the topic of military spending! And then he could not even remember the five departments he wanted to cut from the government. All in all it was a bad night for the Tea Party conservative.
Jeb Bush- The hardest thing for debaters to differentiate is the difference between leading with what you are winning and leading with what the other team is losing. It’s a fine line, but an important one, because the judge needs to be thinking that you are right, not that the other side is wrong; because, even if the other side is wrong, the judge will fill in responses for them against your arguments. The biggest loser of the night was former Gov. Jeb Bush because he consistently led with what the other side was losing, not with what he was winning. He was direct and assertive, but he never gave an argument he was winning and instead simply tried to be the opposite of his competitors. On immigration, he simply disagreed with Donald Trump and on tax reform he was undistinguished. On foreign policy, he only noted that voids exist when our military is removed, a response to Sen. Paul. He was even called out by the moderator for his response that he could prevent another economic collapse due to bankruptcy. Note, none of these topics gave him a theme or a winning argument and they were all off base from the topic of the debate. His final error was his decision to consistently mention Democratic candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For reasons unbeknownst to the moderators, Bush consistently brought up Clinton to point out he would not be her. Of the 16 times Clinton was mentioned, Bush mentioned her eight of those times. Undistinguished and obsessed with who he was not, Bush was the night’s biggest loser.
If you have been paying attention, then you might note I have not discussed the two front runners—Donald Trump and Ben Carson. This is intentional because while neither was any more specific about policy options or detailed about their positions, they held steady. They maintained consistent themes from previous debates doing what frontrunners should do—relying on previous victories to keep the judge believing they have won the debate before it even starts. Trump positioned himself on the theme of competition once again, both domestically and internationally. He stuck with arguments that he had won in the past and it served him well. Carson stood on the theme of equality weaving it throughout his answers. He was able to advocate the importance of an accessible minimum wage for young black citizens to be hired, of criticizing candidates equally, of equitability in deductions, and the importance of treating banks equally instead of assisting large banks without being challenged. For Trump and Carson, they did not win THIS debate, but instead made themselves potential winners for future debates.