Democratic Candidates Perform Excellently by Avoiding Sound-Bite Analysis in Favor of Complex Policy Discussions
By Steven Kalani Farias, Associate Director of Forensics
Being involved with debate for almost two decades has resulted in an ability for me to easily identify excellent debate when it occurs. Excellent debate involves the perfect amount of advocacy, rejoinder, and charisma. Debaters competing at the top of their game exude confidence and decisiveness; they consistently demonstrate an ability to capitalize on moments of generic principle or information by examining that principle or information more complexly than originally considered. This is never more apparent than on issues that trend toward sound-bite analysis.
What exactly is sound-bite analysis? You probably know exactly what it is because you have a friend who provides this analysis over dinner, a family member who provides this analysis at holidays after everyone is too full to stop them, or colleague who likes to offer this analysis, repetitively, during breaks. Sound bite analysis generally consists of platitudes, surface level examination of the issue, and arguments that leave listeners neither remembering nor believing a word that is said by the individual debater. Unfortunately, sound-bite analysis is typical of presidential debates because it provides consumable pieces of information for the casual viewer. Terms like “radical Islam”, “boots on the ground”, “Obama-care”, and “crony capitalism” are all versions of sound-bite analysis you are likely to hear. Excellent debate, and debaters who excel, avoid sound-bite analysis. Instead, they use tag lines as starting points before delving deeper into topics that require more than 15-20 second of analysis and they do so with the courage, charisma, and character that leave voters wanting more.
On Saturday night, the three remaining Democratic Presidential candidates engaged in excellent debate by advocating complex positions on issues of foreign policy and the economy. Anyone watching could tell that the debate was excellent, because the topics and the arguments made by the candidates did not lend themselves to sound-bite analysis. Instead, candidates engaged in honest, poignant discussion about issues that should concern voters going to the polls in 2016.
Good debaters know what they are winning; excellent debaters know they are not winning everything, and instead explain why the things they are winning are most important. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated the subtlety of this difference Saturday evening.
Questioned repeatedly about her voting record on the Iraq war and about her decisions as Secretary of State, she consistently responded by acknowledging her successes (elections in Libya), her failures (an inability to predict and do more about ISIS), and her policies for better foreign policy moving forward (admittance of Syrian refugees contingent on better screening and more intelligence sharing among allies in the Middle East). When offered an opportunity to discuss “radical Islam” the former Secretary was distinguishably presidential, once again, and pointed out that Islam is not radical, but extreme violence needed to be addressed.
When challenged about the donations she receives from Wall Street banks, she continuously pointed to economists who supported her policy for regulating banks and preventing another financial crisis. Time and again, she avoided sound-bite analysis when it might have been easier given the haymakers being lobbed her way. This is why she continues to lead the polls.
As for her “radically socialist” opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, he too had an excellent debate. Sen. Sanders ‘excellent debate pivoted on his use of empirics and examples. Once again, he pointed to his voting record after the September 11th, 2001 attacks and noted how he was adamantly against regime change in other countries. He took a more historical approach to extreme violence and pointed to the United States consistent role since the 1950s in destabilizing Muslim and Arab nations. Sen. Sanders explained how his presidency would seek changes to streamline U.S. military effectiveness that responded WITH Muslim and Arab nations while also refusing to continue in consistent regime change.
On income inequality, Sen. Sanders was as principled as ever, noting that over the last four or five decades there has been a radical redistribution of wealth, but redistribution in the wrong direction. He promised to reinstate Glass-Steagall to break up big banks, he promised to close corporate and income tax loopholes, and he promised that his cabinet would not include a single Wall Street insider. He also took a moment to note how he was significantly less radical than former President Eisenhower and President Raegan as his tax on the wealthy would not be the 90% and 70%, respectively, of those two presidents.
Sen. Sanders also coherently advocated for an increase of wages to create a trickle down economic effect and he explained how the Affordable Care Act needed revision, not replacing. Important here is that he never discussed “crony capitalism” and he referred to health care reform by its policy name and not by the term “Obamacare”. In fairness, none of the candidates used the term “Obamacare” and instead maturely used the term of the actual policy passed by Congress. This is how we know Sen. Sanders was debating in top form—because rather than rely on sound bite analysis, Sen. Sanders provided historical examples to justify and warrant his ideas for the presidency.
Finally, of all three candidates, it was former Governor Martin O’Malley who had the best debate. Even though he is unlikely to win, Gov. O’Malley consistently noted his executive record in Maryland and pointed to statistics and figures that justified his positions on wage increases, immigration, and gun policy. He also interjected decisively and with confident precision finding critical moments to disagree with both Sec. Clinton and Sen. Sanders. He also did this without looking desperate, as Gov. John Kasich looked in the previous Republican debate.
Gov. O’Malley also had the best moment of the debate when he critiqued sound-bite analysis and the use of the term “boots on the ground”. This term may not be familiar to you, but is often used when discussing U.S. military intervention using soldiers instead of planes or drones. It is a common distinction even in competitive collegiate debate! Gov. O’Malley challenged voters and candidates to avoid such sound-bite analysis and instead remember that soldiers are not merely a pair of boots. By doing this, he linked himself to a complex and progressive position on military intervention and discussions of soldiers and invasion for the rest of this campaign. It was an opportunity to imprint his views in the mind of voters that he took advantage of and will help him remain relevant during the primaries as foreign policy becomes more of a focus.
All in all it was an excellent debate by the Democratic candidates. They exhibited courage, character, and charisma in advocating their personal positions while also fulfilling their burden of rejoinder and responding to each other’s points. As typical of excellent debates, it was easy to overlook blunders that might otherwise become the focus of analysis—such as Sen. Sanders admitting to drug trafficking (albeit for breast cancer medication) or Gov. O’Malley’s consistent use of “smoky eyes” while calling Donald Trump an “immigrant bashing carnival barker.” As I remind my debaters, if you avoid the breadth of sound-bite analysis and instead focus on depth of argument, then the judge will also ignore some of your sound-bites and instead focus on the quality of your position. Explaining arguments is more likely to win debates and if the Democratic candidates continue their impressive performance they are also more likely to win elections.