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Monday, September 08, 2008

A critique of Dahlia Lithwick's debate advice to Joe Biden

Dahlia Lithwick tells us in her latest online column in Slate that she is a "longtime parliamentary debater" (by which I think she means, she's from Canada) and a "longer-time female," and that as such, she is going to "humbly offer [Joe Biden] a few tips on how to debate a girl."

I have no fonder hope tonight than that Sen. Biden will read Ms. Lithwick's column carefully, and that he will do his very best to follow her advice.


Some of the advice is poor because it's based on silly premises. For example:

[A]s any college debater will tell you, it's far harder to beat a clumsy opponent than a good one. (That's why you do better in your judiciary committee hearings with John Roberts than with Alberto Gonzales.)

To which the only possible reply is: In what alternative universe was Ms. Lithwick residing during the Roberts confirmation hearings? And does she really mean to argue that clumsy debaters regularly beat good ones? If so, ought not she re-define her notions of what "good" is?

This sounds suspiciously like a meme that would be very popular on the bus-ride home of just about every second-place parlimentary debating team.


The bigger problem is that Ms. Lithwick seems, as a "longtime parlimentary debater," to be convinced that American presidential and vice-presidential debates are scored like college debates. Thus she writes, in the key prescriptive paragraph telling Sen. Biden what he should do (as opposed to most of the rest of her essay, which tells him what he should not do):

Take a page from Campbell Brown's book and ask politely (and like you really want to know the answer and not just hear yourself say the question) what she learned while leading the Alaska National Guard into that war against Saskatchewan. But play to your strengths. Know stuff. Say it briefly. Don't accuse her of not knowing things. Just know more. An insanely successful college debate friend told me recently that the way he won against women was by always behaving like they were men.

The problems with this paragraph are manyfold. To begin with, it contradicts the sound prohibitory advice that Ms. Lithwick offers elsewhere, which boils down to "don't be a bloviating, condescending, smug jerk." Making a snarky remark like Ms. Lithwick's Saskatchewan taunt would be doing exactly that — and the fact that Ms. Lithwick herself can't resist letting a crack like that slip into an otherwise coherent paragraph shows us just how hard it is to pretend to be something you're not. Ms. Lithwick is snarky, intellectually dishonest, and a compulsive exaggerator, albeit one who's occasionally quite funny; and she can't keep those traits from infecting her writing. And Joe Biden is snarky, smug, and a compulsive exaggerator, albeit one who's occasionally funny too. (I don't think he's deep enough to be intellectually dishonest, frankly.) Can he be expected to keep those traits from infecting his debate responses?

What hope does Sen. Biden actually have for following the advice in this paragraph (profanity editing mine):

There is no easy way to tell you this, Joe Biden, but the surest way for Joe Biden to lose a debate against Sarah Palin is by being Joe Biden. If you are windy, pompous, unctuous, or pushy, you will come across as patronizing and condescending — the guy who puts the "boy" into "old boys' network." If you flirt and smirk and flatter (Did you truly tell an Ohio crowd you thought Palin was "good-looking"? Did you really introduce us to your wife, Jill, by leering that she is "drop-dead gorgeous"?), you're going to sound like the creepy guy in the trench coat at the back of the porn theater. If you can manage to be your warm, amiable self, even if you're going bats**t on the inside, you will do fine.

That boils down to, "Be something you're not — please!" That worked so well, after all, for Al Gore in 2000, in which in each of the presidential debates he seemed to be on a different mind-altering drug, and at least a couple of them were psychosis-inducing. (This is me being snarky, by the way.)

If they're already committed — if they are perceiving the debate through lenses ground and tinted to guarantee that their candidate looks splendid — then voters might not notice this phoniness. If they're genuinely open-minded, though, voters can and will spot phonies, which is why despite very average or below-average substantive debating skills, George W. Bush did just fine overall, and picked up some net number of voters, in his debates against both Gore and Kerry.


But back to her prescriptive paragraph, which boils down to "Know stuff." In the first place, that's asking a lot from Slow Joe Biden, 76th out of 85 in his law school class, and a slow enough learner that after being busted for plagiarism back then, he managed to get busted for plagiarism again in his 1988 presidential campaign. Ms. Lithwick, who I think is quite bright (and was probably indeed a better "parlimentary debater" for that) has clearly fallen victim to the mistaken notion that because Biden has been in the Senate since the days when Spiro Agnew was still the vice president and gasoline sold for $0.36/gallon, he therefore must have learned a lot of "stuff" that will be useful during the debate. If that's true, then Joe Biden has done a masterful job of concealing that, not only during televised senate hearings and press conferences, but during the fourteen Democratic presidential debates he participated in during 2007.

But even if Sen. Biden has an encyclopedic knowledge that he's somehow managed to conceal so far, just "knowing stuff" is not very close to the top of the list on what Americans look to political debates to tell them about the candidates. When she ran for governor of Alaska in 2006, Sarah Palin faced an independent candidate, Andrew Halcro, who'd been a state legislator and runs a large rental car operation. Here's a relevant passage from Kaylene Johnson's biography of Gov. Palin (at page 106):

[Halcro] continued to insist that Sarah was a political lightweight. In one debate, Halcro asked Sarah if she knew what percentage of the state budge went to constitutionally mandated services.

Because Sarah did not give a percentage, Halcro sarcastically replied, "Sarah, I didn't hear an answer to my question, so let me repeat it to you, and I'll say it slower." Sarah responded that as a candidate she expected trash talk from her opponents but she hoped he didn't treat his customers so disrespectfully.

At a Rotary Club forum, Halcro goaded Sarah about the price of oil after she talked about how Alaska was in a good position with oil prices at nearly $58 a barrel. Halcro corrected her. "From what I understand," he said, "oil closed yesterday at $53 and change, but you know, what's $5?"

"He's the smartest boy in the room," Sarah said later. "He always knows everything."

But the "smartest boy in the room" finished a distant third, with nine percent of the vote in the general election. Even if he had not been rude and condescending — and it's awfully hard not to be, or seem to be, that way when you're showing off that you "know stuff" — a photographic memory or instant recall of statistics aren't qualities that leaders actually need.

Ms. Lithwick probably would have been among those who, listening to the Kennedy-Nixon debates on the radio, were certain that Nixon had won; whereas most Americans who saw them on television reached exactly the opposite conclusion. "Wow," she would have said, "Kennedy had absolutely no rebuttal on point to Nixon's point about Quemoy and Matsu! Score!" And meanwhile the people on TV were thinking, "My, that Kennedy fellow looks confident! And why is the Vice President sweating so much?"

"Knowing stuff," and demonstrating that in the debates, is not what brought Ronald Reagan two sweeping victories, nor what made him a successful president. Americans use these debates to judge candidates on a wide range of qualities, many of them entirely subjective. "Connecting" and "establishing a comfort level" are more important, even though it's impossible to tell or teach someone how exactly to do that.


As awful as much of Ms. Lithwick's other advice and analysis is, however, here is the very worst of it:

Your real problem is that Palin is not a serious candidate. I don't mean to suggest that she is not a serious person or even a seriously impressive first-term governor with real potential to shake up national politics. Nor do I want to imply for an instant that Palin is not a serious competitor. I just want to state here what you will be unable to say out loud at the debate: That by every obvious metric — experience, knowledge base, decades of public service, policy experience, understanding of the world — Palin is an unserious candidate for the vice presidency of the United States.

Oh, I dearly hope that Sen. Biden shares each and every one of these views! I hope that as he formulates every single answer, he's thinking to himself: "Sarah Palin is not a serious candidate like me (but I can't say that in so many words)." I have great cause for optimism on this score: I think that's what Biden probably already thinks, and I'm pretty sure that's what most of his bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young advisers think too — Ms. Lithwich is perfectly emblematic of the members of the Modern Left who write position papers and plot strategies and brief candidates.

In my judgment, the only way that Joe Biden can hope to claim even a draw against Sarah Palin would be to acknowledge her — not just superficially, but genuinely — as a complete equal with different substantive views. He should treat her, in other words, the way he'd probably treat John McCain. From that posture, he could focus on making the best possible case for his and his running-mate's views, leaving it to the audience to draw the comparison with his opponents' views and similarly leaving it them to conclude, if they're so inclined, that his and Obama's are better. He should probably finish four-fifths of his answers with time left on the clock — something he did exactly once during the Democratic primary debates, in the only moment of success he managed to eke out from the whole series of them.

I'm pretty sure, though, that that's expecting the impossible of Joe Biden. A senator of smaller ego (say, Chris Dodd) might have managed that; Hillary might have, if that were the message discipline of the day programmed into her by her team. But asking Joe Biden to (a) accept Sarah Palin as a genuine equal and also (b) mostly shut the hell up is like asking a dog to stop licking its genitals: Even if he could understand why you wanted him to do that, and even if he wanted to please you, he just couldn't sustain the effort to resist. Eventually he'd give in — doing it is in his nature, and besides, it just feels so good.

Posted by Beldar at 11:33 PM in 2008 Election, Palin, Politics (2008) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to A critique of Dahlia Lithwick's debate advice to Joe Biden and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) arb made the following comment | Sep 8, 2008 11:59:30 PM | Permalink

"There is no easy way to tell you this, Joe Biden, but the surest way for Joe Biden to lose a debate against Sarah Palin is by being Joe Biden."

Although being Neil Kinnock didn't work so well either...

(2) MartyH made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 12:18:44 AM | Permalink

I think the VP debate is perfectly timed for Palin. Congress will have just had a wrangle over the offshore drilling ban. Either they bundled it in with a spending bill and dared Bush to veto it, or they let the ban lapse. Either way, it will have been in the public consciousness the week before the debate and may still be ongoing at the time of the debate.This plays to Palin's strong suit.

I'd lay good odds that McCain announces his support for ANWR drilling the day of the debate. Again, this plays to Palin's strengths and throws Biden a curve ball.

(3) A.W. made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 12:43:33 AM | Permalink

Lithwick's been deranged for years. I used to be able to rely on her for interesting, although leftward leaning commentary.

But I don't know when, but somewhere along the line she went nuts. it was clear that it had happened when she gave an analysis of the debate in heller v. doe that was simply insane and counterfactual.

(4) Frank made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 1:43:22 AM | Permalink

Hey, I agree - Sarah rocks, and she'll own Biden in the debates! But we shouldn't build a cult around her yet. That's what the Liberals did when they got caught up in what Obama was saying a year ago. Let her build her street cred a step at a time. And let us not get caught up in all the drama, no matter how good it feels right now.

(5) Max Lybbert made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 2:29:31 AM | Permalink

Back before he really took politics personally, Dick Morris wrote a book called "The New Prince." In it he states that Presidential debates are not scored like academic debating clubs.

The easiest way to score a Presidential debate is to look at how much of the debate was taken up by Republican or Democratic issues. Even if the Republican is the one talking about schools or Global Warming the Democrat will benefit (and if the Democrat is talking about taxes, the military or -- in the current climate -- energy policy, then the Republican will benefit).

But, yes, I'm looking forward to "star debater" Biden proving that he's always been a disaster.

(6) Steve made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 3:31:55 AM | Permalink

Chris Dodd is less of an egotist than Biden? I hadn't noticed...

(Also: "eke", not "eek".)

(7) liontooth made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 4:54:51 AM | Permalink

...ask politely (and like you really want to know...
...what she learned while leading the Alaska National Guard into that war against Saskatchewan.

Making a snarky remark like Ms. Lithwick's Saskatchewan taunt...

The punditry would know it's a snark, but how hard would it be to spin that into a Biden gaffe to the masses?

(8) Neo made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 6:39:26 AM | Permalink

I realize the format was different, but a rude and condescending Al Gore was said to have won the NAFTA debate against Ross Perot, but that involved hand-to-hand debating, something that the etiquette of a VP debate would not allow.

...ask politely (and like you really want to know...
...what she learned while leading the Alaska National Guard into that war against Saskatchewan.

The proper response is .. enemy identifcation

(9) stan made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 7:21:03 AM | Permalink

Why do liberal pundits have such difficulty with reality? In the dead tree WSJ this morning, a lefty from TNR said that the GOP has to stop Gay-bashing. "Bashing"?!

For a good example of bashing, they might check out a video of the Rev. Wright or Father Pfleger. There they will find some serious bashing going on. Or perhaps listen to Democrats speak about the president.

But failing to support the expansion of marriage to include same sex couples is not "bashing".

Is there a liberal pundit who lives in the real world of fact? Not a rhetorical question. I suppose Mickey Kaus might qualify, although his slander of the Swiftvets counts against him. Other than Kaus, can anyone name a pundit who actually deals in real world fact as opposed to the looking glass world of the left-wing imagination?

Is there an honest lefty out there who recognizes that Bush didn't lie about WMDs, that Wilson and Plame did lie about Bush, and the tax cuts really did shift the tax burden away from the middle class and onto the highest incomes? Is there an honest lefty out there who recognizes that Gitmo isn't a torture chamber, Bush didn't steal the 2000 election or kill the Kyoto treaty and the world didn't love us until Bush made them hate us?

In theory, it should be possible to support lefty policies without also believing in a pack of lies. But if such lefties exist, they sure seem hard to find.

(10) stan made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 7:28:08 AM | Permalink


Speaking of Supreme Court, check out this -- link

Orin Kerr notes the vast difference in attitudes b/w Obama and McCain supporters on a "living constitution".

(11) S. Weasel made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 7:44:30 AM | Permalink

Excellent questions, Stan. I've often wondered the same. I have lefty friends aplenty, but they remain my friends because I NEVER talk politics with them. They occasionally try to talk politics with me, but I slam a lid on it.

Good hiking buddies are hard to find.

(12) Cleanthes made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 8:13:11 AM | Permalink

"Why no, Joe, I never called the Alaska National Guard into action against Saskatchewan." Has the the Delaware National Guard launched any amphibious attacks on Prince Edward Island during your tenure?"

(13) Rob Harrison made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 8:55:01 AM | Permalink

Thanks very much for the post; I couldn't help thinking as I read that piece how ignorant and idiotic it was. Clearly, Lithwick knows absolutely nothing about Gov. Palin as a debater; if Sen. Biden follows the approach Lithwick recommends, Gov. Palin will field-dress him right there on the stage.

(14) charclax made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 10:02:16 AM | Permalink

Should have read:

That by every obvious metric — experience, knowledge base, decades of public service, policy experience, understanding of the world — Obama is an unserious candidate for the presidency of the United States.

They should be very careful slinging mud at Gov. Palin. No matter what they throw, it's going to boomerang at them.

(15) Neo made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 10:29:19 AM | Permalink

"Saskatchewan ?? Oh, I heard you had a partition plan."

(16) Jim Davis made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 10:30:22 AM | Permalink

War against Saskatchewn?

I'm glad you asked that question. That was a tough campaign 'cause we had to fight our way through the Yukon, British Columbia, and Alberta just to get there! It was almost as far as Ike had to go from Normandy to the outskirts of Moscow. So this logistical triumph alone would place me up there with Ceasar, Alexander the Great, and Napolean....I really learned a lot.

(17) Old Coot made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 3:22:45 PM | Permalink

Jim Davis: Great response...I laughed so loud my wife almost called 911.

(18) William Krebs made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 4:12:09 PM | Permalink

On the Saskatchewan gambit: the counter-snark is to say, "To begin with, Alaska doesn't border on Saskatchewan..."

(19) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 5:52:00 PM | Permalink

Eek! Thanks for the catch, Steve, duly corrected. (I'm always genuinely grateful for all such corrections.)

(20) furious made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 5:59:42 PM | Permalink

Me, I think the roadsides in Alaska are littered with the bodies of opponents who thought they were smarter than Sarah Palin.

They bring a knife, Sarah Palin brings a .300 Weatherby Magnum -- that's the ALASKA way.

(21) ElizabethR made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 7:43:15 PM | Permalink

I have scoured over Palin’s political career records and while I am thrilled to see women rise in the echelons of power, she seems unprepared to be VP, much less POTUS.

It’s not just inexperience, it’s (1) she is imposing her anti-choice (even in case of rape!) religious beliefs on other women - and that is not American; (2) she believes in Creationism being taught in school, Rapture and End of Days; (3) she’s only been under scrutiny since August 29, and she’s already been proven to be lying about a number of issues, (4) she claims to want to help handicapped children yet opposes stem cell research and cuts funding for special ed and (4) she clearly has impetuous and Machiavellian governing methods.

Biden seems a solid choice. Tons of experience (became senator at youngest age possible), and spent a lifetime making waves in mostly good ways. I like the fact that Biden is not afraid to say what he thinks on subjects (even if he blusters too much sometimes) and I *love* the fact that although *HE PERSONALLY* does not believe in abortion, he believes we should allow each woman to make that decision for themselves.

I can’t contribute any more cash than the $100 I already gave.. but I have been posting calm and rational messages with links to some informative websites – at all the crazy extremist right wing blogs I see out there (this is not one of them) – there you read thousands of people praising the way she acts.

If you don’t want to be told how to worship; if you don’t want women having abortions with coat hangers; if you don’t want your social security and your grandchildren’s education spent on war…. please send emails and your favorite Anti-McCain links to anyone you know that is considering voting for McCain-Palin. It’s what I’ve been doing with all my free time : )

http://www.VicePresidentDebates.com – each page a side by side look at candidate’s positions on dozens of issues

http://www.McCainNotFit.com – this is horrifying; organized facts/videos about McCain. Why everybody should focus on him instead of Palin.

http://www.McCainHatesWomen.com – Yes he does indeed. That’s why he selected someone that wants to control women

http://www.FirstLadyDebates.com - Side by side videos of Michelle and Cindy. (I’d rather have a beer with Michelle)

(22) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 8:46:29 PM | Permalink

ElizabethR: Thank you for the civil comment, ma'am, but you're opinions are suspect since they're based, in at least some respects, on badly mistaken factual premises. Perhaps instead of leaving links on blogs, you might spend some time looking into the actual facts from less partisan sources, or at least checking out for yourself some of the presentations from admittedly partisan pro-Palin blogs (of which this is one). Even some reliably left-leaning sources (e.g., factcheck.org) have already debunked some of your premises.

My readers can't tell that your email address is from a domain named "McCainHatesWomen.com," but I can, ma'am. Investing yourself emotionally in hatred, or a world-view which projects that onto others, will end up leaving you bitter and empty. I doubt I can convert you or persuade you on matters of policy on which we differ. I hope, though, that you'll reconsider your venom and its productivity.

Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey were both intensely partisan, yet they were joyous, happy warriors — not haters. Can we at least agree that theirs was an attitude to which you and I, and everyone, ought to aspire in this political season?

(23) Milhouse made the following comment | Sep 9, 2008 10:46:50 PM | Permalink

Elizabeth, suppose I told you that I personally do not believe in rape, but I believe each man should be able to make that decision for himself, and that it's not American for anyone to impose their anti-choice beliefs on other men? Would you accept such a claim?

If someone would make rape legal, and would not use force to stop rapists, then it is nonsense to speak of them as anti-rape. And if someone is willing to stand by and watch innocent babies be massacred, and would not use the force of the law to stop it, then it's nonsense to speak of them being personally against abortion.

And speaking of rape, do you think it would be OK to execute a 40-year-old if it was discovered that his father was a rapist? No? How about a 5-year-old? Still no? Then why would you expect a pro-lifer to allow an 8-month foetus to be killed just because she resulted from a rape?

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