Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Tactical Debate Suggestion For Biden:
How to Defuse a "Zinger":
Lessons from the Huxley-Wilberforce Debate

Given Palin's cluelessness, she can't win on issues. So her handlers are frantically working on ways in which she can win.

Surely they've noticed the buzz about "zingers." Anybody can deliver them, Palin's shown that she's fairly good at it, and they can be written ahead of time by the evil worker drones.

She'll be loaded for bear.

(Or: she'll be loaded for studies of bear DNA, blah blah paternity issue yadda yadda yadda....)

Biden needs to be ready for this.

My guess:
This means: don't try to fight her zinger for zinger--she might very well win. Why enter into a type of combat in which she's at least roughly equally skillful?

So: be prepared to take on zingers directly, undermining them in a rational manner.

An exemplar of this:

T.H. Huxley to Wilberforce in the 1860 debate on evolution. As you know, Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he was descended from apes on his mother's or father's side. Huxley famously responded:
…that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with…success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real points at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.
Huxley wins not by descending to Wilberforce's level, going zinger against zinger, but by mantaining the high ground, turning the baseness of Wilberforce's attack against him...and, incidentally, saying something true and edifying to the audience as well.

Biden should be prepared to undermine the zingers by hitting them head on--by saying e.g.: "look, this is serious business, and Senator Obama and I treat it like serious business. We violate our sacred duty to our country by obfuscating important issues with clever little quips, prefabricated zingers cooked up by speech-writers and tested on focus groups, and sly insults aimed at distracting people from the issues. Save the "zingers" for campaign rallies, Governor. Here we need to be serious."

People better at this than I am could think of a better way to say this.

Biden might even go for the preemptive strike early on, saying something like: "This is our only chance to talk to the American people. We need to be serious and detailed. To try to fool people with quips and zingers is to admit that one doesn't understand the real issues that face us. So let's be serious here. A tip for viewers: watch out for zingers--if you hear one, ask yourself: what was that supposed to distract me from?"

This would have the additional salutary effect of keeping Biden from shooting himself in the ass with a botched zinger attempt.


Blogger Toby said...

Very astute, and I hope its exactly what Uncle Joe does.

The debate format was changed by the McCain side to help Palin - there will be little interaction, and I think answers will be shorter.

Actually, the format will also help Biden, whose main weakness is being boring and garrulous. And it will not help Sarah Palin unleash her inner pit bull, lipstick or no.

I predict a fairly tame draw, which will in fact be an Obama-Biden victory.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd just like to point out that Huxley's response is something of a zinger as well. He's saying that he'd be embarrassed to be related to Wilberforce. Now, I agree with what you say, and I note that Huxley does couch his response so that the listener remains focused on the matter at hand. Still, the point of the remark seems directed not at education, but at making Wilberforce look like a fool.


2:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I see the point, but I'm inclined to think it relies upon an overly-broad definition of 'zinger.' Though I certainly admit that zinger is a vague concept, so there will be borderline cases.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A zinger is a quick hit attack. A zinger may be based on substance but often is intended as a distractor from substance.

Huxley's response was not a zinger. It was a fully formed and devastating counterattack. Yes, he did say he wouldn't mind having an ape for a grandfather but he'd be ashamed to have Wilberforce in the same spot.

He'd never have gotten away with leading with that kind of statement but it's the perfect counterattack. The original attack legitimizes the force of the response. The nastier the attack, the stronger the response can be without raising the hackles of the audience.

A counter like this is most effective when delivered in a friendly, not angry, tone. The tone and timing are the things that Biden has to watch. If he sounds angry or overly condescending, he'll be crucified for it. If he attacks without provocation, likewise. However, if he turns the force of a Palin attack back at her in an even and serious tone, he'll come out on top.

For maximum effect a counterattack should not come too soon. If Palin establishes a pattern of zingers, she just looks that much worse when the push back comes. Obama is a master at this, both in terms of tone and timing. Biden would do well to learn from his running mate.

Winston's suggestion that Biden make an innoculation statement is an interesting thought. Especially the notion that that it might keep Biden himself from getting carried away in addition to potentially throwing Palin off her game.

4:26 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home