The art of debate

October 15, 2012|By Zara Husaini @zarhus | RedEye

Presidential debate season is in full swing, and that means several things:

You can create drinking games based on the candidates’ habits or mannerisms. You can throw debate-themed parties and serve tiny blue and/or red snacks. You can make endless jokes about all the faux pas that the candidates inevitably commit. You can obsessively check your social media accounts and not be bored--Facebook is never as juicy as it during a debate.

Or you could, you know, actually watch the debates in an attempt to learn something about the candidates.

If that’s your plan, DePaul University debate coach/instructor Beth Zoufal can help you navigate the sometime's complicated give-and-take of a President Obama-Mitt Romney debate.

“A good debater understands the issues and understands argumentation. Good debaters listen to their opponents and adapt their remarks based on what their opponent says. They do not just repeat prepared remarks,” she said.

While candidates probably work incredibly hard to prepare for these debates, some things can’t be planned. It’s important for both the candidates to be able to think on their feet.

On the other hand, Zoufal said that one thing to avoid in a debate is “being inconsistent.”

Even in a race that seemed to have been quite polarized from the start, debates do have the power to shape or alter a person’s decision to vote for one candidate over another--just look at Romney's rise after his performance in the first presidential debate. What should we be looking for in a debate? 

“I think viewers should look for a candidate that makes sound arguments and demonstrates that he has the character to be president,” Zoufal said.  “We can learn the stance the candidates are purporting to take on the issues.  We can also see how they handle themselves in a high pressure situation, without media people surrounding them. “

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding this year’s debates (oh hey, Big Bird) but the candidates themselves aren’t the only ones who are under fire. Both Obama and Romney’s supporters have been vocal about wanting to keep moderator Candy Crowley’s role to a minimum during Tuesday’s debate.   

Crowley has said that she’d like to interact with the candidates during the debates to further the dialogue, which may be at odds with an agreement both campaigns made regarding the moderator’s role.

Zoufar said the moderator of any debate should stick to the agree-upon format.

“The role of a moderator is to ensure that the rules of a debate are enforced," she said. "This would include things like enforcing time limits.”

As for level of involvement in the debate--it depends. Obama and Romney’s campaigns may have agreed to nix commentary and follow-up questions, but Zoufal said that in some cases, the moderator directs the flow of the debate.

“It may be appropriate for the moderator to challenge the debaters to answer a question more directly, address an inconsistency, comment on something a candidate has said in a previous setting,” she said. 

Good luck with that.

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