By Chuck McCutcheon
Coauthor of Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes and Doubletalk
Presidential debates feature many, many words — way too many for some people. But the language of the debates, and the media/political world’s reaction to them, leans on a surprisingly small handful of stock expressions and phrases.
One maxim for politicians – especially in debates – is that you don’t always answer the question that you were asked; you respond to the one that you want asked. So get ready to hear “The question we should be asking…,” in the manner of Democrat John Edwards in 2007, when he was queried about whether he considered Russia a friend or a foe. After a perfunctory nonanswer, he honed in on what he wanted to talk about: “I think the question we should be asking ourselves is, how does America change the underlying dynamic of what’s happening in the world?
… I think for that to occur, the world has to see America as a force for good again, which is why I talked about leading an effort to make primary-school education available to 100 million children in the world who don’t have it.”
This pivot happens so often in debates that there’s a name for it: the “clubhouse turn.” Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder, author of several books on presidential debates, traces the phrase’s origin to Michael Sheehan, a debate coach for Bill Clinton and other Democrats. “‘Clubhouse turn’ strikes me as a particularly appropriate metaphor to apply to debates, since this is a genre with other parallels to horse racing,” Schroeder said.
Another debate maxim is to trivialize unwanted topics by seeking to regain the rhetorical high ground. Hence the popularity of the term “distraction from the real issues.” Lobbyist Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid, calls it “a tried-and-true way to help yourselves get out of the hole and on the offensive.”
Debaters may despise their opponents, but the trick is to avoid seeming petty. That means invoking “with all due respect …” as a preface to leveling criticism, with the perfunctory pretense of appearing fair-minded. It’s the political version of the Southern phrase “bless your heart.” As humorist Dave Barry once wrote in his mock language column: “It is correctly used to ‘soften the blow’ when you wish to criticize someone in a diplomatic and nonjudgmental manner, as in: ‘With all due respect, you are much worse than Hitler,’ or ‘No disrespect intended, but you have the intelligence of a macaroon.’’’
Debates are mostly remembered for their “zingers,” the supposedly spontaneous clever one-liners that can shift momentum toward the candidates who utter them. Former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas is probably best remembered for telling Republican Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” In the Internet age, though, it can be difficult to get in a well-executed zinger, as journalists are constantly watching for scripted talking points.
Also a typical part of any debate is the “hypothetical,” the common reporters’ tactic for trying to get politicians to say something newsworthy. Most politicians, in general, duck legitimate questions by dismissing them as hypothetical. “They even seem to want credit for maintaining high standards by keeping this virus from corrupting the political discussion,” political journalist Michael Kinsley once wrote. But in debates, they’re often inescapable. The last round of GOP gatherings is still noteworthy for the 2011 question that asked candidates whether they would reject a hypothetical deal that cut $10 from the budget deficit for every $1 in tax increases; every candidate raised their hand.
Of course, debate observers will obsess over whether any candidate’s performance is so momentous that it’s a “game-changer.” That phrase’s now-common usage irks some academics looking for less simplistic explanations of how elections are decided.
“When it’s used to label events, it’s used very freely, generally with no empirical basis,” said Bethany Albertson, a University of Texas political scientist who studies political attitudes and persuasion. “I guess pundits are incentivized to use the language because it makes whatever happened sound hugely important, but there’s no check on its use.”
More from Chuck McCutcheon