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How to win a dog-fight

Watching the first presidential debate reminded me instantly of countless boardroom scenes in The Apprentice.

A cacophony of noise.

Pointed fingers and raised voices.

Personal snubs, lies, accusations and an inability to rise above the dog-fight.

Fitting, perhaps, as the incumbent is the very man responsible for the global franchise.

This was a far cry from the witticisms of the likes of Admiral Stockdale in 1992, the confidence personified of John F. Kennedy in 1960 or the considered rhetoric of Obama in 2008.

Distant even from Reagan’s jibing one-liners.

Sad times for America.

As Guardian correspondent David Smith put it:

“The rest of the world – and future historians – will presumably look at it and weep”.

Most of that blame can be laid at the feet of Donald Trump, interrupting and taunting Joe Biden throughout.

But one must also question why Biden was unable to rise above the dog-fight.

A weak moderator?

Consensus would support that Fox News’ Chris Wallace struggled to rein in the interruptions.

And the rules have since been tightened.

Or was Biden thrown by Trump’s attempts to get under his skin?

And is there anything you can do when bullied off the stage with interruptions, lies and personal insults?

Dealing with interruptions

first presidential debate, donald trump, dealing with interruptions

It seemed to me that Trump was intent in making this, in football terminology, a scrappy 0-0 draw.

He was unlikely to win given the sheer weight of the Covid pandemic and the recent release of his tax returns (showing he paid just $1500 in federal tax across 2016 and 2017).

Instead, his strategy was to harass, foul and drag Biden down to the bottom with him.

In that, you have to say, he had limited success.

It’s hard to imagine anyone being bowled over with Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy or his insistence that he did a “great job” in handling the Covid outbreak.

But by scything down Biden at every opportunity, he at least ensured that his opponent was unable to get on the offensive.

So how should you deal with an interruption?

First of all, keep talking on-point.

Raise your voice to the point that your opponent is drowned out.

At that point, it’s the moderator’s job to step in.

To mute Trump’s microphone and clarify the ground rules: you only get a platform if you give one.

If the interruptions continue, challenge the behaviour.

Avoid pleas such as “will you just let me finish?”

Instead, clearly point out that you’re being refused a platform to speak – and find the moral authority in that.

Biden’s retort to Trump has already made it onto several T-shirts:

“Will you just shut up, man?”

While it’s a quickfire soundbite, it hardly plays into the hands of a challenger painting himself as Trump’s opposite.

Poker Face

first presidential debate, joe biden, us election 2020

How would you handle the following attacks?

“You’re the worst President in history”.

“Everyone knows you are a liar”.

“You graduated bottom of your class”.

“Your son received $3.5 million from Russia, let’s talk about that”.

Presumably, you’d react the same way Trump and Biden did.

Audible denial (“it’s not true”).

A breaking of eye contact.

A shake of the head.

Wagging of the finger.

Every fibre in your being wants to deny the claims as stridently and as quickly as possible.

But there is another way.

Watch this video of George Galloway at the US Senate hearing (the real fun starts around the 6-minute mark).

Or this exchange between Vice-Presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Arizona senator John Cornyn.

Both Galloway and Harris are experts in ‘Poker Face’.

The ability to soak an argument up and allow the opposition the time to finish their statement.

And then, after a momentary pause, dismantle the argument.

In the words of Rudyard Kipling:

“If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs…yours is the earth, and everything in it”.

Outline a clear vision

first presidential debate, trump 2020, outline a clear vision

I would find it difficult to confidently articulate the vision of either Trump or Biden.

Other than Make America Great Again (2020 edition) or Build Back Better (much in the image of the Hillary’s Clinton’s Working for Change), it’s hard to define the actual policies.

I know where Biden stands on racial equality, tax policy and clean energy.

I assume I know where he stands on gun laws, abortion and healthcare.

But what’s the vision?

Where will America be in 2024 or 2028?

This is the beauty of the Trump slogan and most likely the reason he’s kept it.

It signals a clear and unfinished goal, which supporters can rally behind.

In his next debates, then, Biden must find a way to talk about fairness, equality before the law, individual opportunity, America’s place in the world.

Here we can take a leaf out of the book of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

While Scotland appears split on her policies, it’s clear that when it comes to campaigning (and debating specifically), she’s a cut above the rest.

She dominates by linking regularly to the sense of moral authority (protecting lives, pursuing social justice, improving life chances).

She also uses ‘circuit-breakers’ in her speech.

Lines that stop the see-saw of the debate and wrestle the platform away from her opponents, such as:

“There’s a really important issue here – let me outline it”.

“I see it differently – let me tell you why”.

“I’d like to counter that in the strongest possible terms, for one very simple reason”.

In 2015 during the election debates, these lines were so successful that the First Minister was actually able to take a sip of water after each of these sentences, before resuming at her leisure.

She commanded airtime.

Show empathy with the audience

first presidential debate, donald trump, us election

It’s unsurprising that much of the debate focused on Trump’s handling of coronavirus.

Biden accused Trump of panicking, then ridiculed him as “the man who told you to inject bleach into your arm”, with Trump replying that he was obviously being sarcastic.

Trump followed up by blaming China for the virus and arguing that his administration had done “a great job” in limiting the impact of Covid-19 across America.

That’s unlikely to win him many votes, as the official death toll passes 200,000.

What could he have done?

At the most, accept some personal responsibility for calling the virus “a hoax”, suggesting it would “go away” and failing to wear a mask in public early on (like many world leaders).

At the very least, accept the significance of the outbreak and that mistakes were made along the way.

For me, true leadership involves accepting responsibility for things going wrong, despite the intentions.

When New Zealand’s Prime Minister urged 700,000 Aucklanders to get tested for Covid earlier this month regardless of symptoms, it unintentionally led to a Covid outbreak.

Very quickly, Ardern accepted personal responsibility:

“We will be accountable. We will never shy away from standing in front of you and answering the questions, and equally – the most important thing – we will always fix it.”

And of course, without accepting that responsibility, it’s almost impossible to move the debate on.

Focus on you

first presidential debate, joe biden, us election

Normally at Pink Elephant, we’d advocate that you remove yourself and focus solely on the audience.

This is slightly different.

250 million eligible Americans voters are deciding whether to support you and your policies, so you must be at the heart of it.

What you must always avoid is to waste any of your airtime discussing the opposition.

What does it say about Biden and Trump’s plans that they’ve spent more time deriding each other than focusing on their own?

Consider the fact that one in three eligible voters watched the 2016 presidential debates.

And each candidate has about 12 minutes of time to present their case before the debate begins.

It’s the ultimate elevator pitch.

Why would you waste your breath on the opposition?

By all means, compare and contrast your records.

Demonstrate why you’re the better choice.

But mounting an all-out attack shows you’re uncomfortable holding the mirror up to yourself.

And that’s where I’d like to see both candidates focus in the next debate, if they’re able to rise above the scrap.

The first presidential debate

first presidential debate, kamala harris, dog fight

I spoke recently to a friend of mine who writes speeches for a certain mainstream political party in Westminster.

I asked him why the majority of Prime Ministerial and presidential debates focus so heavily on criticising the opponent’s record.

“Well, you have to start with the view that most people hate politicians. And they’re more likely to vote to block someone’s path to power than pave it”.

That was difficult to hear.

And as much as I value his insight, my experience tells me there’s a different path.

The first Vice-Presidential debate takes place in Utah next week.

Let’s see if either of the apprentices can point their masters towards it.


Andrew McFarlan is Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos in How to Win a Dog-Fight blog all on
Gage Skidmore on / CC BY-SA; Photo by FolsomNatural on / CC BYIoSonoUnaFotoCamera on / CC BY-SAElvert Barnes on / CC BY-SA

How to Win a Dog-Fight blog edited by Andrew McFarlan.

1st October 2020 Featured in: Blog, Commentary By:

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