Opinion: The art of debate

POSTED: 09/26/13 1:56 PM

The fifteen regulars who bother to follow debates in our parliament live via the internet will have noticed that some of our parliamentarians have a habit of becoming emotional when they speak. They are not really emotional of course, everybody understands that, but they play emotional. And sometimes it looks like they are angry about the way things are going – or about the way things are not going their way.

In the emotional playground, MPs like Romain Laville, Johan Leonard, Louie Laveist and – to a certain degree – Jules James stand out. Boy when they get going, the moment they are gonna burst out in tears and call for their mommy never seems far away.

Roderik van Grieken, the director of the Dutch Debating Institute and a columnist for the Volkskrant, explained yesterday what this behavior is all about: for a successful performance in a parliamentary debate the viewer must feel that you stand for your story, he notes as an observer to the general debate about the Dutch 2014 budget.

“There is traditionally a lot of media attention for this confrontation between the faction leaders and the prime minister, an excellent opportunity to solidify your position as a political leader. Several elements determine how viewers judge the performance of a politician during the party of the democracy.

The first important step on the way to success is that the politician is well aware of the purpose of his performance. What matters is that you display a powerful image of yourself versus your rivals and that you broadcast a clear political message. Faction leaders often go for completeness. They choose to give attention to practically all political issues so that everyone in the faction and the potential supporters recognizes themselves in it.

This type of stories is doomed to be forgotten already while it is told. Much too many messages that cannot be told properly. The trick is to focus on one or two messages and to build your story around it.

You also have to choose against whom you will profile yourself. A debate is about a dispute. For clarity’s sake it helps enormously when you forcefully react to someone else. The PVV was growing the fastest when Wilders focused his attention completely on the PvdA. His vision was always and everywhere presented at the expense of the PvdA.

As soon as the message and the opponent have been chosen, the real work begins. How do I get my message as forcefully as possible across? That will definitely not happen with quoting calculations from the central Planning Bureau. Statistics are crucial for the daily political grunt work, but not during a debate. That is when carefully selected and well worked out images matter most. The PVV is good at this.

During the budget debate in 2009 Wilders described the last Balkenende cabinet as a little Trabant (an Eastern European car) that had gotten stuck in the swamp with Wouter Bos (Minister of Finance) behind the wheel, André Rouvoet (Christian Union) as the a little bit too happy passenger and Jan Peter Balkenende on the backseat shouting that he was behind the wheel. It was hilarious and accurate and therefore painful for those involved. With this powerful metaphor wilders got all the attention and he managed to get his message across at the expense of the cabinet. And that is what debate is all about.

Another important factor for success is managing the interruption weapon. A good interruption is carefully prepared and ambushes the speaker. Alexander Pechtold is a master in this field. He often presents an opponent with a seemingly clear choice between two options that both cause trouble to the speaker.

A classic example is Pechtold’s interruption in 2009 during an address by CDA-leader Pieter van Geel. Armed with an enormous pile of studies that had been commissioned by the cabinet, he asked Van Geel which additional study the cabinet needed before it was finally going to make policy. When Van Geel answered that he was searching for the connection between all studies, Pechtold quipped: “You want me to staple them together?”

This clip was broadcast by all media because it was well-times and because it made a widely shared sentiment among citizens palpable. It seemed spontaneous but Pechtold had put some thorough thinking into it.

A last point: it is crucial that the speaker keeps control of his own address. Job Cohen had a beautiful text in 2011 for his first speaking term. But it fizzled because he got lost in the many interruptions he had to handle. Nowhere did he get near the point where he could get his own message clearly across.

Wilders deals in a totally different way with interruptions, but he does not handle it well either. He ignores practically every interruption with a rude and sometimes insulting remark and continues with his story. It is effective but it does not go together with a good debate.

Mark Rutte on the other hand is a master in answering questions without losing control over what he wants to say. With flair and regularly with humor, but always brief and to the point he goes into the point of the one that posed the question before he continues with his own storyline. Unlike his predecessor, the past couple of years he did not get into trouble a single time during the budget debate. Even better, he radiated that he was happy to defend his policy and that he was truly interested in the remarks of his opponents.

And that is the most important key to success. The viewer must feel that you stand for your story and that you are happy to share it with him.”

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