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Just ask Peter Sagal: Political debates

Need to Know’s newest contributor, Peter Sagal, has assumed the vital role of advice columnist to public figures who didn’t ask for his advice. This time, he turns his attention to candidates about to participate in eleventh hour debates, and offers some helpful suggestions:

Dear Need to Know,

I’m a major party candidate about to face my opponent in a debate. What should I do to seal the deal with voters?

Nervous Behind the Podium.

Well Nervous, the political debate is one of the lasting hallmarks of our democratic system, a reminder of its noble roots in ancient Greece. So of course you should figure out how to use it to kick your opponent’s ass.

First off, do not try winking. It’s been done. And if you try to outdo prior winkers by winking more, you’ll end up looking less like a credible candidate and more like someone with a facial tic. Like Herbert Lom in “The Pink Panther Strikes Again.”

Pre-written slogans do not work. Your audience will have heard them before, and the only people who get points for memorizing simple lines of dialogue are ten-year-olds who play shepherds in the Christmas pageant.

You know what does work? Insults. We don’t admire people for being able to take a punch. We’re Americans! We say, Hey, while you were taking that punch, you could have been punching someone. For example, he was a congressman, a senator for twenty years, the secretary of the treasury, and a vice presidential candidate, and what is the only thing anybody remembers Lloyd Bentsen for?

“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

It’s already working this year. Insults, invectives, zingers, put-downs:

Sharron Angle: “Man up Harry Reid.”

We’ve even had fistfights!  Sort of. I’d compare it to professional wrestling, but this year that would be a partisan comment:

Linda McMahon: “Perseverance. Washington could use some of that.”

Here are some suggestions for debate insults: My opponent is so fat, when he sits around the House of Representatives, he really sits around the House of Representatives — except he won’t sit around the House of Representatives because I shall defeat him in this election. Like that, but better. Think of it as a starting point. You guys brainstorm from there.

You could also combine insults with another rich vein of American political discourse. Prop humor.

Like so [picks up the phone]: “Hello? It’s the ash-heap of history calling for my opponent. They’re holding a place for him.”

Go ahead and use that. No charge. But when you get into office, my kids have been asking for a F35 joint strike fighter. Call me.