Zingers and Other Debating Knock Outs

Schroeder believes Kerry might hit Bush with "a one-liner or two based on an economic theme, sort of an updated version of Reagan's 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?' from 1980."

Kerry would likely use such a line during the second presidential debate on Oct. 8, when the discussion will be open to topics beyond the foreign affairs and homeland security that will be covered tonight, or during the Oct. 14 debate covering domestic issues. The vice-presidential debate on Oct. 5 will be open to all topics.

Political Competition

In such debates, says Danziger of Harvard's Kennedy School, it is useful for debaters to encapsulate their thoughts into tidy statements.

"Zingers are important in all public speaking," Danziger says. "I teach my students all the time that one of the most important parts of the speech is a short, dramatic statement of your bottom line, because that's what listeners will remember."

She discourages students from political-style attack zingers, though she understands they may be a symptom of political debates' emphasis on winning public office. Academic debates, on the other hand, can be more focused on ideological persuasion.

"I tell my students that their primary goal should be to provide citizens with the information they need to make the decisions that will affect their lives," Danziger says. "I think most people will agree that the presidential debates have a goal that's quite different from that."


Even if the candidates have what they think are surefire putdowns in store, there may be other arguments against deploying them.

"If they're too sharp or too personal, they can backfire and make the person telling the joke look worse than the target of the joke," Schroeder says.

Such may have been the case in a 1976 vice presidential debate, when Bob Dole relentlessly attacked his Democratic counterpart Walter Mondale.

"He made a crack about Walter Mondale's makeup at one point," Schroeder said. "It was a personal, barbed sort of comment … that went beyond fellowship."

Another Dole remark decried American deaths in "Democrat wars," such as World War I, World War II and the Korean War, prompting Mondale to say, "I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight."

One-liners also can come across as too soft or unoriginal, particularly as viewers have come to expect them.

Mondale still is remembered for a 1984 Democratic primary debate quip in which he asked of an opponent's positions, "Where's the beef?" quoting a popular catchphrase from an advertising campaign of the day.

But perhaps fewer people recall that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis initially got chuckles with a knock-off in 1988, referring to a duplicitous ad pitchman in his comment that Vice President George Bush threatened to become "the Joe Isuzu of American politics." In the same debate, Bush called one of Dukakis' answers, "about as clear as the water in Boston Harbor."

"It was so obvious that they just sort of landed with a thud," Schroeder says. "Certain debaters are more adept at detonating these lines than others. Ronald Reagan was a master at it because he could speak one of these pre-scripted lines and make it sound off-the-cuff and spontaneous."

Schroeder is not certain Bush and Kerry — though both strong debaters — have what it takes to deliver a line for the ages.

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