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Bridging Competitive Debate and Public Deliberation on Presidential War Powers

Bridging Competitive Debate and Public Deliberation on Presidential War Powers

by Jessica A. Kurr

Jessica is a Ph.D. student in the Communication Arts & Sciences program at Pennsylvania State University and a coach for the Penn State Debate Society.

            The public debates on presidential war powers co-hosted by the Miller Center and the Cross-Examination Debate Association provide an avenue for intercollegiate debaters to translate competitive research for public use. It has recently become common for collegiate programs to host public debates, tangentially related to the prior year’s topic, following the conclusion of the competitive season. In the last four years, two of these events were hosted by a non-debate organization. In June 2010, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) held a debate featuring the National Debate Tournament champions, Eric Lanning and Carly Wunderlich from Michigan State University, and the Copeland Award winners, Ovais Inamullah and Stephen Weil from Emory University. In May 2013, CSIS held another debate featuring the Copeland Award winners, Andrew Arsht and Andrew Markoff from Georgetown University, and the National Debate Tournament runner-up, Peyton Lee and Arjun Vellayappan from Northwestern University. These events, whether high profile like the CSIS energy debate or low-profile hosted by individual colleges, only occur at the end of the season. As a result, they lack the viability of making a timely intervention into the ongoing deliberation over the year’s topic. The war powers debate, co-hosted by CEDA and the Miller Center seek to reverse that trend.

            The necessity of having ongoing public debates on the collegiate topic serves two key functions. First, an ongoing theme in recent NDT/CEDA topic selection has centered on the “timeliness” of the topic and how the debate community can be more relevant to current events. Topic papers have highlighted the salience of the controversy area to ongoing political deliberation. For instance, the war powers topic paper argued, “The controversy is timely but not too timely – the news is dominated by unchecked presidential war powers such as UAV drone strikes, warrantless wiretaps, and preventive war powers” (Young, 2013, p. 3). Following the announcement of the topic, multiple current events happened that placed war powers in the political spotlight. In June, Edward Snowden released a number of U.S. documents pertaining to surveillance. In August/September, the Syrian conflict called into question whether Obama needed permission from Congress to initiate a strike. While these events may complicate the research burden of collegiate debaters, it affords the debate community a special opportunity to contribute to ongoing deliberation.

            The call for this style of outreach from collegiate debate programs has come internally and externally. Externally, communication scholars have distanced themselves from traditional collegiate debate. J. Michael Hogan criticized that “policy debate,” as currently constructed, fails to “encourage collaboration and public service” (2010, p. 435). Internally, debate coaches have declared a new focus is necessary to sustain debate’s pedagogical benefits. For its students, Gordon Stables claims, “Debate could be more meaningful to the skills needed by tomorrow’s youth than perhaps any time in recent memory” (2011, p. 245). For the public, Matthew G. Gerber argues that we a “more publicly accessible form of intercollegiate policy debate” (2009, p. 92). The war powers debate series is an attempt to move in the direction of achieving each of these goals. For Hogan, they serve as a collaborative effort between debate and non-debate organizations. For Stables, they train collegiate debaters in how policymaking deliberation occurs. For Gerber, they provide a public forum from which to showcase debate research.

            Taken together, the connection between tournament competition and a public collaboration reorients the pedagogical function of debate. Gordon Mitchell and his colleagues comment on this possibility, “The debate tournament site’s potential to work as a translational pipeline for scholarly research presents unique opportunities for colleges and universities seeking to bolster their institutional infrastructure for undergraduate research” (Mitchell et al, 2010, p. 15). Indeed, the debate series affords competitors the opportunity to become part of the discussion and inform policymakers about potential positions, as opposed to the traditional reactionary format of hosting public debates at the season’s end. Empirically, these events had the effect of “giv[ing] voice to previously buried arguments” that “subject matter experts felt reticent to elucidate because of their institutional affiliations” (Mitchell, 2010, p. 107). Given the timeliness of the topic, these debates provide a new voice into the ongoing deliberation over war powers and help make the fruits of competitive research have a public purpose.

The second major function concerns the specific nature of deliberation over war powers. Given the connectedness between presidential war powers and the preservation of national security, deliberation is often difficult. Mark Neocleous describes that when political issues become securitized; it “helps consolidate the power of the existing forms of social domination and justifies the short-circuiting of even the most democratic forms.” (2008, p. 71). Collegiate debaters, through research and competitive debate, serve as a bulwark against this “short-circuiting” and help preserve democratic deliberation. This is especially true when considering national security issues. Eric English contends, “The success … in challenging the dominant dialogue on homeland security politics points to efficacy of academic debate as a training ground.” Part of this training requires a “robust understanding of the switch-side technique” which “helps prevent misappropriation of the technique to bolster suspect homeland security policies” (English et. al, 2007, p. 224). Hence, competitive debate training provides foundation for interrogating these policies in public.

Alarmism on the issues of war powers is easily demonstrated by Obama’s repeated attempts to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Republicans were able to launch a campaign featuring the slogan, “not in my backyard” (Schor, 2009). By locating the nexus of insecurity as close as geographically possible, the GOP were able to instill a fear of national insecurity that made deliberation in the public sphere not possible. When collegiate debaters translate their knowledge of the policy wonkery on such issues into public deliberation, it serves to cut against the alarmist rhetoric purported by opponents.

In addition to combating misperceptions concerning detainee transfers, the investigative capacity of collegiate debate provides a constant check on governmental policies. A new trend concerning national security policies has been for the government to provide “status updates” to the public. On March 28, 2011, Obama gave a speech concerning Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya and the purpose of the bombings. Jeremy Engels and William Saas describe this “post facto discourse” as a “new norm” where “Americans are called to acquiesce to decisions already made” (2013, p. 230). Contra to the alarmist strategy that made policy deliberation impossible, this rhetorical strategy posits that deliberation is not necessary. Collegiate debaters researching war powers are able to interrogate whether deliberation is actually needed. Given the technical knowledge base needed to comprehend the mechanism of how war powers operate, debate programs serve as a constant investigation into whether deliberation is necessary not only for prior action but also future action. By raising public awareness, there is a greater potential that “the public’s inquiry into potential illegal action abroad” could “create real incentives to enforce the WPR” (Druck, 2010, p. 236). While this line of interrogation could be fulfilled by another organization, collegiate debaters who translate their competitive knowledge into public awareness create a “space for talk” where the public has “previously been content to remain silent” (Engels & Saas, 2013, p. 231).

Given the importance of presidential war powers and the strategies used by both sides of the aisle to stifle deliberation, the import of competitive debate research into the public realm should provide an additional check of being subdued by alarmism or acquiescent rhetorics. After creating that space for deliberation, debaters are apt to influence the policies themselves. Mitchell furthers, “Intercollegiate debaters can play key roles in retrieving and amplifying positions that might otherwise remain sedimented in the policy process” (2010, p. 107). With the timeliness of the war powers controversy and the need for competitive debate to reorient publicly, the CEDA/Miller Center series represents a symbiotic relationship that ought to continue into the future. Not only will collegiate debaters become better public advocates by shifting from competition to collaboration, the public becomes more informed on a technical issue where deliberation was being stifled. As a result, debaters reinvigorate debate.


Druck, J.A. (2010). Droning On: The War Powers Resolution and the Numbing Effect of Technology-Driven Warfare. Cornell Law Review, 98(1), 209-238.

Engels, J. & Saas, W. O. (2013). On Acquiescence and Ends-Less War: An Inquiry into the New War Rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 99(2), 225-232.

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Gerber, M. (2009) “Toward Public Sphere Intercollegiate Policy Debate: the Path to Participation?” Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, Vol. 30.

Mitchell, G. R. (2010). Switch-Side Debating Meets Demand-Driven Rhetoric of Science. Rhetoric of Public Affairs, 13(1), 95-120.

Mitchell, G. R., Woods, C. S., Brigham, M., English, E., Morrison, C. E., & Rief, J. (2010). The Debate Authors Working Group Model for Collaborative Knowledge Production in Forensics Scholarship. Argumentation and Advocacy, 47(1), 1-24.

Neocleous, M. (2008). Critique of Security. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Schor, E. (2009, January 26). Not In My Backyard: The GOPers Complicating Obama's Gitmo Closure. Talking Points Memo.

Stables, G. (2011). Re-Imagining Academic Debate in a Digital Era. In R. C. Rowland (Ed.), Reasoned Argument and Social Change (pp. 245-253). Washington: National Communication Association.

Young, K., Koch, J., Najor, B., Hiland, A., Justice, J., Meloche, B., & Slaw, T. (2013). Restoring the Balance: Restricting Presidential War Powers. College Policy Debate Forums