Ed Lee Senior Director of the Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue


Headshot of Ed Lee 1x1  @edlee3

Areas of Expertise

  • Presidential debates
  • Debate strategies and impact on national politics
  • Use of arguments in public discourse

Overview

Ed Lee, EdD, is senior director of the Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue, which houses Emory’s nationally acclaimed debate team. He is a relentless advocate for public debate and dialogue and is a national media commentator for US presidential debates and the use of arguments in public discourse. He is routinely seen on CNN discussing presidential debate strategies and their impact on national politics. In 2015 he received the Ross K. Smith National Coach of the Year award and is a three-time recipient of the James Unger Award, given to the coach of the best debate team in the country.



Commentary

Democratic National Convention (Aug. 22, 2020)

There is an apocryphal tale of a young Albert Einstein engaging a professor in a debate and convincing them that darkness does not exist. Einstein argued that what we refer to as darkness is merely the absence of light. 

Joe Biden's acceptance speech to be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States also explores the relationship between light and darkness. He presents a worldview where President Trump embodies darkness, and a Biden administration would serve as the countervailing and cleansing light. While the decision to anchor the speech with this juxtaposition provides an accessible and contrasting language for comparing a future Biden presidency with the last four years, the address dwelled far too long on the darkness. 

I applaud the speechwriter for drafting an engaging introduction that quotes the civil rights icon Ella Baker and a memorable conclusion grounded in Irish poet Seamus Heaney's reference to those moments when hope and history are in sync. They did an excellent job on the parts of the 24-minute speech that people are likely to remember. 

Unfortunately, far too much of the speech was a retread of the established and thoroughly vetted criticisms of the Trump administration. It lingers in the darkness of Charlottesville, COVID-19, and corruption while only briefly exploring where we go from here. Biden promises to be an "ally of the light." That requires illuminating the possibilities and presenting a new vision of the world. That was missing from much of the speech. 

One criticism of the Biden campaign is that their primary strategy is to present this election as a referendum on the Trump presidency. In other words, Biden doesn't need a campaign strategy that speaks to a brighter future if it can sufficiently keep the electorate fearful of the darkness. Biden's DNC speech provides some support for this observation. 

A focus on the darkness may ultimately be a winning strategy. However, it falls short of Ella Baker's challenge to "give the people the light."

Joe Biden's VP Pick: Kamala Harris (Aug. 12, 2020)

The United States now has a vice-presidential candidate who can credibly weigh in on the Tupac vs. Biggie debate. We now have a vice-presidential candidate who is interested in transforming the United States into "one nation under a groove." That commitment garnered Senator Kamala Harris the endorsement of Bootsy Collins, member of the Parliament-Funkadelic, when she was running to be Democratic nominee. What does Senator Harris bring to the Democratic ticket as Joe Biden's choice to be the Vice President? She is a politician whose lived experience, educational opportunities, and political awareness have equipped her with the ability to craft compelling and influential messages tailored to her audience's needs and composition. Harris upgrades the ticket's capacity to consistently communicate a message that energizes and resonates with their audience.   

Senator Harris is a brilliant communicator who will deftly blend cultural references with cogent policy analysis. She is eager to have a conversation that seamlessly transitions from political philosophy to music preferences and the interplay of the two. Harris now becomes the chief communicator of the Biden campaign. From a public communication perspective, Kamala Harris seems destined to become the principal messenger for the Biden campaign that appears to have embraced the meme that Biden is trying to win the presidency from his basement. If you are Biden, you don't pick Kamala Harris if you expect your vice president to join you in that proverbial basement. He is smart enough to realize how that would waste her talents and, potentially, garner significant blowback. 

Some came to reference Dick Cheney as George W. Bush's "brain" because of Cheney's role in shaping the presidential campaign and formulating the administration's policies. Senator Harris' superior communication skills and inspiring biography will inevitably make her the "mouth" of the Biden campaign. 

The Biden campaign is now dancing to a different beat. You can find the playlist on Spotify by searching for "Kamala Harris."

Perspective on 2020 Presidential Debates (Aug. 6, 2020)

CHALLENGES

  1. Social distancing - Presidential debates are media spectacles. Outside of the presidential conventions, no other political event draws the attention of the public like presidential debates. The presence of a large audience is one of the elements informing its grandeur. How do you create drama in an environment that requires limited audience participation?
  2. Ad hominem - While all politics are local and personal, we have attempted to hold out the presidential debates as a space for policy analysis. The moderators will have an extremely difficult time keeping the conversation focused on policies with these two candidates. Trumps is a walking ad hominem attack. Biden is not known for having message discipline.  
  3. Septuagenarians - Trump and Biden are both in their 70s. They are also white men. It will feel weird for many people to watch two 70 year old white men debate how we should address racism in the United States.  

OPPORTUNITIES

  1. Focused national conversation - One of my criticism of presidential debates is that they feel like a scattershot. Each candidate has a limited amount of time to address a large number of issues. With over 125,000 people dead, a sustained conversation about COVID19, disease prevention, and health care access for an entire debate is justified.  
  2. Trump rebound - Elizabeth Warren used the debates to destroy Michael Bloomberg’s candidacy. Four years ago, Chris Christie returned Marco Rubio to the Senate with a scathing critique that Rubio’s lacked an original thought and he was “robot Rubio stuck on repeat.” Trump needs to use the debates in a similar fashion. His ticket back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave is increasingly dependent on the debates generating large scale public acceptance of the Trump campaign’s critique that Biden is not fit to be president. 
  3. VP debate - This has the ability to relegate the presidential debate to the undercard. We may see a woman of color is in this debate for the first time. With addressing structural racism high on the list of national priorities, she will walk onto the debate stage perceived as more credible on that issue than her three male counterparts. That will probably also be true with issues related to health care and poverty reduction. Those are issues women are perceives as more credible.  

Ninth Democratic Debate (Feb. 19, 2020)

The Bloom is Off of Bloomberg 

That did not take long. 

Long period of silences. Flippant responses to allegations of sexual harassment. No strategy to fight off the highly predictable deluge of attacks at the beginning of the debate. It looks like Mayor Bloomberg needed a few more practice speeches before jumping in the middle of the ninth Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.   

Debating is difficult. It requires a keen sense of timing, a command of the policies being deliberated, and a strong sensitivity to the rhetorical needs of your audience. All of that must be done while simultaneously fending off opponents who spent a significant amount of time, money, and energy figuring out how to undercut their arguments and candidacy. Bloomberg’s defense against Senator Warren’s attack on his confidentiality agreements was atrocious. It came across as smug and crass. His defense of not releasing his tax returns was Trumpian. Not very persuasive in a Democratic presidential debate. Did he not have a better response to the challenge to his stop and frisk policy?

Under the best of circumstances, debate contestants leave their audience gobsmacked and inspired. The worst-case scenario is a candidate who leaves the stage overwhelmed by the moment and much smaller than they arrived. Bloomberg’s performance was closer to the latter than the former. I am not sure how many millions of dollars worth of television ads are required to paper over his poor performance.   

While Mayor Pete and Senator Klobuchar jousted over the relevance of governing experience, and Mayor Bloomberg continued to shrink, we were reminded that experience and practice matters mightily when it comes to oratorical performances. Bloomberg looked unprepared. His performance feels disqualifying. 

I guess we will find out whether people are paying attention to debates or television ads. 

Seventh Democratic Debate (Jan. 14, 2020)

After a passionate defense of democratic socialism by Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer offered one of the more technically compelling arguments in last night’s CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic presidential debate. Mr. Steyer set up his case by recounting a conversation President Trump had with Florida voters. President Trump indicated that America would reelect him regardless of people’s disdain for his persona because elections are referendums on the state of the economy, and the economy is currently doing well. Steyer couched his argument in a defense of his entrepreneurial zeal, not financial support from his father, as the foundation of the billions in his banking accounts. Focusing on his job-generating capacity was a sound argumentative strategy because it sufficiently neutralized the most potent argument for President Trump’s reelection.

While I found Steyer’s argument technically compelling from a strict argument perspective, I may be the only viewer of the debate who remembers it next week. I predict many reading this comment will not be able to recall that moment. Additionally, none of the cable news debriefings will explore this part of the debate. 

The inability of Steyer’s cogent argument to gain traction outside of a small collection of people scoring the presidential debate like a mathematical equation is a reminder that compelling and impactful presentation comprises of much more than a logically coherent argument. It requires a trusting engagement with the audience, a keen understanding of their values, and the rhetorical flair to leave an impression. A difficult task, indeed. 

While the economy may be the dispositive issue in this election, a logic-driven argument alone will do little to change how the electorate thinks about that issue. It never has and never will. 

Sixth Democratic Debate (Dec. 19, 2019)

In Argumentation and Debate, one of the iconic textbooks used to teach debate in many U.S. colleges and universities, Austin Freeley and David Steinberg identified audience analysis as a sine qua non for an effective debate speech. They argued that the capacity to accurately predict what the audience needs to hear and subsequently deliver a message aligned with their expectation is an essential component of a compelling public address. Some of the best debaters have come up short in their most important moments because they misdiagnosed the needs of their target audience. 

Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders' exchange over the lack of people of color participating in the sixth Democratic presidential debate on December 19th demonstrates the utter importance of accurately assessing the needs of the audience before speaking. Yang took an awkward question about being the only nonwhite person debating and brilliantly used it to talk about the unique differences that exist among people of color in the United States. His discussion of how racial wealth gap is devastating Black and Latinx communities demonstrates an understanding that the Democrat party comprises a significant number of people from those communities who are looking for candidates who understand and can speak to their unique needs. Yang's prediction that Cory Booker would soon return to the debate stage also signaled an appreciation of the importance of the minority vote to Democrat success. Andrew Yang is not the most polished speaker in the Democrat presidential debates. However, he consistently demonstrates the power of audience analysis and connecting with one's audience. Listen to the cheers and applause. Notice how the audience is always laughing with him, never at him. Yang knows what the audience needs and continuously connects with them.    

Bernie Sanders was on the opposite end of the spectrum. A fundamental premise of the moderator's question about the debate consisting was primary white people was that Black and Latinx people comprise a sizable and increasingly important constituent of the Democrat party. Sanders's decision to initially ignore the question because he wanted to revisit the conversation about climate change felt political tone-deaf and, potentially, catastrophic. Sanders was functionally asking the audience to ignore the racial disparities in homeownership and maternal health outcomes that Andrew Yang spoke about only seconds ago because climate change constituted an existential threat that should be prioritized over discussions of racial inequities. The audible gasps and a smattering of boos demonstrated the audience's surprise and dismay with Sanders's decision.

Sanders miscalculated in analyzing the needs and values of his audience at that moment. While the Democrat party consists primarily of people concerned about climate change, the audience was unwilling to cosign on always prioritizing a discussion of climate change over the exploration of racial inequalities. It was reluctant to dismiss the significance of Yang being the only person of color participating in the debate. I wonder if Sanders's poor decision, implicitly denying the importance of the minority vote on his road to becoming the Democrat nominee, will pose an existential threat to Bernie Sanders's campaign? 

Know thy audience is the first tenet of a successful public address. Andrew Yang knows his audience. He even began his closing remarks by stating: "I know what you are thinking America." After a brief pause, he wryly forwards: "How am I still on stage with them?" Once again, the audience is laughing with Andrew Yang. Once again, he has connected and captured their attention. Once again, I am left wondering how Yang became so good at grabbing and holding his audience's attention with a deadpan, dry humor that seems more appropriate for a standup comedy routine than a presidential debate.

Fifth Democratic Debate (Nov. 21, 2019)

The creation of moments of connection with the audience and avoidance of moments of discord with their perspective determines each candidates' level of debating success. Those moments, positive and negative, can redefine and solidify perceptions about the candidate. They can also halt or energize entire campaigns. Moments of connections or discord are rarely a part of highly scripted opening or closing speeches. Senator Cory Booker's decision to toss his closing speech and audible to a heartfelt tribute to John Lewis was a great choice. As usual, the crucial moments during last night's debate tended to occur with an impromptu utterance that either resonated or bewildered.

Senator Amy Klobuchar had several moments of connection. The audience gathered at Atlanta's Tyler Perry Studios loved her discussion of voter suppression in Georgia and shoutout to Stacy Abrams during an exchange about wealth inequality. Additionally, Klobuchar's reference to Nancy Pelosi as empirical proof that a woman can beat President Trump was a moment of rhetorical brilliance that connected.

On the other hand, Vice President Joe Biden had several gaffes that solicited nervous laughter. He looked puzzled by the smattering of laughs after he referenced the country's collective need to keep "punching" at the issue of domestic violence. Additionally, passionately stating that he has the endorsement of our nation's only Black female senator while Senator Kamala Harris was on the stage with him has to be one of the worst moments of this year's series of debates.


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