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


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.


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.

Recent Media Coverage