News & Politics

“Competitive and Slightly Unhinged”

Why college debaters dominate Washington’s political scene

When Politico ran a front-page story about Austan Goolsbee, the headline was DEBATE CHAMP GOES POPULIST FOR OBAMA’S PLAN. The story noted how “silver-tongued” Goolsbee—recently appointed to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers—had been a national debate champion at Yale.

“Goolsbee’s emergence has come at the right time for Obama,” wrote Ben Smith, who speculated that Goolsbee’s skills as a talker might help compensate for the unpopularity of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council director Larry Summers.

But Summers was a debater at MIT—renowned, according to Harvard debate coach Dallas Perkins, for his ability to exploit his opponent’s mistakes for his own gain.

It’s nothing new for debaters to go into politics: More than half the members of Congress have high-school or college debate experience, as do most Presidents and Supreme Court justices.

Within debate circles, some see the prominence of Goolsbee and Summers as a sign that the Obama administration is more open to discussion about policy.

“It’s been interesting, the role debate’s started playing,” says George Mason University debate coach Warren Decker. “I’ve heard rumors that Obama and Larry Summers have actually organized debates about policy issues so they can really get to hear both sides.”

The presence of two former debaters in Obama’s West Wing shines a spotlight on what has typically been a low-profile extracurricular school activity.

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at the online magazine Slate and Goolsbee’s former debate partner at Yale, believes there’s a natural progression from college debating to running for office: Debate is often a path to law school, which in turn can lead to politics. Says Lithwick: “There’s something about being that competitive and slightly unhinged, which often leads to a career in either field.”

Debate seems to attract students with an interest in politics, and it provides them with lots of information. At the same time, it teaches an automatic answer to every question and often requires memorizing arguments rather than thinking them through—something seen often in Washington.

Fellow students remember debaters John Kerry and Karl Rove as having strong political commitments at an early age.

Keith Roark, a lawyer in Idaho, debated with Rove—who went on to be George W. Bush’s top political adviser—at Olympus High School in Salt Lake City in the late ’60s. “I never knew Karl to have a passionate view on any subject or issue,” Roark says. “It was more this complete commitment to the Republican Party. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anybody who was as single-mindedly devoted to politics. He was fascinated by it—not really by policy topics but more how you get elected, stay elected.”

Tales of Rove’s early intimidation tactics abound—one is that he would bring boxes of index cards to debates, all of them blank. “I’m not sure to what extent that’s true or whether it’s legend invented by Karl,” Roark says. “When I knew him, he was this diminutive guy with a high-pitched voice and horn-rimmed glasses who couldn’t intimidate a cocker spaniel. None of us took him seriously, but you could tell he was going to be a great debater because he was very energetic about it.”

A Weekly Standard article in 2004 said senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry “was always a dove—starting in college,” and it reported on his time as head of the Yale Political Union. Kerry’s interest in debate has continued, along with his liberal politics, through his career.

Reverend David Gray, a director at the New America Foundation, was president of the Yale Political Union when Kerry returned to speak years later. “The two of us snuck out of the reception to talk, and I ended up working for him for a summer,” says Gray, who also partnered with Austan Goolsbee on the debate circuit at Yale.

Yale’s debate team has a rich history when it comes to shaping politicians. In 2004, during the Bush/Kerry presidential debates, it became known that both had taken classes with oratory teacher Rollin G. Osterweis, the university’s longtime debate coach. Kerry went on to debate for Yale; Bush did not.

Politicians without debate experience often find themselves at a disadvantage when elections approach, so some call in the experts. Republicans count on Brett O’Donnell, the former Liberty University debate coach who has helped candidates George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin prep for national debates.

In 2004, O’Donnell met Karl Rove when Rove spoke at Liberty; O’Donnell jokingly suggested that the Bush campaign hire him as the President’s debate coach. A week later, it did.

“I equate coaching political candidates to coaching novice debaters,” says O’Donnell. “Initially, people who did debate preparation focused on policy, but it quickly became obvious that debates are won and lost on performance, not on what a candidate knows about a particular policy. So that’s when folks like me started getting involved. I really look at it like preparing an athlete, because it is a game—except that the stakes are a lot higher.”

O’Donnell is reluctant to talk about former vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin’s debate preparation except to say she was very disciplined. “In political debate, you can’t have an answer for every question because you could never be prepared for everything that might come up,” he says. “So you develop a set of answers and you figure out how to apply those to every question and still advocate your message. She was very good at doing that. She executed the strategy for her debate almost perfectly.”

Lithwick isn’t surprised Goolsbee became an Obama adviser. “He had such a profound talent for politics,” she says. “Everyone at Yale knew he was incredibly smart, but he was also great at connecting with people and talking to them. One of the reasons he was such a phenomenal success as a debater was because he perfected this super-casual approach. He never looked like a preppy, Ivy League prig—he just went out there and had a good time.”

David Gray—who calls Goolsbee as substantive as he is funny—says debate experience clearly confers an advantage in Washington: “Debate emphasizes communication and relationship-building, and there are a lot of people out there who went to the same summer camps, the same colleges, the same law schools and who are now involved in the same political stuff. You see them in DC at parties.”

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here