An increasingly popular negative strategy in high school debate over the past two seasons has centered around the multi-plank counterplan. Most often associated with Michigan State University at the college level, the multi-plank counterplan is presented as a single off-case position that includes two or more “planks” in its text. Instead of presenting multiple counterplans as separate off-case positions, in other words, the multi-plank counterplan presents them as a single argument.
Typically composed of multiple policy options aimed at solving all or part of the affirmative case while avoiding a disadvantage that links only to the plan but not the counterplan, the multi-plank counterplan is now commonplace in high-level debates and has become a potent weapon in the negative’s strategic arsenal.
Affirmative teams that fail to adapt and keep up with this negative innovation are putting themselves behind the proverbial eight ball. This article is an attempt to help affirmative debaters effectively respond to the multi-plank counterplan and construct a winning strategy to defeat it.
Approach Cross-Examination Strategically
The cross-examination of the 1NC is particularly important in debates involving a multi-plank counterplan.
First, the disposition of the counterplan needs to be established. Is the counterplan a single position? Or can each individual plank (or combinations thereof) be extended or discarded? Asking for the disposition of the counterplan is not enough; “conditional” or “dispositional” needs to be clarified further for the affirmative to intelligently choose the best strategy for responding to the specific multi-plank counterplan against which they are debating.
Second, the net-benefit(s) to the counterplan need to be clarified and often contested. Is the politics disadvantage the only net-benefit to the counterplan? If so, why does the plan but not the counterplan trigger the link? The affirmative can get a lot of mileage out of a good cross-examination on the veracity of the negative’s intended link distinction.
Third, the solvency of the counterplan should often be questioned. What does a given plank do and why does that action solve the internal link(s) to the affirmative’s advantage(s)? Because multi-plank counterplans often include a “plank of the week” to solve common affirmative impacts, it is likely that the first negative will have little familiarity with the mechanics of the counterplan and the details of its solvency claims. In this way, a good cross-examination of a 1NC on a multi-plank counterplan will mirror a good cross-examination of a 1AC—setting up evidence indicts, investigating missing internal links, highlighting inconsistencies in context, etc. are all effective techniques.
Develop A Persuasive Theoretical Objection
Judges differ greatly in their opinions of multi-plank counterplans: some judges find them inelegant and absurd while others celebrate their strategic value for the negative. With the possible exception of the extreme neg flex fringe, however, the vast majority of judges will be amenable to well-articulated theoretical objections tailored to the specific multi-plank counterplan being debated.
There are two basic approaches that the affirmative should take depending on the specific situation.
Develop a theoretical objection to the disposition of the counterplan. Instead of just repeating the same “conditionality bad” objection that could be made in any debate, affirmatives should specifically object to the multi-plank nature of conditionality. If the negative argues that each plank of their counterplan is conditional, the 2AC should include a specific theoretical objection to this practice (preferably one that has been prepared in advance and which makes a complete, developed argument).
Develop a theoretical objection to the multi-agent nature of the counterplan. Multi-plank counterplans often include planks advocating action by several different actors: the federal government, one or more specific branches of the federal government, the 50-states and U.S. territories, the government of another nation, an international organization, etc. A persuasive theoretical objection can be levied against this practice.
Another theoretical objection that is sometimes levied against multi-plank counterplans is based on the absence of a single solvency advocate for all of its component parts. Because the counterplan as a whole is not advocated in the literature about the plan (or about the affirmative’s harm area in general), affirmatives argue that they cannot be expected to have prepared a defense against it. While this argument may have some merit, it is almost universally considered unpersuasive when each component plank of the negative’s counterplan is supported by evidence from a solvency advocate. While affirmative debaters can certainly make this argument, it tends to be perceived more as a “whine” than as a serious theoretical objection.
When extending a theoretical objection against a multi-plank counterplan in the 1AR, it is important to tailor one’s responses to the specific context of the round. While the reasons that conditionality is bad will certainly apply to a conditional multi-plank counterplan, they are not the best arguments the affirmative can advance—at least not without adapting them to highlight the problems inherent in multi-plank counterplans.
In addition, it is important to answer the inevitable negative counter-interpretation—whether it is “the neg gets one conditional multi-plank counterplan” or “the neg gets a conditional multi-plank counterplan as long as each plank has a solvency advocate” or something else, the negative will undoubtedly attempt to frame their multi-plank counterplan as eminently reasonable and not at all like the unreasonable multi-plank counterplans against which the negative is mounting an objection.
While many judges would scoff at a 1NC that included six conditional advantage counterplans, the same intuition is not as strong when the six conditional advantage counterplans are presented as a single conditional multi-plank counterplan. The key to winning a theoretical objection, then, is to deconstruct the multi-plank counterplan into its component parts and thereby force the judge to consider the argument not as “one conditional multi-plank counterplan” (perceptually reasonable) but as “six conditional counterplans” (perceptually unreasonable).
Use Permutations Strategically
It is imperative that the affirmative advance a series of permutations that can account for each plank of the counterplan. Too often, affirmative teams only offer a permutation to “do both,” inclusive of the plan and all planks of the counterplan. This is not strategic because it leaves the affirmative without the ability to develop a disadvantage to one plank of the counterplan while still capturing the benefits of the other planks. When the only permutation offered is “do both,” the negative can argue that the permutation links to the affirmative’s plank-specific disadvantage and therefore is not net-beneficial.
Instead of advancing only a “do both” permutation, the affirmative should present a “multi-plank do both” permutation: “do the plan and any/every combination of counterplan planks”. While parishioners in the church of neg flex might find this intuitively unfair, it is no different than advancing a permutation to “do both” on each of the independent planks of the counterplan. The benefit to this phrasing of the permutation, of course, is that it does not require the affirmative to invest valuable speech time meticulously permuting each plank of the counterplan one-by-one.
The “multi-plank do both” permutation can be a powerful tool when combined with offensive arguments against one or more planks of the counterplan. By permuting any/every component plank of the counterplan, the affirmative has enabled themselves to advocate the enactment of the plan and the plank(s) of the counterplan for which they do not have an offensive argument but not the plank(s) of the counterplan for which they do have offense. The negative is then forced to make one of three decisions: extend the counterplan as a whole and outweigh the disadvantage to one or more of its planks, kick the counterplan as a whole, or kick only the plank(s) of the counterplan against which the affirmative has made an offensive argument. Regardless of the choice that they make, the affirmative is in good shape—far better shape than they would have been had they only made a “do both” permutation in the 2AC.
Decide When To Read Disadvantages to a Plank
If each plank of the counterplan is independently conditional, the negative has the flexibility to kick out of the plank(s) against which the affirmative has read a disadvantage. As a result, disadvantages to a single plank should not be the core of the affirmative’s strategy if the negative is presenting their counterplan in this way. Unless the affirmative has strong disadvantages against all of the planks of the counterplan, it is far better in these instances to extend a theoretical objection to multi-plank conditionality. If the goal is to win this theoretical objection, reading a disadvantage to one plank of the counterplan can be helpful as a demonstration of the nefariousness of multi-plank conditionality: when the affirmative presents a disadvantage to one part of the counterplan, the negative can simply ignore it by kicking out of that portion of the counterplan.
If the counterplan as a whole is conditional but not its independent components, then disadvantages to individual planks can be much more valuable. Even if the affirmative only has a disadvantage to two of the negative’s five planks, the “multi-plank do both” permutation can help frame these arguments in a way that they can be favorably weighed against the negative’s net-benefit. Forcing the negative to choose between kicking the whole counterplan or outweighing the disadvantage(s) to the counterplan with the net-benefit puts the affirmative in a strong position entering the final rebuttals.
Contest Whether The Politics Disadvantage Is A Net-Benefit
The most popular net-benefit to multi-plank counterplans is the politics disadvantage. When deploying this strategy, the negative will read a specific piece of link evidence on the politics disadvantage in the 1NC that applies to the plan but not to any of the planks of the counterplan. The problem, of course, is that the absence of a link to the planks of the counterplan does not mean that there isn’t a link; the affirmative just needs to tease it out.
Ideally, the affirmative should be prepared with link evidence that can be applied to each plank of the counterplan. While this might seem like an impossible task—after all, the hallmark of the multi-plank counterplan is in many ways its unpredictability—it is easier than most teams seem to think.
First, the affirmative should prepare a politics link to every plank of every advantage counterplan that they have debated during the season. While negative teams often try to stay ahead of the curve by breaking new planks, the reality is that there are a relatively small number of advantage counterplans that an affirmative will debate over-and-over again. There is no excuse for not having a good politics link for each of these counterplans/planks.
Second, the affirmative should prepare links to each of the relevant counterplans produced by summer institutes or disclosed on the NDCA wiki. Even if each specific counterplan is not something a team debates, chances are good that the evidence they have gathered will have utility against other advantage counterplans in the future.
Third, affirmative teams should organize and store copies of politics link backfiles on their computers so that cards can easily be located and read. Many advantage counterplans are recycled from previous topics; this only makes sense—why write a whole new counterplan when the comprehensive research a squad completed in a previous season can be easily retooled? While these recycled counterplans may seem new to current debaters, rest assured that many of them have been exhaustively researched in previous seasons and take advantage of that research as part of your preparation.
Finally, the affirmative should collect a set of generic link arguments that are broadly applicable against a wide variety of policy proposals. When all else fails and the negative reads a plank against which no specific link was researched, the 2AC can fall back on these generic arguments to establish a link. Evidence making arguments like “legislation saps political capital,” “every new initiative distracts focus,” “spending money is controversial,” etc. can be incredibly valuable parts of the affirmative’s politics toolbox.
In addition to preparing links of their own, affirmative teams should capitalize when the negative reads links in the 2NC or 1NR that are not as specific to the plan as the link presented in the 1NC. While the negative’s first-line card might be very specific to the plan, there is a good chance that their second-line cards are not. If this is the case, the 1AR should connect the planks of the counterplan to the warrants in the negative’s new link evidence. Few teams have the argumentative discipline and high-quality evidence necessary to sustain a hyper-specific link to the politics disadvantage through the negative block; when they fall back onto more generic link claims, the affirmative should take advantage and capitalize.
Whether the planks of the counterplan link to the politics disadvantage is important, but perhaps more so is the extent to which a difference in the relative links to the plan and the counterplan is important. If both the plan and the counterplan link to the disadvantage but the plan links slightly more, should the judge vote negative because there is a greater risk of the disadvantage? In too many debates, the affirmative allows the negative to characterize the debate in this way and therefore earn the ballot even when both the plan and the counterplan link to the disadvantage. Instead of ceding this important framing issue to the negative, affirmatives should argue that relative differences in the magnitude of the link are irrelevant so long as both links are sufficient to overcome uniqueness.
For example, the negative might argue that a climate change bill will pass the Senate in the status quo but that the plan will derail this initiative by sapping the President’s political capital. If the affirmative wins that the counterplan saps the President’s political capital enough to derail the climate change bill, it doesn’t matter if the plan saps the President’s political capital more—the only question is whether the link is strong enough to overcome uniqueness. Once that threshold is crossed, the relative strength of the link to the plan versus the link to the counterplan is irrelevant.
Know When To Give Up Hope Of Winning A Solvency Deficit
The most common response made by the 2AC to a multi-plank counterplan is a solvency deficit argument: the counterplan does not solve the case, it is argued, because the plan is key. This explanation is rarely comparative; most often, the 2A simply repeats the thesis of their advantage(s) while asserting that the plan is therefore “key”. This is not enough. The fact that the plan might be one way of capturing an advantage does not mean that it is the only way. Unless the affirmative combines their “plan solves the advantage” claims with an explanation for why the counterplan does not solve the advantage, they have not presented a complete argument; “the counterplan does not solve because the plan does solve,” while common, does not meet this threshold.
Ideally, the affirmative will be prepared with evidence that specifically contests the ability of each plank of the counterplan to solve. Realistically, this is not always the case: sometimes the negative catches a team off-guard and leaves them with no substantive responses to one or more planks of the counterplan. The affirmative should do their best not to allow this to happen, but it is not the end of the world. The key to overcoming this kind of situation is to acknowledge early on that winning a meaningful solvency deficit for one or more advantages will be difficult if not impossible.
Instead of wasting valuable speech time repeating losing solvency deficit arguments, affirmatives should focus on beating the net-benefit or on winning a theoretical objection. In the end, even a well-articulated solvency deficit is only helpful when the affirmative can mitigate the impact of the net-benefit; when the affirmative’s solvency deficit explanation is weak, decisively defeating the net-benefit becomes even more imperative.
Knowing when to commit to winning a meaningful solvency deficit and when to abandon ship in favor of other arguments is vital. Teams whose strategy against a multi-plank counterplan is always centered on winning a solvency deficit are unnecessarily constraining their options and making things easy on the negative.
The multi-plank counterplan can be a powerful tool in the negative’s strategic arsenal. By presenting several advantage counterplans that attempt to solve the case, these positions can make it very difficult for the affirmative to win a credible solvency deficit that is not outweighed by even a minimal risk of a net-benefit. In order to catch up with this negative innovation, affirmative teams need to improve the quality of their responses and strategically rethink the way they approach multi-plank counterplans.