For better or worse, Biden’s presidency is likely to revitalize the agenda politics DA, a type of generic negative disadvantage that emerged during the 1970s and became ubiquitous at the dawn of the electronic research age in the mid-1990s.
The “golden age” of the politics DA lasted from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, but it fell out of favor during the latter half of the Obama administration and was rarely a staple of negative strategies during the Trump administration. While it is unlikely to return its previous level of ubiquity, the politics DA seems poised for a post-Trump renaissance.
The current cohort of high school and college debaters is too young to have experienced the politics DA’s “golden age” first hand. That’s also true for many judges, a reflection of just how long it’s been since the politics DA was the dominant negative strategy in high school debate.
As a new generation of debaters begins to learn the politics DA for the first time, there are many resources from earlier eras that can help them get up to speed. In this post, I’ll provide some historical context for the politics DA and share some recommended resources.
For its entire history, the agenda politics DA — typically referred to by the name of the president (Carter DA, Reagan DA, Bush DA, Clinton DA, and Bush DA again) until the Obama administration, when “Politics DA” became the preferred nomenclature — was controversial.
Its appeal for the negative is obvious: it is a generic disadvantage that can arguably link to every plan, it is timely and requires the affirmative to research updated responses every weekend, and it helps the negative “control the debate” — especially when coupled with an agent counterplan.
Ronald Wastyn and Gordon Stables explained (and criticized) the ubiquity of the politics DA/agent counterplan strategy in a conference paper in 1995:
One of the most significant features of electronic databases is the huge expansion of the number of newspapers readily available to the debater. Previously, debaters typically were limited to some national editions of papers, such as the New York Times or Washington Post, and their local newspaper. This severely restricted the amount of daily political commentary from which debaters could generate arguments. Combining the debater’s access to hundreds of daily newspapers with the ability to conduct key word searches of a database which contains those newspapers results is a quantum leap forward in access to information. Additionally, services such as Nexis also provide transcripts to some news programs such as National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Thus, in addition to exposure to policy journals and books, debaters now have an abundance of primary sources of political information available to them in a manner which makes gathering the information very easy.
Concurrent with the increasing exposure to political information, the debate community also witnessed the increasing popularity of two different but complementary arguments: the political process disadvantage and the domestic agent of action counterplan. It is difficult to discuss one without the other. It is our opinion that the availability of electronic research helped to popularize, via accessibility, a debate strategy which counterplans away the affirmative advantage with a different agent of action and argues a disadvantage based on the affirmative agent of action. This strategy has severe negative consequences for policy debate. Basically, this strategy focuses the debate away from the affirmative public policy alternative and forces the affirmative to defend the political climate surrounding the adoption of their plan. Such a climate is often hypothetically created since in the “real world” Congress or the President may be philosophically opposed to enactment of the specific public policy alternative advocated by the affirmative. …
What makes this strategy even more attractive is that the typical burdens of a disadvantage such as uniqueness are loosely considered with an agent strategy. If the plan and counterplan can solve the same harm, why would a judge risk the Impact from the political or Hollow Hope disadvantage? Even the risk of a non-unique link is something more than the tie that is produced by the differing agents. A new presumption has emerged with this system of arguments. The affirmative must now prove that there is no risk from a process disadvantage or that they can turn the position. Absent a claim which satisfies one of the above conditions, the negative is going to win the vast majority of these debates.
Agent counterplans and political disadvantages have become a new means of avoiding case debate. There are always strategies which allow the negative to avoid direct clash with the affirmative case, but this trend may be reaching levels which discourage a number of people from participating in the activity. The benefits that come from a year of research on a topic may be dramatically reduced if a debater only focuses on the new links to the Clinton disadvantage.[Ronald Wastyn and Gordon Stables (1995). “The Influence of Electronic Databases on Contemporary Debate Practice: Considerations of Argument Selection, Fiat, and Evidentiary Standards.” 9th SCA AFA Conference on Argumentation.]
Whether one agrees or disagrees with their conclusions, Wastyn and Stables were certainly right about the growing popularity of politics DAs (and especially the politics DA and agent counterplan strategy). By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the politics DA was by far the most common generic negative position in high school and college policy debate. For nearly two decades, many negative teams were able to successfully rely almost exclusively on the politics DA.
Five years after Wastyn and Stables’s warning, David Cheshier noted the politics DA’s dominance in Rostrum:
The Clinton disadvantage is the most popular policy argument on this year’s education topic, as it was last year, and until Bill Clinton vacates the office next January (at which point we’ll shift to arguing Bush or Gore popularity/focus/agenda links) this brand of political process position is likely to dominate the circuit. The availability of up-to-the-minute database evidence has increased our collective reliance on presidential popularity/focus/capital arguments, since efficient update work can produce timely impact and brink stories, not to mention late breaking horserace assessments.[David M. Cheshier (2000). “Debating Presidential Leadership Disadvantages: What Does The Academic Literature Prove?” Rostrum.]
As the politics DA became so ubiquitous, its theoretical legitimacy (and its educational merit) became one of the biggest controversies of the day. While some affirmative teams mostly played along and answered the politics DA with “straightforward” uniqueness and link and impact arguments, many advanced theoretical attacks on the politics DA’s legitimacy and academic credibility. Judges and coaches were bitterly divided about arguments like “not intrinsic,” “fiat takes out the link,” “vote no,” and “no spillover,” and many debates became “test cases” for these broader theoretical controversies about the politics DA. These disagreements were similar in many ways to the disputes about topicality and framework in the 2010s.
Cheshier wrote three Rostrum articles in the late 1990s and early 2000s that summarize and explain these theoretical controversies:
- “Is The Clinton Disadvantage Theoretically Legitimate?” (1999)
- “Debating Presidential Leadership Disadvantages: What Does The Academic Literature Prove?” (2000)
- “Politics, Politics, Politics” (2003)
These three articles will provide contemporary students with a solid overview of the theoretical and academic controversies related to the politics DA. Cheshier’s perspective is relatively moderate: while clearly a critic of debaters’ excessive reliance on politics DAs, he also suggests ways for debaters to improve their aff and neg debating of them.
And while much has changed in the ensuing 20 years (both as it relates to debate theory and political science about presidential leadership and the congressional agenda), many of the same issues that were debated in the early 2000s will again be debated during the early 2020s.
Politics DA Backfiles
To help contextualize these controversies, it can also be helpful for students to review politics DA files from this era. Here are a few helpful examples:
- 2013 Open Evidence Politics DA Files — the first year of the Open Evidence project was at the very end of the politics DA “golden age,” but several files from that summer include representative examples of the kind of evidence that debaters had been using for the last decade. In particular, the Politics Internal Links file from DDI is a good compilation of generic internal link evidence and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Good Politics DA Packet from Northwestern is a good example of a typical politics DA from this era.
- Gonzaga Debate Institute Politics Core 2009-2010 — this is a good example of a late-“Golden Age” politics DA file from early in the Obama administration (social services topic), including a specific scenario (“cap-and-trade good”) and thorough aff and neg internal link materials.
- Michigan Politics Internal Links 2007-2008 — this is a good collection of aff and neg internal link evidence from late in the Bush administration. It includes materials on most of the major politics DA-related controversies of that era, including “winners win,” agenda compartmentalization/spillover, presidential blame, etc. Most of the popular internal link cards from the 1990s and 2000s are included in this file.
- SDI Politics Internal Link Core 2005-2006 — this is a similar file from a few years earlier that also includes specific examples of “Bush Good” and “Bush Bad” DAs (including relevant topic-specific links; the topic that season was about civil liberties).
Most of the evidence in these files is not directly useful in 2021; even during the mid-2000s, the best scholarly internal link evidence was from the late 1990s. However, reviewing these files can help current students better understand politics DAs and how they have historically been argued. And while it is old, some of the evidence in these files probably can still be used to provide scholarly support to more recent journalistic evidence.
Reviewing these files can also help students jump start their research into more contemporary sources that might support politics DA-related arguments. Journals like Congress & the Presidency and the American Journal of Political Science continue to publish scholarly articles about presidential agenda-setting and its role in the legislative process. While politics DA evidence might be tougher to find than it was in the early 2000s, these types of articles should still yield useful evidence for students willing to do that work.
The popularity of debate arguments tends to be cyclical. When “old” arguments come back into favor, students with access to backfiles and coaches who can explain them have a huge advantage over their peers. If the politics DA does enjoy a resurgence, I hope this post will help all students learn to debate these arguments thoughtfully and with an appreciation for their historical context.