The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 4: Topical and Plan-Inclusive Counterplans

This is the fourth article in a series about the history of plans in policy debate. The first article explained the early history of plans, covering the 1910s to the 1960s. The second article discussed the era beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the mid-1980s. The third article covered one of the significant developments in the late-1970s and 1980s: extra-topicality. This article discusses the other major development of the 1980s and early 1990s: the topical, plan-inclusive counterplan, which shaped debate through the 2000s.

Recall Kass Kovalcheck’s claim in 1979 that “the decade of the 70’s in forensics actually begun during the 1966-67 academic year” because that season’s resolution — Resolved: That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments. — “permitted the affirmative, for the first time, to both define the terms and select the topic.” As Kovalcheck explained, “Judges quickly perceived that it was unreasonable to expect an affirmative team to deal with the totality of the topic, and few doubted that such changes as recognizing Communist China, ending the Vietnamese War, pulling troops out of Europe, or even altering the world’s monetary system were not significant. Negative teams, then, had to be prepared to debate four or five topics, each requiring separate analysis, separate evidence, and separate plan attacks, and this multiple topic approach was the harbinger of the 70’s.”

The trend of broader topics continued throughout the 1970s and beyond, and its impact on the argumentation norms of debate cannot be overstated. In the previous article in this series, I discussed one of two major developments in negative strategy during this era: extra-topicality. But it was the other negative innovation — the topical counterplan — that had a broader and more long-lasting effect on plan writing and the content of policy debates.

In 1979, James Paulsen and Jack Rhodes echoed Kovalcheck and explained how the relationship between the affirmative plan and the resolution had dramatically changed:

The focus of any academic debate, in traditional theory, is the resolution. Goodnight, Balthrop, and Parson observe that a “debate team is arguing for only one goal, ultimately, the adoption of the resolution.” [Footnote 1: Tom Goodnight, Bill Balthrop, and Donn W. Parson, “The Problem of Inherency: Strategy and Substance,” Journal of the American Forensic Association, 10 (Spring, 1974), 234.] In this view of debate, then, the ultimate duty of the judge, regardless of feelings toward the specific policy proposal offered by the affirmative, is to cast a ballot on the general resolution. This has ordinarily been a relatively unimportant distinction, since the affirmative plan embodied the proposition and the contentions/advantages constituted full justification for the resolution.

The sweeping, vast nature of recent resolutions, however, has rendered the concept of pian-as-resolution impractical. Few affirmative teams with narrow cases have the audacity to claim their plan as the only and absolute embodiment of the resolution. Rather, topicality is generally defended with a plea to consider the affirmative case as but one of many reasonable interpretations of the topic. This relationship of plan to resolution is often made explicit by the common practice of introducing the plan as “an example of the resolution” or as “one of many possible interpretations of this year’s topic.” The affirmative team in the final rounds of the 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1976 NDTs have used similar language. [Footnote 2: In the 1969-72 NDT’s, phrases of this type did not appear. Beginning with the 1973 NDT, remarkably similar language was used: 1973—“will support the national debate proposition, examples of which will be found in the following…” 1974—“as one illustration of the resolution…” 1975— “…the following example of the resolution…” 1976—“… the national debate proposition, examples of which will be found in the following plan.” 1977—“… the national debate proposition, several independent examples of which are found in the following policy proposal…” 1978—“this year’s intercollegiate debate resolution, several examples of which…”] Even operational definitions are generally not meant to equate resolution with plan:

When the affirmative “operationally defines the resolution in the context of the affirmative plan,” this does not actually mean that the plan defines the resolution. Rather it means that the plan represents one of the many proposals that are logically consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the resolution. [Footnote 3: Allan Lichtman, Charles Garvin, and Jerry Corsi, “The Alternative-Justification Affirmative: A New Case Form,” Journal of the American Forensic Association, 10 (Fall, 1973), 63.]

The relationship of the proposal to resolution has shifted, and the result of this shift is of immense importance. No longer may the plan be viewed, realistically or charitably, as synonymous with the resolution. Rather, the resolution is seen as the general statement which the judge is asked to accept on the basis of the affirmative presentation. The case is a sample from which the affirmative team attempts to infer the characteristics of the resolution as a whole. The entire affirmative presentation, viewed in macrostructure, may be appropriately seen as an inductive generalization. Just as principles of induction have been used in the critical examination of the internal strength of a piece of evidence, or the adequacy of facts in support of an argumentative subpoint, so an examination of the characteristics and fallacies of inductive reasoning affords insight into possible new responses to a changed situation.

Paulsen and Rhodes suggested that negative teams respond by using a strategy they called the counter-warrant:

[T]he negative could elect to ignore the affirmative presentation and attempt to delineate other, more significant areas which would deny the resolution. By so doing, the negative would be demonstrating that negative instances of the resolution are discoverable (Baird’s third test); and by providing more than the affirmative, the negative would be showing that the affirmative case is an atypical example of the resolution and that therefore the instances examined by the affirmative are certainly not sufficient in number to warrant the generalization (Baird’s first and second tests). For convenience in further discussion, we will refer to presentation of a negative instance, an “example against the resolution,” as a “counter-warrant.”

While counter-warrants enjoyed only a temporary period of popularity, their larger impact was to problematize the prevailing understandings of the relationship between the resolution and the plan. This was, at least in part, their major goal:

In short, we do not advocate the counter-warrant as a major advance in argumentation theory, but as a plausible response to an existing situation. Any negative effects of the strategy reflect mainly on current affirmative approaches, since the counter-warrant is reasonable only given an affirmatively-imposed distinction between plan and resolution. Finally, we would hope that use of the argument would at least kindle interest in the nature and purpose of the resolution, and hopefully lead to a mending of the rift between theory and practice that makes the counter-warrant possible.

The most significant impact of this reconceptualization related to the acceptability of topical counterplans. At the time, it was rarely questioned that legitimate counterplans must not affirm the resolution. In Allan Lichtman and Daniel Rohrer’s authoritative “A General Theory of the Counterplan,” for example, it was stipulated that:

Legitimate counterplans must not fulfill the affirmative resolution, but they must be genuinely competitive with the affirmative plan. Adoption of a counterplan must be tantamount to rejecting the policy system offered by the affirmative team and hence rejecting the debate resolution as well. A counterplan may yield greater net benefits than an affirmative plan without providing reasons for rejecting the affirmative plan. It may be possible to adopt both plans and achieve greater net benefits than would derive from adoption of the counterplan alone.

Lichtman and Rohrer’s formulation of the standards for counterplan competition (counterplans must be mutually exclusive or net-beneficial) have remained relatively uncontroversial even today:

This new theory of the counterplan generates criteria for legitimate counterplans that can clearly guide advocates through every argumentative situation. A negative team offering a counterplan must be prepared to demonstrate either that the affirmative and negative plans are mutually exclusive or that adoption of both plans is less desirable than adoption of the counterplan alone. Similarly, an affirmative seeking to argue that a counterplan is not competitive must demonstrate both that the affirmative plan and the counterplan can co-exist and that adoption of the affirmative plan and counterplan is superior to adoption of the counterplan alone.

However, their insistence that legitimate counterplans be untopical was challenged in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1981, for example, Edward Panetta argued in the Debater’s Research Guide that the evolving argumentation norms of debate necessitated topical counterplans:

One alternative that merits thought by the disgruntled negative debater and his/her coach is the “topical counterplan.” The concept is quite simple — the negative is allowed to argue topical counterplans to the affirmative examples. This would allow the negative to suggest that a different branch of the federal government should be the agent implementing the change, or that an alternative change would be a superior alternative to that advocated by the affirmative. The standard for comparing the systems is the competitiveness of the two alternatives in question. At this point, I would like to stress that the negative should not use the topical counterplan, or any counterplan unless they are competitive with the affirmative policy alternative (see Steve Mancuso’s article for a discussion of competitiveness). Although the strategy chosen should be adapted to the specific team and judge in question, the topical counterplan does serve to markedly increase the choice of options available to the negative.

Panetta concluded that:

[T]he affirmative team has been gaining more of an advantage from recent debate theory applications. The topical counterplan could be a useful tool for the negative in gaining loss ground during the present era of broad topic. A questioning of the theoretical underpinnings of counterplan topicality finds them to be extremely suspect, as they increasingly assure affirmative success at the expense of the theory-bound negative team. The topical counterplan would seem to enhance competition and make for better debate.

This issue was litigated in debates during the 1980s; the Final Round of the 1984 NDT, for example, had a minor disagreement about the legitimacy of topical counterplans.

In 1989, Panetta and co-author Steven Dolley published a longer defense of topical counterplans in the Journal of the American Forensic Association. In it, they argued — among other things — that the nature of contemporary resolutions and the ubiquity of plan texts that do not encompass the entire resolution necessitated topical counterplans:

Perhaps academic debate should seek another way of disputing policy propositions. It is possible that a broad general resolution, which the affirmative operationalizes in the form of a specific plan, creates too much confusion regarding the burdens and nature of proof. Nevertheless, the affirmative plan is a fact of life in contemporary academic debate. If an affirmative team presents a plan, they shoulder advocacy burdens as a result. For reasons of fairness and logical analysis, these burdens must include substantive clash with competitive alternative policies, whether topical or not. To require less is to permit affirmative teams to be logically inconsistent and to win debates by means of usurpation rather than refutation.

Against the counter-argument that the role of the affirmative is to affirm the resolution, they disputed whether this was practical given the way that resolutions were now being written:

Most debate resolutions are so broad that affirming them in their entirety is of little value. The imposition of an arbitrary set of standards on a general statement to assess its validity has very little real world application for the student. If one discusses the merits of the resolution, there is no way to determine if it (the resolution) is true or false, for debate resolutions are policy propositions which call for judgments of both value and probability. Additionally, the policy permutations inherent in a debate resolution are too numerous to be effectively discussed in a competitive policy debate. As such, the more specific the policy question, the more thoroughly its desirability is assessed. Hence, debating specific plans is preferable to debating general resolutions.

For Panetta and Dolley, this was especially true once resolutions began to be written “bidirectionally:”

A second argument against the resolution as dividing ground position is that it assumes there is a direction to the resolution. Recent topics at both the high school and collegiate level have provided demonstrative evidence that there need not be direction to a resolution. The 1987-1988 high school debate resolution, for instance, merely calls for a United States government policy to increase political stability in Latin America. The affirmative is allowed the option of establishing either philosophically conservative or liberal policies. Some affirmative plans on this topic have eliminated aid to the Nicaraguan rebels while others have dramatically increased such aid; and some encourage and others discourage massive economic development; and some encourage and others discourage nuclear weapons proliferation. A negative team could advocate the exact opposite of the affirmative plan proposed in any of these examples. Assuming traditional debate theory, how- ever, they could lose the debate on topicality despite the fact that they presented a policy option which was opposite to that presented by the affirmative.

A recent example of dual directionality of resolution at the collegiate level can be found in the aforementioned educational standards topic. Affirmative teams during the course of that season advocated greater instruction in sex education and creationism. Other teams ran cases proposing that education in these areas be eliminated. Better selection of topics is not an answer to the issue of dual directionality in resolutions, for the simple reason that the framers cannot anticipate before the season begins the numerous (and sometimes devious) ways in which the directional term in the topic can be construed to include its opposite. Without the certainty of directionality, there is very little reason to support the position that the resolution should serve as a dividing mark between teams.

In debate, an affirmative alternative and the resolution are no longer regarded as synonymous. The breadth and lack of direction in debate topics disproves the assumption that an example and the topic are one. The non-directionality of resolutions also reduces the ground from which the negative may select in formulating its policy. A negative’s ground can be greatly diminished when a topic lacks direction.

Panetta and Dolley’s position was controversial and became something of a dividing line between NDT and CEDA debate. In the former, plans became more commonly understood to be the focus of the debate. In the latter, it was still more typical for teams to debate the “whole resolution.”

Jeffrey Bile described what he saw as the harmful consequences of accepting the “parametric” view of debate, where the topical plan deductively justifies the resolution:

Traditionally, academic debaters argued the “totality of the resolution” (Kovalcheck, 1979, p. 31), and judges decided not on specifics but “on the general resolution” (Paulsen and Rhodes, 1979, p. 205). In fact, from “the beginning of the national resolution until about 1973-1974 the entire resolution was normally thought to be debated… The ‘demarcation line’ approach is relatively recent and seems to have no real theoretical underpinning other than current practice” (Rhodes, 1981, p. 493). The advent of the parametric view is then a relatively recent phenomenon which gained acceptance with the changing nature of topics (Kovalcheck, 1979; Pfau, 1979).

The shift toward the parametric approach has had significant effects on the debating process. An affirmative debating the “increased military” topic and utilizing parametric resolutional focus could, for example, legitimately advance a case discussing M-16’s, the inadequacies of the Marine Corps Band, or the need for army boots. While these examples are obviously extreme, the reader should not miss the point that parametric focus makes these approaches theoretically (if not rhetorically) sound. The situation becomes far more problematic when the debater combines parametric focus with a more persuasive example. Given the thousands of possible interpretations of most topics, [end page 8] it is not unlikely that hundreds would seem “significant” in a persuasive sense. The result is a significant increase in affirmative case possibilities. When parlayed with “the affirmative right to define,” the parametric approach usually means that the affirmative may select a case anywhere within the resolutional boundary and that the negative must debate only this case. The result for the negative is almost certainly a slow and painful death. The forensic community has had two main responses to this problem: the invention of “counter-warrants” (Paulsen & Rhodes, 1979) and a shift from NDT to CEDA, where holistic focus would presumedly prevail (Rowland, 1983; Tolbert & Hunt, 1985; Tomlinson, 1981; Ulrich, 1984).

All authors at the time seemed to generally agree that there was a problem with the mismatch between prevailing theoretical models and debates as they were actually playing out. Resolutions were broader than ever, and affirmative teams were capitalizing with narrower and more detailed plans. This left the negative in a terrible strategic position.

One solution — exemplified by Bile — was to re-establish the central importance of the resolution. This would require the negative to win topicality and/or theory arguments like “whole rez” against “parametric” cases. The goal was to rebalance affirmative and negative ground by precluding the emerging “squirrel” cases that had become popular during this era.

Another solution — proposed by Paulsen and Rhodes — was the counter-warrant. Instead of arguing topicality or “whole rez” against small affirmatives, they encouraged the negative to introduce counter-warrants. This would maintain the resolution as the focus of the debate while expanding negative ground. In their view, the counter-warrant would incentivize affirmative teams to read larger and more core-of-the-topic cases in order to outweigh negative counter-examples.

The solution that ultimately prevailed — Panetta and Dolley’s — was to accept that the affirmative could “parametricize” the resolution by advocating a topical plan, but to shift all other ground to the negative. Instead of maintaining the resolution as the dividing line between affirmative and negative ground while shifting the focus of the debate from the resolution to the plan — an arrangement that had dramatically benefited the affirmative — this solution revised the role of the resolution. Its purpose became only to constrain the affirmative’s plan; once the affirmative proposed a plan, the negative’s role was to disprove the desirability of that plan using any competitive arguments.

There was some pushback to topical counterplans even from within the ranks of those supporting plan focus. Dale Herbeck, John Katsulas, and Karla Leeper argued in 1989 that “plan focus” did not necessitate acceptance of topical counterplans:

While we agree with Panetta that the plan is the appropriate focus of debate, we disagree with his argument that this necessarily legitimates topical counterplans. The disagreement in our positions stems from the fact that we assign a division of argument function to the resolution, and Panetta does not. In our view the resolution serves the important function of demarcating which arguments are available to the affirmative and which arguments are available to the negative. This is important to ensure that both sides advocate antithetical positions. Topical counterplans are precluded because such arguments fall outside the argumentative domain of the negative. The fact that the affirmative is allowed to defend one example of the resolution (in contrast to defending its entirety) in no way authorizes it to co-opt argumentative ground. While it is certainly true that proponents of topical counterplans defend them on the basis of plan primacy, it is incorrect to claim, as Hynes does, that they must be a necessary feature of all plan focus perspectives.

But as is often the case, the solution that emerged was the one requiring the least change from prevailing debate practices. Demands for a return to “whole resolution” debating were dismissed as out of step with current norms, and proposals for counter-warrants were criticized for sacrificing the academic benefits of in-depth debates over specific plans — the raison d’être of the policymaking paradigm. In contrast, the emergence of topical counterplans allowed the affirmative to continue doing what they were already doing while offering new tools to the negative; it accelerated rather than reversed existing trends in argumentation.

By the 1980s, counterplans themselves had already been a boon to negative winning percentages. Roger Solt explained in 1989:

The rise of the counterplan has helped to restore side equity to debate, as several factors suggest. In the mid-1970s, before the popularization of the counterplan, affirmatives had a decided competitive advantage. To choose negative in an elimination round was almost unheard of. While I know of no data on the subject of the percentage of affirmative wins, my distinct impression (based upon attendance at from ten to fifteen NDT tournaments a year for the past sixteen years) is that negatives are winning far more often. Certainly far more teams select the negative in elimination rounds than was once the case. Other factors are clearly involved in the revitalization of the negative, but the very popularity of the counterplan as a strategy would suggest that it has played an important role.

But once topical counterplans became acceptable, it wasn’t long before the negative pushed them to their logical limits. These counterplans built on an existing genre of counterplan that Solt called the “exceptions counterplan:”  

They have arisen on topics employing the term “all.” For example, on the topic calling for the elimination of all U.S. military intervention in the Western Hemisphere, a popular counterplan called for the elimination of all but humanitarian interventions. On the topic which called for stricter standards in all U.S. schools, a variety of counterplans argued to exempt certain types of schools.

The reason that exceptions counterplans had only been popular on topics that included the term “all” is because on other, “regular” topics, they were topical — and therefore, by the standards of their day, illegitimate. Once the topicality constraint on legitimate counterplans was lifted, exceptions counterplans — rechristened as plan-inclusive counterplans, or PICs — became much more popular. By the mid-1990s, they were extremely common. As Paul Skiermont explained in 1996:

It seems that in recent years the plan-inclusive counterplan has been more frequently employed as a negative strategy at both the college and high school level. A plan-inclusive counterplan (PIC, an acronym I use here for typing sake, not one that should be used as shorthand in a debate round) can be defined as an alternative plan introduced by the negative that uses part of the affirmative’s plan and excludes some part of it to generate a net benefit. In other words, the counterplan is competitive because doing the entire plan would not be as good (in terms of advantages and disadvantages) as doing only part of the affirmative plan. Different labels have been used to describe this type of counterplan, such as: partially plan inclusive, plan-inclusive, and exclusionary. The difference is purely semantic—all of these counterplans seek to adopt a part of the affirmative plan while excluding a different part.

PICs allowed the negative to supercharge their plank-specific disadvantages by coupling them with a counterplan that implements the other parts of the plan. In the MX example from the previous article in this series, the negative could now propose a counterplan that funds the plan’s mandates via another funding mechanism; the net-benefit was the “cutting MX bad” DA. In order to defeat these PICs, the affirmative needed to beat the DA; they couldn’t rely on their case to outweigh it because the counterplan also implemented the same mandates.

The existence of PICs — even if they could potentially be defeated as theoretically illegitimate — substantially altered the affirmative’s strategic risk-reward calculus.

At the height of the super-plan era, additional plan details were nearly a no-risk option: affirmative teams were unlikely to lose on topicality because of them, and negatives were unlikely to introduce a plank-specific disadvantage that linked to them, but they had the potential to powerfully defeat negative case arguments and generic disadvantages. It is unsurprising that super-plans became ubiquitous.

As extra-topicality was introduced, the affirmative had to be a bit more hesitant. Even if they did not lose a debate on extra-topicality as a standalone issue, the time they needed to spend defending their “extra” plan planks and spikes started to potentially jeopardize their ability to defeat other negative arguments (something that played out in the Final Round of the 1976 NDT; see the previous article in this series).

Affirmative hesitancy increased even more with the emergence of plank-specific disadvantages. While many teams continued to include spikes in their plans, the risk continually increased that the negative would be prepared to generate offense against them. This was worrisome for the affirmative, but even then they still maintained the ability to weigh their case against these disadvantages.

With the appearance of PICs, the affirmative could no longer count on that ability to weigh their case against the disadvantage. In order to strategically justify including a plan spike against a negative team that might “PIC out of it,” the affirmative now had to be very well-prepared to defend it — and it needed to be extremely valuable against the negative’s generic disadvantages or counterplans in order to be worth the risk.

Iowa’s plan in the 1985 NDT Final Round previewed the changes that were therefore emerging:

Resolved: That the United States federal government should significantly increase exploration and/or development of space beyond the earth’s mesosphere.

In order to enhance our ability to detect an ET signal, we advocate the adoption of the following plan to be implemented through minimally sufficient legislative means:

Plank one: Mandate. The federal government will increase the exploration of outer space by reserving the frequency band from 1400 to 1727 megahertz for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Systems currently utilizing these bands will be shifted to alternative frequencies as feasible.

Plank two: Ancillary provisions. Enforcement through existing means. Legislative intent based on affirmative speeches.

Unlike the super-plans of the 1970s, Iowa’s plan includes only a single mandate (to increase the frequency band of ET searches). This is followed by a single “spike” to shift systems currently utilizing those frequency bands to alternative frequencies. Unlike some of the plan spikes from the 1970s, this was directly related to the plan and likely seemed important and valuable enough to include. While potentially susceptible to an extra-topicality gripe, it would not have been strategically useful for the negative to “PIC out of” this plank; it did not put the affirmative at any “extra” strategic risk, but it presumably helped them answer a “frequency overload”-type disadvantage. Finally, Iowa’s plan included only two short statements about enforcement: “enforcement through existing means” and “legislative intent based on affirmative speeches.”

But even this plan text included a few provisions that potentially left the affirmative vulnerable to counterplans. If this plan was read in a debate in 2021, the negative might consider a counterplan with a different agent (e.g. an executive order CP to PIC out of “implemented through minimally sufficient legislative means”), with a different legislative process (e.g. a “veto cheato” CP to PIC out of “minimally sufficient legislative means”), or with a different enforcement mechanism (e.g. an incentives CP to PIC out of “enforcement through existing means”).

Over time, counterplans like these prompted affirmative teams to craft narrower and narrower plans. By the late 1990s, plans typically included only a mandate and a pro forma statement of normal means: “funding and enforcement through normal means,” “funding and enforcement guaranteed,” etc. Over time, even these statements were eliminated due to the threat of PICs: negatives crafted counterplans that “PICed out of normal means,” and these made it nearly impossible for the affirmative to win.

The last extraneous plan provisions to go were statements like “we reserve the right to clarify intent” or “we’ll clarify.” The former was vulnerable to a “rights talk” PIC (framing clarification in the language of “rights” is bad), and even the latter was vulnerable to PICs about political language, clarification enabling circumvention, etc. While these net-benefits were certainly “trivial,” the negative quickly learned that they would almost guarantee victory in the prevailing “offense-defense paradigm” because there was “only a risk of the net-benefit; the PIC solves the whole case.”

Similarly, agent counterplans — a type of PIC that proposes that a different actor implement the same mandate as the plan — led to affirmative teams specifying only the actor in the resolution (almost always the United States federal government) rather than a particular branch. The “A-Spec” (Agent Specification) theory argument enjoyed a brief heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but eventually it became less threatening to affirmatives and they almost universally decided to stop specifying an agent.

By about 2005, almost every plan was a single sentence stating its policy mandate. Issues of enforcement, implementation, funding, and clarification were left to “normal means,” but this was no longer included in the text of the plan. Debates about normal means continued, but the removal of this language from the plan forced the negative to adjust their strategies: because they could no longer “PIC out of” the relevant language in the plan, it was more difficult to theoretically justify the “normal means PIC”-style counterplans that had grown popular.

None of this would necessarily have surprised even the advocates of topical counterplans. “What if the negative uses their new counterplan power to propose trivial PICs that barely differ from the plan?” was something that Panetta and Dolley explicitly discussed at the dawn of the topical counterplan, and they offered several responses. First, they suggested that the affirmative would be able to theoretically object to “trivial” PICs:

The final objection to the topical counterplan is that the negative could make minor alterations in the affirmative plan and defend a slightly amended policy. The claim is that the consideration of minor plan alterations would destroy the real world value of debate. However, such an illegitimate, insignificant counterplan can be dispensed with easily enough by a clever affirmative team. If the alteration presented by the negative does not compete with the example claimed in first affirmative, there is no reason why the affirmative could not incorporate it into the plan, or why both plans could not be considered together. Robert Rowland (1986) has made several suggestions that could be helpful in the reformulation of the plan. The affirmative could replan by incorporating portions of the negative policy while maintaining the resolutionally based mandate in the plan. The affirmative might also claim that only advantages that compete with the resolutional provisions of their plan serve as a rationale to vote for the negative (Rowland, 1986).

The affirmative could approach the problem of minor plan alteration in another fashion by detailing only the portions of the plan that respond to the charge of the particular resolution. Robert Rowland articulated the claims an affirmative may choose to make in this instance:

At the same time, debate teams should be required to defend only those specific details of their policy position that are important. It is essential to know the important aspects of the policies advocated by the affirmative and negative, but as far as the educational function of debate is concerned, it is not important to know all the details of the administrative scheme under which the plan or counterplan would be implemented. (1986, p. 130)

Given a negative counterplan that is a minor alteration, the affirmative can either incorporate the alteration when possible or forward arguments against the utility of discussing the policy’s administrative scheme. This second option, claiming that administrative issues should not be discussed, is one that the negative may choose to dispute in a counterplan debate.

Of course, this affirmative approach — to criticize the negative’s focus on “trivial details” of plan implementation — contradicted their defenses of detail-laden plans. If the affirmative is right that debate should focus on broad policy ideas rather than specific implementation details, why should they be allowed to specify those details in their plan? In other words, the affirmative’s theoretical case against the PIC undermined their theoretical defense of plan spikes — leading to their eventual demise.

Second, Panetta and Dolley argued that fears about “trivial PICs” are overstated:

Also, if the alteration to the plan is trivial enough, it can readily be defeated on its own merits, or lack thereof. Reducing the number of board members in the plan from nine to seven seems to offer little contrast and no comparative advantage. On the other hand, if the negative is able to defend reasons why the apparently trivial alteration is beneficial and it competes with the affirmative plan, it may well be a substantive reason to reject the proposal, even though it appears minor at first. The framers of the Declaration of Independence would likely have considered a proposed amendment to change “All men are created equal” to “All persons are created equal” a nit-picking attempt to degrade the dignity of the issue at hand. In a later historical context, we can see a number of real reasons why one would want to include both halves of the human race in a landmark document of freedom. Such alterations entail much more than a minor wording change. This is not to predict or propose that topical counterplans focus on affirmative plan wording alone; we merely wish to point out that the triviality of this issue should be debated, rather than presumed.

This explanation eventually became canonical for negatives when defending plan-inclusive counterplans: “the net-benefit proves the PIC identifies an important policy disagreement” has been part of the top-line negative answer to “PICs Bad” for decades.

Finally, Panetta and Dolley argued that concerns about “trivial PICs” were non-unique:

The problem of determining what is “significantly different” policy is not one this negative strategy has forced upon debate. For many years, affirmative teams have proposed “insignificant” policy options and critics have not only established standards for evaluation, in many cases they have voted for them. In a debate in which a questionable counterplan is presented, the critic could stipulate that the counterplan must be substantially different from the affirmative plan or this standard could itself be a matter for debate.

For those that bemoan the vagueness of contemporary plan texts, this prediction clearly proved inaccurate. While the shift was gradual, it eventually became generally understood that the negative could legitimately PIC out of anything in the plan. When affirmatives responded to this consensus by crafting vaguer plans, they began to rely on the kind of intrinsicness-style 2AC “normal means” clarifications that Rowland anticipated in 1986:

Initially, intrinsicness answers may seem to be the perfect counter to unreasonable negative disadvantages. Unfortunately, while strategically valuable, intrinsicness answers violate the debatability assumption of the policy making perspective. It is virtually impossible for the negative to refute every possible means of avoiding a disadvantage. Moreover, use of intrinsicness answers may be unfair to the negative. The affirmative can simply list alternative means of avoiding disadvantages and need not be responsible for any of them.

An additional implication drawn from this perspective is that intrinsicness responses are not legitimate. Intrinsicness responses commit the affirmative to nothing and give the negative nothing to attack. Therefore, they violate the debatability criterion. If the affirmative wants to preempt a disadvantage they should include the provision in their plan and thus give the negative a chance to attack it.

While few contemporary debaters would call these “normal means” arguments “intrinsicness,” they are extremely similar. Instead of specifying the plan’s details in the plan text itself, the affirmative now presents evidence and analysis in the 2AC and their rebuttal speeches to clarify those details. While this is distinct from a traditional “not intrinsic” argument — which is more akin to a plan amendment than a clarification of the plan — it has the same effect. Instead of requiring the affirmative to include the details of their plan in the plan text, those details became subject to in-round negotiation and debate based on each team’s evidence and analysis about what the plan “would” be/do.

In many ways, the era of the PIC has lasted into the 2020s, but it had already dramatically reshaped plan texts by the early-2000s. This has now ushered in the current era of the plan, one in which the logic and assumptions of the PICs era were adapted to the new reality of vague plans. These emerging theoretical developments have once again challenged how debaters should conceptualize the relationship between the affirmative, the resolution, and the plan. This era — what I have tentatively called the “hypothesis planning” era — will be the subject of the final article in this series.

Works Cited

Herbeck, Dale A., John P. Katsulas, and Karla K. Leeper. “The Locus of Debate Controversy Re-Examined: Implications for Counterplan Theory.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 25, Issue 3, 1989.

Kovalcheck, Kass. “Retrospective: Forensics in the 1970’s.” Speaker and Gavel, Volume 17, Issue 1, 1979, pp. 31-33.

Panetta, Edward M. and Steven Dolley. “The Topical Counterplan: A Competitive Policy Alternative.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 25, Issue 3, 1989.

Paulsen, James W. and Jack Rhodes. “The Counter-Warrant as a Negative Strategy: A Modest Proposal.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 15, Issue 4, 1979.

Rowland, Robert C. “The Relationship Between Realism and Debatability in Policy Advocacy.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 22, Issue 3, 1986.

Skiermont, Paul. “The Affirmative’s Juvenile Complaint: In Defense of Plan-Inclusive Counterplans.” Debater’s Research Guide, 1996.

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