Gingrich Lesson in Debate Technique: “Repeat Changers”

With so much talk about how great a debater New Gingrich is, why not watch to learn a little about rhetoric and style from the gentleman from Georgia?

Today’s lesson comes from a recent Republican presidential debate in which Rick Santorum accused Newt Gingrich of being a little grandiose at times. The key word here is “grandiose,” and it was meant to sting.

A skilled debater listens carefully for an opportunity to use a rhetorical device that Jay Heinrichs calls the “repeat changer.” Sometimes that opportunity looks and sounds more like a grave misfortune—worthy of a grunt at best, and a look of terror at worst. The repeat changer repeats the key word or phrase that was used to demean and changes its sense to reflect favorably on the original target.

When Rick Santorum described Newt as someone who can be a bit grandiose at times, he meant that Newt often exaggerates to an absurd extent and often thinks of himself in exaggerated terms. He thus sought to tap into public consciousness, shaped to a degree by recent media focus on . . . . well, Newt’s occasional grandiosity.

How did Newt respond? He did the best thing anyone can do under the circumstance: he repeated the accusation, then switched its sense, suggesting that someone may be considered grandiose because he has grand ideas, and lots of them, for improving things for the American people.

Now this may sound like equivocation. To be sure, the repeat changer does often trade on ambiguity. When it does, it is less effective. But if the shift in sense is mild—as opposed to sharp—there is no harm and no foul. In other words, no fallacy has been committed.

This can be illustrated on one interpretation of Newt Gingrich’s clever rejoinder to Rick Santorum. The basic sense of Santorum’s jibe is preserved, but Newt suggests that Santorum only thinks that Newt is grandiose because Rick is uncomfortable with the grandeur of Newt’s ideas. “Grandiosity” and “grandeur” do differ. But “grandeur” may be mistaken for “grandiosity” by someone who can’t tell the difference. If this is what Newt was getting at, his move was not merely clever, it was ingenious. He might be asking voters, in effect, “Do you want a president who has grand ideas that some confuse with grandiosity, or do you want a president who can’t tell the difference between grand and grandiose?”

In my book, rhetoric has its proper place, especially in public discourse. But it must always be tempered by virtue. So I commend the “repeat changer” when it can be managed without violating the moral and intellectual virtues.

Here’s a poll for you to register your opinion:

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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