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We’re conflict junkies when it comes to debates

Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (left) shakes hands with his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren before their debate Monday Lowell Mass.

Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (left) shakes hands with his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, before their debate Monday in Lowell, Mass. | Charles Krupa~AP

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:16AM

When U.S. Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown went at each other in Monday’s televised debate, the headlines told the story.

“Face Off in Fiery Massachusetts Debate,” said ABC News.

“Illuminating Stumbles,” reported

“Debate Focuses on the Personal,” wrote the Huffington Post.

We want our political debates to deliver memorable lines, great entertainment and confirmation of our pre-existing beliefs.

We’re conflict junkies, not wonky admirers of careful reasoning. Maybe that’s why our political discourse sometimes feels closer to choosing the next American Idol than it does the next leader of the free world.

We already know whom we’re rooting for. And against. Precious few of us are undecided.

And so it will be on Wednesday, when President Barack Obama and his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, take to the stage to take each other on.

“These encounters are not truly ‘debates,’ ” Joe Wenzel, my college debate coach and friend, wrote in an email Tuesday. “Rather, these are more like press conferences, as some have said, but maybe a better metaphor might be ‘job interviews.’ ”

At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where Joe coached us all those years ago, my friend and teammate Monica Manning remembers that, “Who won . . . was who presented the better arguments with solid evidence to support the reasoning. There was rarely a decisive moment, except for those times when one side ‘fell apart.’ . . .With presidential debates, it’s not about reasoning but rather about quips — what will get reported in the news afterwards.”

As the Warren-Brown contest showed Monday night, the big takeaways included her gaffe (saying she could work across the aisle with Indiana Republican Richard Lugar — except he lost his primary) and Brown’s expressed disdain for her, which drew some audience boos: “Excuse me, I’m not a student in your classroom.”

Then again, I continue to be taught a thing or two by my former coach who, student of Socrates and Aristotle though he may be, argues there is genuine value in these televised verbal boxing matches.

“Most people have made up their minds,” Wenzel acknowledges, “but the decisions come down to a lot more than just the specific arguments over specific issues.”

Whether it’s Romney or Obama, the candidate “has to win hearts and minds of the audience . . . and in election campaigns, has to appeal to those already favorably disposed to looking at his way of the world,” he said.

“Ethos, Aristotle taught, is the persuasive force grounded in a speaker’s personal appeal,” said the professor.

Intangibles such as charm, warmth and authority matter.

As much as we want to believe it’s the issues that will carry the day, Wenzel argues it will come down to how we measure “the speaker’s good character, good sense and good will.”

He ended his email by writing: “After all, that opportunity to decide which one has the right stuff, is a pretty good thing for democracy. I hope this helps. . . . It was great to hear your voice.”

And yours, coach.

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