The goal is build a case. In a court room, you have the opportunity to "confront and cross examine" the other sides witnesses. In the court of public opinion, you have a similar opportunity with the other sides spokesmen and supporters.
You cannot win these people over. The only people on the other side you can win over is the leadership – and you are usually not in a position to deal with them. Even if you are, you are usually negotiating an acceptable compromise. That is not the world of political debate. The world of political debate is a world of starkly drawn "lines of battle". You goal, never forget, is to win the uncommitted middle. If you know how to do it, you can do it with the help of the other side.
You have to begin by understanding your own position. Now, here is where an interesting political concept comes into play. That concept is called "savvy".
T.S. Elliot wrote of "the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason." T.S. Elliot was a poet. He was not a politician. If you voted for Al Gore, I don’t give a tinker’s damn why. I don’t care if you thought he was "better looking", if you really liked his book, or if you thought he was better than the other Republican running. As long as you voted for him, your ok in my book [I know, some of you voted for Nader.] You see, I’m not going to give you my reason to vote for him, I’m going to find your reasons, and give those to you.
The goal is convince the middle. It is to connect with what they think is important. Right out of the blocks, you may as well get used to a few facts of life. Some people in the middle have incredibly vapid reasons for their political behavior. "Well, he just looked like such a nice man". Why do you think politicians spend so much time and money on "image", backdrops, photo ops and other junk. It’s to reach the voter who wants the "nice man" to win.
Believe it or not, that is not really who you are trying to persuade. Let the spin doctors, image gurus and other PR types deal with those people. You are dealing people in the middle who are sufficiently well informed to make reasonably intelligent decisions. Guess what. They are the neighbors of the people looking to the vote for the "nicest man". And their opinion will sway that voter more than you ever will. The idea is to get the reasonably informed making your case for you. You don’t hear from such people as much. Trust me. They are listening.
So when you come up against a committed conservative activist, trying to convince him is a waste of time. Imagine that there is a middle of the road spectator, listening in. Because there is one. And he is who you are communicating with. Your opponent is a medium to communicate with the middle. If you know what you are doing, you can also have your opponent communicate your point to that middle-of-the-roader.
So what is your position? Let us consider the war in Iraq.
There are a hundred different reasons to oppose the war in Iraq. Some people are committed pacifists. They do not believe in war. They become conscientious objectors – a few of whom as medics have won medals of honor – or they flee the country to avoid induction. They oppose war in Iraq because they oppose all war. Perhaps you are one of those. If that is your position in debate, all I can say is "good luck".
The fact is that the man in the middle views war as a terrible thing to be avoided, but a thing that is nevertheless occasionally necessary. For example, you will find very few Americans who believe that US involvement in World War II was anything less than 100% justified. In fact, there are historical facts that muddy that judgment of history a little. Don’t waste your breath reciting them. Your listener will be unconvinced, and you will lose some of your credibility for your trouble.
The trick is find a basis consistent with your own deeply held views, that is palatable to the person in the middle. If you are a committed pacifist, "all war is evil" is not a winning message. But "this war is evil" is a little better. And what’s wrong with that message? I don’t need to worry about the war we might fight ten years from now. I just need to worry about this one. Taking the next step, let’s consider that word "evil". "Evil" is a strong word. Average people don’t like to think their President is "evil" – though he is starting to look that way to me. They damn sure don’t like to think their country is "evil".
How about this? "This war is ill conceived. Its consequences have been poorly thought through and could lead to unintended results. Opposition among our European allies could lead to destruction of NATO. Defiance of the UN could lead to the impotence of that organization. In short, we could see destruction of the framework for global stability set up after World War II." Add your own practical, down-to-earth reasons to this list, because there are plenty of them. Notice "war for oil" isn’t on the list. That would be "evil" and people don’t want to think their government is "evil". More importantly, I don’t have to make that argument, since there are many effective "mainstream" arguments available.
Now obviously, if it gets down to it, and it looks like your government really IS evil, and that’s pretty much the bottom line, well that’s the case you have to make. But you will discover, the more you do this, that you don’t have to make the "hard case" very often. Usually there is a much "softer sell" available, if you will just look around for it.
In the end, people decide their positions for their own reasons. Your function as an advocate – and that is what you are – is to cause them to think about their position in a way that maximizes the chance that they will see things your way on the particular matter at issue. It is a process of narrowing and focusing the discussion in a productive way.