Episode 5: Totally up for debate, featuring Aaron Kall

Like and subscribe to “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts on Spotify, iTunesTunein, and Stitcher.

Episode 5: Aaron Kall — “Totally up for debate”

Hi! Welcome to Listen-In-Michigan. I’m Deborah Holdship, the editor of Michigan Today, and as you are well-aware — it is presidential campaign debate season. Here to speak with me today is Aaron Kall, the director of the University of Michigan’s number one ranked, debate team. In April, the team will be competing for the national championship against none other than Harvard. Aaron has some interesting things to say about the presidential candidates and their performance, about his team’s prospects for the national championship, and he has some tips for us civilians about how we can best win debates in our regular lives. So let’s go to Erin who’s about to talk to us about his favorite time of year that only comes around once every four years. Here’s Aaron.

Aaron Kall: Every few years, the country – the world – becomes fascinated about debate, and not just in the United States. When I was in Las Vegas with a Republican debate, Japan, Germany… across the world all of a sudden become fixated with debate, and for someone that’s devoted their entire life to debate has been doing it for so long… that’s great to see. And I think it’s great for just debate in general, and so, you have to strike while the iron is hot and make sure that you take advantage when the spotlight is on debate.

Holdship: You’re not the only one. Have you heard about this website “predict.com” where you actually can place bets and win money based on how you’re betting regarding the outcomes of the various debates and all different factors surrounding them? There’s tons of social media, there are drinking games! The people are playing based on how many times a candidate says a certain word! Like, what do you think about all this side activity around the debates?

Kall: Anything that brings more eyes to the debate in TV screen I think is great. And I think a lot of these are the products of social media. You know, these are the things you see on Twitter and Facebook that we may have not seen in debates 10-20 years ago because those weren’t so popular, but now I’ve seen all those, and the prediction markets themselves are great kind of to see who the public thinks won the debate, [who] eventually are going to be the nominees. Those are things that even real academics look to in terms of “well if people are actually risking money on those things then they must be serious.” And so for a while, you know, it was Marco Rubio was doing well and then he had a poor debate performance, Donald Trump has done better recently, but now all those things are great and they bring more attention to the debates themselves. And I just think that this cycle has just shown in general the importance of debates. Donald Trump chose not to attend the debate in Iowa, and I think that decision backfired, and he ended up losing by a few points even though he was favored by about 5 points or-so going into it. And even after the fact, he admitted that that was a mistake and he probably should have attended and they may have cost him with some late-deciding voters. And you saw in New Hampshire, Marco Rubio had an excellent performance in Iowa, and was on pace to do really well in New Hampshire, and then the debate just a few days before, he did really poorly and he fell all the way to fifth place. And he also admitted that yes it was because of his poor debate performance. So it’s great that it brings attention to debates and shows the importance of debates, which certainly something I believe very strongly in. But then with everyone else you kinda get these examples of it, it’s great to see.

Holdship: So that’s debate at the presidential level. What about the collegiate level? What is it that makes debate at the college level so compelling and exciting for you?

Kall: There’s nothing like working with the best debaters in the country at a school like Michigan competing against the other top colleges and universities. Harvard, Northwestern, and Dartmouth, and places like that. And so, just kind of, you know, working with the best and smartest kids and then seeing them go against the best that the country has to offer, being at that highest level as someone who’s really competitive and loves debate is something that I really enjoy.

Holdship: Well and it’s working out for you! Your team is ranked number one, right?

Kall: The last coach’s poll was released in December. They were ranked number one in the country just ahead of Harvard. And the goal for them is to kind-of finish a little unfinished business from last year and try to win that first national championship for Michigan. We’ve been second place four times 1989, 1991, and in the last two years, and we’d love for them to be the team that brings the first national championship home to Michigan.

Holdship: So can you give us a little preview? What will the team be debating against Harvard in April?

Kall: This year it has to do with the reduction of United States military presence from around the world. And so we have forward-deployed troops in places like Japan, and South Korea, some in Africa. And when you’re affirmative, you have to argue that’d be a good idea to withdraw those troops, take them somewhere else, bring them back to the United States. And when you are negative, you have to argue for various reasons why that’d be a bad idea and you have to go affirmative and negative half the time, to make it even, and make sure you have to argue both sides, and that’s the overall resolution. And then you have a lot of sub-resolutions so the topic doesn’t get stale. What effect would doing something like that have on the president, his agenda, our economy, our relations with other countries, our leadership, and hegemony? And so there’s a lot of kind of sub-issues about that. And so we will for the next few months be preparing about that. And now with Justice Scalia’s untimely passing… how that affects Congress, the political process, the president’s agenda, whether he appoints someone and they get a vote. That will be I think an interesting intersection with politics and action like withdrawing troops. That could be a major issue come in April.

Holdship: So talk to me about this number one ranked team. Who are they, and what makes them so spectacular?

Kall: William Morgan and Joseph Krakoff. Both of them were excellent high school debaters, one from the Washington DC area, and the other from Atlanta. Will was the university’s nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship this year, and so just a brilliant guy, does a lot of philosophy, has presented at International Philosophy Conferences, is very well-read in critical literature. And their kind of knowledge and research, and all that make them very formidable and very tough to defeat. And in addition to kind of the research they do and just their general smarts, their work ethic is I think unparalleled in the country. We have a debate office in the Michigan Union, a conference room for the students to use whenever they like, and they live in the office. They’re there during the day late at night in the morning. And in so they are just you know I think out work everybody else in addition to being a full-time student. The top debaters in the country work at least probably another 40 hours minimum per week just on debate and no one is working harder to them and it’s really paying off, and the results we’ve had this year.

Holdship: Well the stakes are pretty high! You’re competing against Harvard. That’s gotta be a lot of pressure on you, right?

Kall: Kinda having Michigan and Harvard one and two this year is a great part of that narrative. And if that gets some more attention and eyes on debate and the team than great. As you know, our alums are so competitive: our debate alumni, parents of the debaters, everything like that. And so yeah, you even have the joke of Harvard being the Michigan of the East and things like that. And so, no Harvard or whoever it was, they want Michigan to be number one just like in football or anything else, and no matter who the competition maybe they expect and want us to be number one. Whether it’s debate or anything else of the university. And we’re certainly aware of these expectations and do everything we can to try to meet and exceed them.

Holdship: This is mental athletics. You’re competing with your brains.

Kall: It is, but at the same time, so much of it is physical too. I mean obviously you’re speaking a lot and you’re researching, but to win a national championship, to win a debate tournament, is just physically exhausting and draining. The days are long and the pressure, especially when you’re a senior and you know this could be your last debate ever, parents are there sometimes watching, is great. And so there’s the mental aspect, but also just the physical making sure you’re getting enough sleep, making sure you’re eating properly, exercising, all those things. Or you wouldn’t think… these aren’t athletes! But the rigors of debate and what’s required at the top level are just extraordinary.

Holdship: And sometimes the payoffs can be unexpected. I understand you met your wife as a fellow debater on the college circuit. You guys competed against one another, she won! So what’s the deal, you married up?

Kall: No question! Yes: she is a debate national champion, Master’s degree from Chicago, a law degree, worked in the private sector now as an attorney at Chrysler. So I definitely married up! *Laughs* We were rivals, we didn’t like each other. And because you debate and then you lose, and never would’ve thought about being married to each other. But not even really friendly! Then we went, we both worked at the University of Kentucky summer camp for three weeks after we both graduated. And when you’re just teaching high school students and not actually competing, no longer debating, you kinda see each other in a different light. And yeah and we’ve been together ever since ever since that, 2001.

Holdship: (Laughs) That’s such a great story! Okay, so I have to shift gears now to the Flint water crisis which has been making national news for quite some time now.
Interestingly, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will be bringing a democratic debate to Flint, Michigan and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what you see as the outcome there. What do you see on the horizon?

Kall: Nothing but good, good things. I see no downside at all. Democrats have had much fewer debates they’ve occurred on like weekends and holidays and on networks and you haven’t got much media attention. And so there was a big kind of, okay we need some more Democratic debates especially since this contest is going to be so close between the two of them. And there was a lot of acrimony between the two campaigns about that. The Sanders campaign would agree to do it in Flint, only if the Hillary campaign agreed to do a debate in Brooklyn, and so they were fighting. So I wrote an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press about it basically saying that Bernie should agree to just unilaterally debate in Flint. If they want to have another debate in New York , that’s fine, but it’s just so important for Flint to host the debate no matter what… that’s the most important thing. Because there’s a debate in Flint in early March, that guarantees that the issue is going to receive the attention that it deserves in the run-up to the debate, during the debate, and then immediately following. And it also ensures that a good portion of the debate will be about Flint, about what went wrong, what we should be doing in the future. What can we do to mean that something like that will never happen again, and so I think it’s it’s just going to be great. I mean you saw in this last debate the death of Scalia dominated the first 15 to 20 minutes of the debate. I think the same thing will happen in Flint, I mean it’s not going to be the entire debate but it’s going to be a disproportionate amount of time and questions on it which would never happen if it were held in somewhere else. And so I think all that’s great and it’ll make sure spotlight remains on Flint. And also, I just think that it’s going to be a great thing for the city of Flint. You’re going to have all these people flying in from around the world getting hotel rooms, renting cars, eating at restaurants, just the media visibility. And so I think it’s a win-win and I’m so happy that they agreed to it, and I can’t wait to attend and see how it goes.

Holdship: Okay, so now we’re going to do a little something different. I want to do a little word association with you. So we’re going to talk about each one of the candidates. I’m going to say the name, and you give me your first thoughts about how each of them has performed in this campaign season. So let’s start with Bernie Sanders.

Kall: (Laughs) I… I think Larry David! I know it’s terrible but I had just the same thing with like Palin and Saturday Night Live when she was parodied it’s… to me, they’re kind of like the same person. But you know, if I think of him I think of his debating, I think of his message, for free college and things like that. But no, I can’t shake the association with him and Larry David! He did the great thing about embracing it, going on Saturday Night Live, that’s the only thing you can do. But as a huge Laurie David fan and every time I see him, I can’t. And hear him, even just the voice I think of him!

Holdship: I’m sure you’re not alone. Okay, so how about Hillary Clinton?

Kall: I would say laughter. I think that her best tactic during debates is anytime there’s something, or she’s on the ropes, she’ll laugh and kind of play it off. And I think that’s a kind of a really interesting technique that works for her.

Holdship: Okay, how about Jeb Bush?

Kall: He’s very measured. He is very serious, and I think he’s become a much better debater as we’ve gone on, but very serious.

Holdship: Okay, that brings us to Ted Cruz. That’s the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Ted Cruz, in terms of its debate style.

Kall: I’d say… phony. *laughs* I think he’s very polished but sometimes I have a tough time thinking that what he’s actually saying that he really believes. He seems almost too good and too polished. And so I’m a little skeptical I guess.

Holdship: Okay that brings us to Mark Rubio.

Kall: Aspirational. He has very forward-looking vision and an excellent speaker. And young, energetic, I can certainly see why he’s attractive to a lot of people

Holdship: And Donald Trump?

Kall: Boisterous. Great command of the room and never backs down. Always double down. You think, oh he’s gonna have to apologize for some mistake. No, he’ll become more involved and even more forceful about it.

Holdship: How about Chris Christie?

Kall: I mean like…. a tank. He was real short in stature. I got to see him in Las Vegas, but so powerful. I mean you saw him take down single-handedly Marco Rubio and his line about there, there it is. It is going to be something that we replay in debate history forever just like with the Ronald Reagan line. There you go again, and things like that. And so he, I think I think Rubio’s very happy to see him no longer on the stage. But so yeah his legacy may be that he stopped the kinda Rubio coronation.

Holdship: Okay, and we’ll end with Mr. Casing.

Kall: Sunny, optimistic. He always wants to rise above the fray. And no matter how, you know, kinda combative the debate stage gets, he believes in compromise and working together and always is trying to rise above the fray and present kind of a sunny disposition about what politics potentially could be.

Holdship: God love ‘em. Okay so add before we wrap I was curious if you as a debating professional could give us civilians some tips about how he could win debates and our own lives. What are some things we should keep in mind?

Kall: I think critical thinking is the most important, and always being able to think about the perspective of the person you’re debating with. So you always know when debating, okay here’s our best points. But thinking critically and thinking almost like chess, many steps ahead, I think it’s important. So don’t just say okay here’s I’m just gonna say all these things and just going to win! You say no, okay here my three best arguments… but what is my debate adversary’s three best arguments and then what is my response to those and how is this gonna kind of proceed back and forth. For most issues, there’s always two sides. So it’s not like you’re just 100% correct and there’s no other competing side. You’ve got your major strong points but then whoever you’re debating is going to have them as well. So you need to thank several steps ahead and think okay when I deploy these, what’s the response back gonna be and then what’s my response to those things, and kind of think of it that way, never underestimate the person that you’re debating. Also always kinda make making sure you’re in the right frame of mind. You never debate well when you’re angry or you’re kind of off-kilter you want to make sure that you’re in a good place, and never take debates like that personally because a lot of times then they can get to you and really affect your ability to debate well. So kind of view it as a game, as a strategy, and even with like ad hominem attacks or personal things like that. Never take them that way. Never let that interfere with the quality of the arguments that you’re making because that’s ultimately what it comes down to.

Holdship: So you ascribe to the dictum “quit while you’re ahead?”

Kall: Yes, always quit while you’re ahead. And that’s and that’s true in debates and that’s true in everything. Sometimes you get into trouble by expending that extra time with it you don’t need! You’ll say something, and then all of a sudden your opponent has something to latch onto. So certainly quit while you’re ahead or you talked earlier about negotiations. Being able to say yes and to accept something, a compromise, an offer. And just kind of knowing there’s a lot of back and forth and everyone’s not going to get everything they want. But if both sides can kinda walk away feeling good and satisfied then everyone’s a winner and can be happy.

Holdship: Well, now that seems like the perfect place to end. Thank you so much, Aaron Kall, good luck to the team in April! And I hope you enjoyed listening, see you next time. And as always, go blue!

A battle royale in the making?

This April, the Champions of the West take on the “Michigan of the East” in hopes of being crowned the national debate champions of 2016. That’s right, U-M’s No. 1-ranked debate team will face Harvard in a war of words that would leave lesser mortals dazed and confused.

Spring training is in full effect in the debate team’s office at the Michigan Union, where Joseph Krakoff and William Morgan spend some 40 hours per week reading, writing, and — yes — arguing. This is all in addition to their regular coursework as U-M seniors.

“Our alumni are very competitive; they want Michigan to be No. 1 in everything,” says Aaron Kall, U-M’s director of debate. “And our debate alumni are extremely competitive. This team is certainly aware of those expectations and will do everything we can to meet and exceed them. It would be great if this team could be the ones to bring the national championship home.”

In the spotlight

U-M Debate Team, 2016 - Joe Krakoff and Will MorganThe stakes are especially high this year for Michigan debate. U-M placed second in the past two national championships, and is hungry for a win. With an opponent like Harvard, more eyes are on the team than usual. And with the presidential campaign debates pulling unprecedented TV ratings, burning up social media feeds, and even inspiring a side industry for online betting, debate is (dare we say it?) de rigeur.

“Every few years the country, the world, becomes fascinated with debate,” says Kall. “For someone who’s been doing it for so long, that’s great to see. You have to strike while the iron’s hot.”

Kall certainly has been striking. His own media profile as a “debate expert” is high, with placement in local, regional, and national news outlets. He’s been quoted in USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Times, among others. On Feb. 1, The Detroit Free Press published Kall’s op-ed, “[Bernie] Sanders should agree to Flint debate.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and have a good perspective of how the candidates are doing,” Kall says, “and I love to share my opinion with anyone who’s interested.”

On March 3, Michigan voters will welcome the Republican candidates to Detroit. Flint will host the Democratic contenders three days later on March 6, ensuring wide national exposure and ongoing discussion of the city’s devastating water crisis.

Listen in, Michigan

In this podcast, Kall has fun with a word-association game regarding each presidential candidate’s debating style and offers a tutorial on how we “civilians” can win our own daily debates … Keep reading below. (More Listen in, Michigan podcasts.)

Cage match

When he’s not coaching his own team, Kall certainly enjoys the role of spectator this time of year. Like most pundits analyzing the presidential debates, he attributes Donald Trump’s entry into the field (“a kind of mixed bag”) as bringing more attention to his favorite pastime.

“We’re seeing different debates than we’d be seeing if he weren’t there,” Kall says. “Just by the viewership numbers, we see that people like the ‘zingers,’ the back and forth. He’s certainly giving the crowd what they want.”

The candidates have delivered more than one teachable moment relevant beyond the campaign, he says, noting, “Even seasoned debaters can be vulnerable to traps.”

Whether it’s Rick Perry forgetting which government agency he wanted to destroy in 2012, or Marco Rubio playing into Chris Christie’s hands by repeating a canned line, one’s fortunes can turn quickly from contest to contest. Ted Cruz scored big points when he broke into Spanish recently, but he also left himself vulnerable to attack when he derided Trump for espousing a type of “New York liberalism.”

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Kall says. “But one good thing about having so many debates is that you can learn from your mistakes and come back with a good performance next time.”

The amazing comeback

Kall’s hoping that’s what will happen with his own team, Morgan and Krakoff, in April. He describes the senior duo as “brilliant and formidable” with an incomparable work ethic. Perhaps most important, they have the eye of the tiger, witnessing their former teammates take second place in extremely close final rounds of the national championships in 2015 and 2014.

The topic for 2016 will focus on reduction of U.S. military presence around the world. Each team must argue the topic from the affirmative and negative perspectives. Sub-resolutions will keep the content fresh during the long and grueling contest, as the teams debate what effect such moves might have on the president, the economy, the military, etc. And the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will surely figure into the mix.

“The days are long and the pressure is intense,” Kall says. “These aren’t athletes, but the rigors of debate — and what’s required at the top level — are just extraordinary.”

Been there, done that

For his own part, Kall fell in love with debate during a high school camp that brought him to U-M in 1994 and 1995. He returned to Michigan in 2002 and has been coaching here ever since.

“This is as high-level as the game gets,” he says. (After all, there is no “professional” debate league.) “There’s nothing like working with the best debaters in the country, competing against the best.”

As a former college debater who also made it to the national stage, Kall knows what his team will experience this spring. Regrettably he never won a national championship while debating, although his wife, whom he met on the debating circuit, does hold a national title.

“We didn’t like each other at all at the time; we weren’t even friendly,” Kall says of his one-time adversary. But their feelings changed when they met again on neutral ground as coaches at a high school debate camp. They’ve been together since 2001.

“Whenever people find out that we met through college debate, she’s quick to say, ‘Oh yes. And I beat him twice. 2-0,’” Kall says. “But we’ve finally reached a détente. She’s now a very successful lawyer. And I’ve had a very successful coaching career at Michigan. I love teaching debate and I love analyzing it. I couldn’t think of doing anything else, anywhere else.”

(Top image: Joe Krakoff and Will Morgan. Image courtesy of Aaron Kall.)


  1. Mia Gutierrez - UM 1991

    As a former debate coach, I can attest to the long hours, hard work and brilliance of debaters. Good luck and go blue!


Leave a comment: