We've all had this experience: You're in a debate or a discussion. You're at a loss for words. And of course, after it's all over, you think of exactly the right thing to have said.
I hate that feeling, but do you want to know who really hates it? Politicians.
Rhetoric and words are almost all that they have. Now that we're in the middle of the presidential campaign season, with caucuses and primaries about to happen, and one debate after another after another, that gives us an opportunity.
Almost no political zinger is spontaneous. Consultants have spent millions trying to craft the right lines. And if you study the debates and the candidates' verbal tactics, you can find some great lessons--even blueprints--for using rhetoric to upend your adversary's position.
Here are five examples--from both Democrats and Republicans.
1. The dismissive counterpunch.
Let's start with the kind of one-punch knockout that can really end an opponent's chances. The trick here to know the kind of opportunity you're looking for and be ready. Two great examples:
First, an example from this cycle--the way Donald Trump very effectively sidelined Jeb(!) Bush by repeatedly describing him as "low energy." When Bush came out with guns blazing in one debate, Trump was able to put him off effectively simply by saying, "More energy tonight--I love that!"
Second, a more classic example. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was running against Ronald Reagan, and Carter had used the same effective line of attack against Reagan--perhaps one too many times.
Reagan was able to use a little verbal jiujitsu to turn the whole thing around on him in a debate. Instead of engaging, he simply dismissed Carter's line by chuckling: "Well, there you go again."
2. The cool cultural reference.
This one is really hard to pull off. It's about working a cultural reference into your reply to an opponent's rhetorical dig. It can easily backfire--but if you do it effectively, you're in great shape.
Cultural references evolve so quickly, it's hard to recall some of these accurately, but here are two good examples.
The first comes from 2012, when President Obama and Mitt Romney were squaring off. Obama wanted to take Romney to task for having suggested that Russia was the biggest foreign challenge facing the United States--not ISIS or another Middle Eastern foe.
His line? "The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back."
It worked--but not perfectly--in part, perhaps, because Obama didn't get the cultural put-down exactly right (and maybe because by 2012, that was already kind of a cliché.)
A better example might come from 1984, in the Democratic primaries, when eventual nominee Walter Mondale suggested his rival Gary Hart didn't have any substance by quoting a Wendy's fast food commercial that was popular at the time: "Where's the beef?"
3. The nod to truth.
Sometimes, the facts are on your side to the point that you can score simply by getting out of the way.
A good example? Then-candidate Obama, in 2008, responding to a line of questioning about Hillary Clinton's "likability" by telling her she was "likable enough."
Perhaps the best came from the year 2000, when Vice-President Al Gore walked across the stage and sort of "got into the space" of Republican nominee George W. Bush.
Bush interrupted his remarks just for a brief second, to nod in Gore's direction--as if to point out how weird it was that Gore had walked over. He didn't even have to say anything, but he made his point very clear.
4. The elephant in the room.
Sometimes there's another way to handle an obvious truth--and that's to say it in a manner that is so clear and obvious that there simply is no real response.
Example: In 1988, Dan Quayle was running for vice-president, and in a debate with the Democratic nominee, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle made the point that he had as much experience as John Kennedy had when he'd run for president in 1960.
Maybe you weren't even born in 1988, but you might know Bentsen's response--which pretty much solidified the mainstream opinion of Quayle:
"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
5. The table-turn.
Similarly, sometimes you can take your opponent's exact words and use them to turn everything against him or her.
As an example, in the Republican debates earlier this year, Jeb Bush started attacking Senator Marco Rubio for having missed votes in the senate while he was campaigning. I'm not sure if this was ever going to be effective, but Rubio knocked him back and disarmed the attack simply by observing, "Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you."
The most classic example is probably from 1984, when Reagan was running for reelection at age 73. When this was brought up in a debate, he almost seemed to have misunderstood the question in his remark--but it was a genius response:
"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan said.
How effective was it? He even left his opponent, Walter Mondale, laughing--and beat him in a landslide.