Debate, like chess or poker, is a game of strategy. Across alternating speeches—which roughly correspond to “moves” by each team—effective strategy requires anticipating your opponent’s line of attack and then preempting it or developing a strong response. In most situations, planning up to the third move (2AC, after the 1AC and 1NC) is the key to success.
Clearly, the strategic approach to debate has huge implications for Affirmative case selection and construction. Many high school summer institutes emphasize setting criteria for what constitutes a strategic case, including “federal key” warrants, unique angles against the generic disadvantages and counterplans of the topic, large case impacts, diversity of advantages, and flexibility to evolve over the course of the season. To this list, I strongly encourage you to add “a ‘certainty key’ argument”—a reason for mandatory, certain, and unconditional adoption of the plan.
Arguments, they say, are like the seasons: they come and go. Currently, the college and high school debate communities are solidly in the Summer of the Conditioning Counterplan. The conditioning counterplan argues that the plan should be adopted only if a certain condition is met (NATO says “yes”, state governments agree to prohibit smoking in public areas, etc.). Within this category of argument, I include “consultation”, “threatening” (do the plan unless X), and most recently “recommendation” (have X actor push the plan, but don’t mandate it). These counterplans have become extremely popular because they obviate the need for the negative to anticipate and defeat crafty and unpredictable affirmative advantages. Since the conditioning counterplan is usually argued to result in the affirmative plan, the advantages of the 1AC are no longer a relevant consideration for the judge. In my experience, these arguments have become so popular that most policy-oriented college programs prepare one of more counterplans of this style as an “ultra-generic” before the National Debate Tournament (NDT). In fact, some version of the conditioning counterplan was present in the final round of each of the three most recent NDTs (although, each was won by the Affirmative – a testament to the preparation of those squads).
Though conditioning counterplans are popular, some might ask why it merits systematic consideration as an argument category, instead of being treated in specifics. After all, many disadvantages will be popular on the 2010-2011 military deployment topic, yet few teams will likely think about “answers to: disads” generally (instead, focusing on angles against politics, hegemony, etc.). A big problem for Affirmatives while debating against conditions is that neither the conditional criteria (NATO saying yes, state smoking bans, etc.) nor the net-benefit have a direct link to the plan—and is thus unpredictable and difficult to prepare for. A short list of counterplans that have actually been read in recent years demonstrates the point:
-- do the plan if Greenland agrees to blow up a particularly troublesome iceberg
-- do the plan if the European Union agrees to protect the endangered Lynx
-- threaten to do the plan unless Israel discloses that it possesses nuclear weapons
-- inform Japan that it can tell Russia that the United States will do the plan if Russia agrees to give Japan back the Kurile Islands
Given this, the common retort that these arguments can be beaten by researching “say no” evidence rings hollow. Even a well prepared team could not possibly keep up with Negative teams that are allowed to condition the plan on the response of any entity in the world. Plus, given the recent emergence of the “threaten counterplan,” to which the Negative argues that the conditioned actor will say “no”, causing the plan and advantageous pressure, the burden on the Affirmative is raised to a preposterous level—they are expected to have evidence that every actor in the world both likes and dislikes the plan. Thus, affirmative preparation against conditioning counterplans cannot reliably treated as a matter of specifics and must instead be thought through systematically, in search of broad methods to prove that unconditional adoption of the plan is desirable.
Tips for Preparation
There are at least three ways to strategically approach “certainty key” arguments on the Affirmative.
First, consider using theory and permutations. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss the theoretical merits of conditioning, but it is safe to say that they lie in the “gray area” of judging opinion where going for theory in the 2AR or extending a permutation to “do the counterplan” with theoretical justifications is a reasonable option in most situations. If theory is something that interests you as a debater—and it will for some but not others—then the two keys are scouting and preparation. Know judge tendencies, as they “factor in” more heavily in theory debates than in those about substantive issues. Then, brainstorm arguments and responses. For the most part, theory arguments like “conditioning counterplans bad” are a solved game. Many teams make the same arguments in defense of these arguments and their blocks do not change much, if at all, over time. This can be easily exploited by simply planning to the third move—setting traps in the 1AR (new twists, collapsing down to theory subsets, etc.) that the Negative will have a difficult time recovering from.
Second, specifying the court as the actor of the plan can be a huge help against process counterplans. Obviously, it would be extremely damaging for judicial legitimacy and public faith in the institution if the court were to make its decisions based on the actions of an external entity rather than established legal procedure—creating an intuitive and easy to research disadvantage against the counterplan. Worse, the court is very unlikely to have a mechanism for enacting the counterplan (for example, they lack diplomats to negotiate), so Negatives sometimes explain the process of the counterplan as involving outside agents (State Department consults Russia, Court conditionally implements the plan). This opens up many new avenues for devastating permutations, such as “permute: have the State Department consult Russia and Court do the plan no matter what”, to which the traditional Negative responses (theory complaints of “severance” or “intrinsicness” and insistence that genuine negotiation is key) do not apply. That the 2010-2011 military deployment topic is international rather than domestic does not lessen the strategic insight here. From a strategic perspective, the court is certainly capable of ordering changes in military posture (even if it isn’t likely) and teams will definitely test the waters of this agent in search of creative advantages. This basic blueprint to Affirmative construction was used by Michigan State to win the final round of the 2010 NDT, in which they used the court to end nuclear launch-on-warning policy, with a mix of advantages about nuclear weapons and judicial precedent. Choosing the court as your actor comes at some cost; there are several judicial disadvantages and many counterplans like Congress, lower courts, and the constitutional amendment. Still, thought, it may be worth the risk in order to push the Negative off the very powerful wholly plan-inclusive conditioning counterplan.
Third, and most generally, it can be argued that the process of enactment matters for some advantages based off of perception of the plan. Typically, this argument works best for advantages about signaling, like soft power, human rights credibility, international resolve, etc. The process of conditioning (where U.S. action occurs only under certain circumstance) can be argued to undermine the image of commitment to the goal of the plan or, at the very least, subordinate that goal to the issue that has been explicitly linked to action. For example, one author writes that:
“consensus precludes the possibility of firm moral positions, as decisions reflect the lowest-common denominator among actors … multilateralism necessarily entails moral equivocation and watered down positions.”
Contextual examples make this point more clear. The provision of disaster relief would do far less to promote U.S. humanitarian leadership if it were linked to the extraction of trade concessions from major competitors. The object of the plan—alleviation of suffering—gets turned into something of a bargaining chip or a means for political wrangling, rather than a genuine gesture. Even though the counterplan may result in the enactment of the plan, the process by which the counterplan enacts the plan may be very public and affect the international perception of the plan.
Generally, this scenario (signal advantage vs. condition counterplan) demonstrates the necessity of affirmatives having a diversity of solvency mechanisms in the 1AC. Drawing upon the previous example of disaster relief, this would mean that the affirmative would have advantages both based on alleviating disaster-related suffering (by providing assistance) and based on international humanitarian credibility (by been seen as providing assistance). The affirmative could argue that each is independent—relief could be ineffective but still bolster the U.S. image or vice versa. This gives affirmatives much more latitude in the 2AC and is highly useful against many counterplans (because there are two advantage “links” to solve, not just one).
The popularity of the conditioning counterplan has skyrocketed in the last five years and will likely remain an important part of the negative’s arsenal for the near future. As affirmatives prepare for the coming topic, I strongly suggest that you adopt a strategic approach to debate and consider “certainty key” arguments as a criterion for case selection.
 Harris, Tobias. “Gulliver Unbound: the Future of American Power.” May 2003. Online: http://people.brandeis.edu/~cbmag/Articles/2003%20May/Gulliver%20unbound-%20May%202003.pdf