Humor Is the Best Weapon in Presidential Debates

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During the second Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush both dropped one-liners that drew laughs from the audience. Humor can be a debate strategy and a method of appealing to voters. Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

American history is littered with the corpses of candidates who couldn't make anyone crack a smile. As Mitt Romney learned in 2012, it's not enough to say that you "live for laughter." You have to actually be funny.

The great Roman rhetorician Cicero once said, "By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable, or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him." There's no better practitioner of this philosophy than Donald Trump, who has created an entire campaign out of making his enemies small, inferior, despicable or comic.

You don't have to agree with Trump's "positions" to find him hilarious, and apparently that translates to real success in the polls.

Ted Cruz might have a reputation for being a great debater at Princeton, but Trump cut his teeth in one of the toughest debate environments imaginable: the 2011 Comedy Central Roast.

Humor doesn't always win the debate or the election, but a memorable dis can go down in the pages of history. Few people remember Dan Quayle for anything other than his spelling errors, but Michael Dukakis's vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen, who would ultimately lose the election to George H.W. Bush's ticket, will live forever because of his response when Quayle compared himself to JFK.

Quayle would later be widely mocked, perhaps unfairly, for being dim, but a political candidate usually can't just come out during a debate and say, "You're young and stupid." Jokes are for stating what everyone thinks but is too afraid to say.

Speaking of inexperience, Ronald Reagan had one of the best debate one-liners ever when he famously turned his advanced age against his opponent, Walter Mondale.

Is it appropriate to question a candidate's age? Debates are full of uncomfortable questions, and some of them are ultimately meaningful: Are we comfortable with Donald Trump in control of the nuclear arsenal? Some are less so. In 2008, Barack Obama, who would eventually become the first black president, was asked if Bill Clinton had been the first black president. He gave the best possible silly answer to what was a somewhat silly question.

Like basketball players Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, Obama had a knack for backing up his verbal zingers with results.

Hillary Clinton would end up serving as Obama's first secretary of state before running for president from 2013 to the present.

Not all humor has to be verbal. Long before his "axis of evil" speech, George W. Bush had an instinct for de-escalating combustible situations with his shoulder-shrugging mentality.

That's not quite Jeb Bush slapping Donald Trump's hand, but 43's humorous nod may well have saved us from witnessing the first ever presidential brawl.

The truth about debates is that they're usually boring. They last several hours, and the candidates trade well-rehearsed sound bites. The last two Republican presidential debates were some of the funniest ever, and they also got record ratings. Maybe civic engagement would increase if debates were hosted by this guy.