Counterplans, or The Number 12 vs. Carnitas Burrito, Black Beans

As I mentioned, the Minnesota Debate Teachers Association recently set the coming year's Novice Case Limits, including limits on what positions negative teams can run in the novice division. These limits allow the "50 States counterplan" from the beginning of the year, meaning that States will be the counterplan that Minnesota novices will first learn.

This is fitting, since when asked open-ended questions like "how would you attack this plan?", a beginning debater's intuitive response is often "well, why don't we do this other plan instead?" Counterplans bring with them some more technical theory issues eventually, but the idea of debating "Option A" vs. "Option B" is pretty easy to grasp.

So how does the neg present a counterplan? A lot like the aff presents a plan, actually. The 1NC, as a seperate off-case position, usually reads a "plan text" and builds a prima facie case around thier counterplan. The counterplan text for the States Counterplan often looks quite a bit like the affirmative plan, substituting state governments in place of the federal government. If plan is "Congress should provide medical coverage to non-citizens living in poverty," counterplan will look something like "The 50 US State Governments should provide medical coverage to non-citizens living in poverty."

In building a case for the counterplan, the negative does not usually cover the same stock issues as the aff does. Counterplans don't have to be topical, and the counterplan is usually inherent for the same reasons that plan is, so new evidence is generally not needed there.

Before I continue, reflect for a moment on why we are running a counterplan, why your knee-jerk reaction is "why not do this other thing instead?" Usually, you react this way because you think that "this other thing" will solve the harms. Proving this assertion with Solvency evidence is a necessary component of a counterplan strategy.

So you've proven that your counterplan can solve... now what? Well, what if you had to choose between two different policies to solve a harm, and you knew that both policies would get the job done? How would you decide? To use the same silly example that I always do, if the harm is "I am hungry," how do you resolve the debate between the plan "go eat at Jimmy John's" and the counterplan "go eat at Chipotle"? Either plan will vanquish my hunger, so you are going to need to find other reasons to make a decision.

And as a negative, you want to give as many smart reasons as possible to prefer counterplan over plan. Just like there could be a lot of different reasons to prefer one restaurant over the other ("Chipotle is Closer," "Jimmy Johns is Cheaper," "Chipotle uses free-range pork"), you've got a lot of options for Net Benefits, reasons to prefer CP over plan:

  • Disadvantages that link to plan, but not to counterplan

  • Reasons plan won't solve (that don't apply to counterplan)

  • Seperate benefits to plan (usually just called "net benefits")

  • Impact turns to harms that counterplan doesn't solve

And here we can start to form a more complete negative strategy by choosing arguments that work well together. A States CP 1NC might also include a federal spending disad, a solvency argument that says that federal medical dollars are wasted, and an argument that major state-level action can strengthen state governments' role in providing healthcare and help the US healthcare system overall. Notice that sometimes the net benefit stems from what the counterplan is (major state action), and sometimes from what it is not (federal spending).

So if you were the affirmative, how would you answer a 1NC like that? It seems daunting (and the list of net benefits is often much bigger), but remember that every weapon the neg brings to the battlefield might end up being used against them. For every net benefit, you can challenge (with takeouts or turns)

  • The link to plan

  • The link to counterplan

  • The uniqueness of the link(s)

  • The uniqueness of the impact

  • The impact itself

And with all of these options, you can usually find something to challenge that the neg is not particularly prepared to defend.

Of course, with so many options, choosing what exactly to run has it's perils and challenges as well. That's why you should usually start with your case. How good is the evidence that states solve? This is the hardest part for the negative to research (there are usually a lot of affs out there), so it is often the most vulnerable spot of the counterplan. If you win a Solvency Defecit, your case becomes a "disad" to the counterplan, and it's a disad you've already spent 8 minutes building up.

And, just like the negative can be creative when researching disads to your plan, you can dig into the literature to find disadvantages to state action. State governments have to spend money too (for example), and the consequences of state budget overruns might be just as devestating as additional federal spending.

Counterplan-focused strategies can quickly turn into a mess with all these links and impacts flying around. The teams that tend to thrive in these debates have mastered two things. First, they have the ability to focus the debate down to the arguments that they are winning in the last rebuttals. This is easier said than done (and I'll have more guidance on this later), but one important point is that in 1AR and 2NR, every argument you extend should be either something you can win the debate on or something that you'll lose the debate on if you don't answer it. Sometmes your 2AC or 2NC has some "noise" arguments, by necessity or by design, but you need to make 1AR and 2NR tightly focused.

The second thing that will win you many a counterplan debate is mastering Impact Comparisons. I can't tell you how many debates I've judged with a dozen impacts on the flow and no effort from either side to compare them. If you find yourself in one of these debates, you might as well go ahead and win it.

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