One of the most effective ways to answer an unfamiliar counterplan is to win the argument that it "links to the disadvantage."
At its most basic level, a counterplan is only useful if it can produce a "net benefit." If the disadvantage was something like "spending money hurts economic growth," the counterplan would have to avoid spending money to produce a net benefit versus the plan. If there no net benefit, there's no purpose to reading a counterplan.
Here are a few tips for winning this argument:
1. Read "generic" links to prove that the counterplan links to the DA.
Let's look at a common negative strategy. Many negative teams rely on "advantage counterplans." These are policies designed to produce the same benefit as the affirmative but through a different process. For instance, instead of withdrawing troops to stabilize Afghanistan, we should introduce a comprehensive aid package.
The most common net benefit to these counterplans is the politics disadvantage. The argument would be that withdrawing troops is politically unpopular, destroying Obama's ability to advance an important agenda item. In contrast, the CP can stabilize Afghanistan without withdrawing troops.
The affirmative would have several ways to prove this particular DA links to the CP --
a. All legislation costs political capital. Even if an issue is popular, it requires an initial investment of some political capital because there are always doubters and holdouts.
b. Putting new items on the Congressional docket crushes the agenda.
c. (X) issue is unpopular. In the example above, the argument would be that foreign aid is just as unpopular with conservatives as troop withdrawal.
2. Find links in the other team's evidence.
Sometimes teams aren't very careful about which link evidence they read. In the 1NC, they'll read evidence suggesting the Aff's specific proposal isn't popular. However, in the 2NC or 1NR they often get caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
To deal with the specificity of the Aff's "link turn" evidence, negative teams will attempt to protect themselves by reading generic link evidence. Oftentimes, they cast too wide a net, and read evidence suggesting the CP links, too!
This often isn't very obvious, but it is almost always present. Most of the news sources people cut don't make the fine distinctions that debaters attempt to make. A perceptive, focused 2A should always attempt to call a spade a spade and point out when the negative has read overly-broad link evidence.
3. "Link thresholds" are silly. To deal with the above two arguments, negatives will often say things like --
-- "Our link evidence is specific."
Yes, some evidence may only discuss the plan. However, several pieces of evidence discuss things other than the plan. Those things prove the CP links just as much as the plan does.
-- "But the CP links less!"
This is where you should make your stand. Challenge the 2N in cross-x to find the evidence identifying their "link threshold" -- exactly how much money do we have to spend to crush the economy, just how much "political capital" does Obama need to achieve his agenda, etc.
Most internal link evidence is very rhetorical. It is often not NEARLY detailed enough to support the fine distinctions carved out by debaters.
This applies to the highest levels of debate. Even great college debaters often rely on shaky internal evidence that could be exposed by a clever high school novice debater.
-- "If we win the DA outweighs, any risk of a link is something to be avoided"
This is just a clever way of re-phrasing "the CP links less." If the CP produces some risk of the DA, it isn't net-beneficial. Splitting hairs between degrees of risk requires excellent data and evidence, something notably lacking in almost all politics debates.