/One candidate got a B. The other almost flunked

One candidate got a B. The other almost flunked


Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is a professor of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships; he’s been named the national debate coach of the year three times and been presented with the lifetime achievement award in academia and debate. You can find him at his website, on Facebook and on X. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

It’s not often that a presidential candidate opens a debate by calling an opponent names like “mealy mouthed” or talking about how much their opponent lies.

I am, of course, joking.

Rudeness, it seems, is the norm for Republican presidential debates.

This time, there were only two candidates in CNN’s Wednesday night debate in Iowa. Nikki Haley (aka: “mealy mouth”), the former Ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina met Ron DeSantis (aka: “DeSantisLies”), the governor of Florida in the final debate before the Iowa caucus.

Here’s how each of them fared:

Nikki Haley: B

Will Lanzoni/CNN

Will Lanzoni/CNN

Haley still needs to fix a couple of debating techniques. The opening tone matters and Haley went right to calling DeSantis a liar. Whether or not Haley is correct, the word “liar” is frowned on in debate, as it’s only meant for the grossest of infractions. There are better terms, such as “disingenuous,” that ease the tone of any debate. And Haley’s best strategy is to be the likeable one on stage, so this was a major error.

At the very least, Haley needed to move her disclaimer from near the end of the debate to the beginning. She said it was a “shame” she had to put up the website, DeSantisLies.com, in an effort to document his mistruths. Haley should have led with that.

The other hiccup for Haley is that she debates as if she can win the whole debate, nay, the entire presidency, in this very instant right now if she jams as many topics as possible into each of her answers. Debt limit, supporting Ukraine, Iowa campaigning, renewable fuel standards and social security are all deep topics. Yet Haley mentioned all those and more in just one of her crowded answers.

When Haley found her momentum, it was partially because she stopped focusing on the DeSantisLies website. Haley’s finest moments in these debates were when she talked about leaders bringing out the best in people. That’s a much better fit for Haley’s persona and is starkly different from the other candidates.

Haley’s answers on Ukraine were on-point, and cleverly sandwiched in there was a line about “dictators always do what they say they’re going to do” so we should take their threats seriously.

Haley smoked DeSantis on the Disney debate, arguing that government shouldn’t be vindictive. Haley pointed out that Disney has always been considered “woke” and yet it wasn’t until they criticized DeSantis that he began his mouse fight.

But Haley’s best move was borrowing and improving a Trump tactic. She taunted DeSantis with his low poll numbers and his squandered war chest of $150 million dollars spent for private planes, etc.

Trump’s effective 2016 debating tactic was calling out opponent’s low poll numbers during the debates. Bandwagoning and ad populum attacks are effective persuasion tools because people prefer to support what or who everyone else is.

Haley’s new application is to say DeSantis has low polling numbers because he’s so bad at campaigning, so why should we trust his decisions on any topic. It’s clever and can be utilized at any time in the debate.

Finally, Haley deftly pivoted away from Trump. She was more forceful in her criticisms of the former president than she’d been in previous debates. Haley knows it’s now or never to highlight their contrasting styles and policies. This could be something to build on for future debates.

Ron DeSantis: D+

Will Lanzoni/CNN

Will Lanzoni/CNN

DeSantis had two areas I’d like to see him expand on and highlight. His strengths in these debates have been his brags. Apparently, Florida is actually doing pretty darn well, according to this Florida man. He lists a bunch of accomplishments where Florida ranks very highly, and they sound impressive. But DeSantis doesn’t give his arguments enough air to breathe before he’s off talkin’ ‘bout bathrooms or something.

When listing accomplishments, debaters need to “sit” on each topic for a while. Otherwise, believability slips. DeSantis listed so many things that Florida was the best at that I began to remember the name of that website that kept coming up in the debate. And that’s what happens when laundry-listing accomplishments. Without proper backing, people doubt things that seem too good to be true. DeSantis should make his achievements his main offense in future debates.

The other area where I liked DeSantis’ performance was when he called out the mayors of “sanctuary cities” as hypocrites. Absent his Martha’s Vineyard humans-as-props stunt (Florida is not a Mexico border state), DeSantis has an excellent point. Why again do we place such a high burden on border states like Texas when immigration is a national issue? Why aren’t other states taking in more people seeking a better life in the US? And DeSantis pointed out how difficult it was for these cities to handle only a fraction of what’s happing at our borders.

Unfortunately, the overall quality of his answers declined rapidly throughout the debate. His answers became alarmingly policy-free and could easily fit on bumper stickers. That’s what doomed DeSantis. And he telegraphed why he refused to leave the shallow end of the debating pool. After Haley made a pretty good point, DeSantis retorted, “She’s focused on a lot of political stuff – things that no voter cares about….” Wrong timing. Haley was making perfect sense, as she was every other time he accused Haley of a “word salad.” It’s as if DeSantis just learned that phrase, word salad, which I honestly don’t think he understands.

His answers on important subjects were often vapid. Haley couldn’t have been much better at presenting reasons why we must support Ukraine and help it beat back Russia’s invasion. DeSantis’s answer? “I think a lot of people have died. We need to find a way to end this.” Okay… Haley just told us how.

When asked if he would actually implement a flat tax that he’s mentioned, DeSantis replied that he would only adopt the flat tax if people are “better off” than they are now. That was his debate answer. I wish my teams got away with that!

Just imagine:

Random opponent: “Hey, SIU: What’s your plan?”

Southern Illinois University: “Flat tax. But only if we win the solvency debate that a flat tax is better than the status quo. Otherwise, we won’t do the flat tax.”

Random opponent: “Sounds perfectly reasonable and normal for debate and policymaking.”

Then there was his double-turn on abortion. I previously complimented how Haley approached the abortion debate. DeSantis was divided. Should he criticize Haley’s previous answer OR should he steal it because people liked it? DeSantis’s decision? Do both.

He said that while you’ve got to have “compassion” for what’s going on in the country, he also argued that Haley has been “using the language of the left” to attack anti-abortion activists.

Somehow DeSantis managed to say we need compassion, but compassion is the language of the left, which the left uses to attack anti-abortion activists. It’s tragic to think anyone on earth believes compassion to be a word or concept worthy of contempt, but it’s true and it’s happened before in another Republican presidential debate. Remember when the Republican audience booed the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

It was hard to get upset with DeSantis’s troubling statement because I was chuckling at him not realizing he also asked for compassion. I think he should have said “Ta-Da!” when he finished that whirlwind of an answer while giving everyone the famous DeSantis “fake” smile.

The spit-out-my-tea moment was when DeSantis was asked if the government should go after businesses that don’t agree with you, and it was specifically about Disney after they criticized DeSantis. His answer? He did it to protect the kids.

Disingenuous.

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