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Clinton Crushed It? Not For This Debate Watcher

Josh Davis: "Bernie Sanders, despite some stylistic gaffes, was the clear winner." Pictured: Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)closemore
Josh Davis: "Bernie Sanders, despite some stylistic gaffes, was the clear winner." Pictured: Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

In 1987, when I was a senior in college, my debate partner and I won the National Debate Championship, and I finished first individually. Before and during law school, I coached high school and college debate. Now, my son competes, and I spend many weekend days judging high school debate. Last night, I watched every minute of the Democratic debate on CNN. This morning, as I read the papers and listened to the radio, I absorbed the seemingly uniform consensus that Hillary Clinton had "won." That just isn't the case. On my ballot, Bernie Sanders, despite some stylistic gaffes, was the clear winner. Clinton spoke well, but failed to deliver a coherent message. In contrast, from the beginning to the end of the debate, Sanders focused attention on his core message: the economic inequality that has come to define our country cannot stand.

This morning, as I read the papers and listened to the radio, I absorbed the seemingly uniform consensus that Hillary Clinton had 'won.' That just isn't the case.

Effective competitive debating, unlike political debate, requires a team to stake out a position, meet contrary arguments, and carry their argument through as the speeches come to an end. Points are given for direct clash and deducted when a debater fails to engage with the issue or uses rhetoric to avoid a difficult spot. So, although pundits today suggest that Sanders's worst moment was the back and forth about gun control, that moment actually reflected his willingness to engage in direct clash. Sanders did not brush off the issue with rhetoric (see, for example, Clinton's repeatedly expressed desire to share her plans with the audience while never actually sharing even one). Instead, he acknowledged his voting history and somewhat more conservative gun control position while outlining a clear, consensus-driven approach to meaningful gun control. That moment, in which Sanders the debater showed both his command of the facts and an ability to absorb criticism from his opponents and turn the issue to his advantage, played an important role in Sanders's clear debate victory.

To pundits, however, the gun control exchange was a low point for Senator Sanders and a high point for Secretary Clinton. Here's why: Clinton was vehement in her criticism of Sanders and able to stake out a position to his left. Pundits reward clash, not subtlety. Part of that is the media's persistent reduction of an exchange of ideas to several seconds of sound or video. The gun argument was a good clip for Clinton. Sanders's careful explanation of his nuanced position made for bad sound. From the media perspective, then, this was a clear win for Clinton.

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

More important to the debate judge's ballot is whether a debater carries his or her argument through the whole of the contest and against all challenges. From this perspective, Sanders did not just win the debate, he won in dramatic fashion. Rather than engaging in an opening statement, he moved immediately to his core message: Too many of us work too hard for too little and too few of us have far, far too much. As the debate progressed, he built on this aspect: College now is what high school was, and so public college or university should be free for the same reasons we made high school free a generation ago. Health care is a right, not a privilege. And we need paid family leave. On many of these issues, Secretary Clinton agreed, but she did so in piecemeal fashion. The thematic building, one of the critical components in effective debate, belonged to Sanders. And, of course, he returned to it at the end, thereby (for this judge) cementing his victory.

In contrast, political debate scorecards are about expectations and survival. For a front-runner (as CNN's pregame Chyron graphics labeled Clinton in block letters), the test is not thematic, but moment to moment. It is also about bearing and careful speaking and not getting caught in a quagmire. In all of these respects, Clinton excelled. She was ready on her Iraq vote, citing Obama's appointment as Secretary of State as his seal of forgiveness; ready on Social Security; ready on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone pipeline, and ready on guns. Her careful preparation was everywhere apparent. She also reminded viewers of her experience and walked a careful line between embracing the Obama administration and charting her own path. She was completely careful and completely solid throughout. And, in the lexicon of political debate, that made her the winner.

In the voting to come, the question is whether caucus goers and primary voters will vote for a message or for someone the media thinks can win.

The crowds flocking to Sanders defy traditional political thinking.  They reflect the deep resonance of his message. Last night, many more listened to his very clear articulation of the themes that have defined his political life. On a judge's ballot, his thematic consistency and persistence would have won the night. On a pundit's ballot, Clinton's care and unflappability made her the winner. In the voting to come, the question is whether caucus goers and primary voters will vote for a message or for someone the media thinks can win. And that question, like the question of who really won last night, remains very open.

Josh Davis Cognoscenti contributor
Josh Davis is an employment lawyer at Goulston & Storrs in Boston. He also teaches law, writes about many subjects, and talks on the radio.

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