Debate coach: Trump's disgraceful autism claim

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham: Fiorina had good showing in debate, prepared and with great comebacks on women's issues. Christie also debated well
  • Candidates came down to Trump's level by not denouncing his bogus, egregiously irresponsible assertion that vaccines cause autism

Todd Graham is director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won a national championship for the last three years, and he's been recognized twice as the national debate coach of the year. See his Facebook page. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Wednesday night's CNN debate may not have had a clear theme, but it was notable for at least one very good performance and one repugnant and damaging display of misinformation. We'll get to that in a moment

Todd Graham
But first, as a debate coach, I put together a short list of themes hit by the debating rivals:
No question, Carly Fiorina had a nice debate. She came prepared. She was knowledgeable, had specifics -- on Russia, Egypt, rebuilding our military, among other topics -- and presented her arguments effectively. Her points about a president needing the proper temperament (a jab at Trump) and an upstanding character (one at Clinton) were persuasive, and she didn't even need to use their names directly.
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    She solidly established her outsider status with her comment about how people in the system don't know how broken it was, comparing current politicians to fish that don't realize they are swimming in water.
    But she was particularly effective when talking about women's issues. And she only used a few words. It was brilliant.
    I've coached my debate teams to use the technique of "less is more" in competitions. Sometimes, you make your arguments weaker by talking about them until you've confused people. When debaters forgot the "less is more" concept, their arguments spin around and around so much that they lose points.
    Fiorina only said two things on the issue of women: First, when responding to a question about Trump's negative comment about her face, she replied, "women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." That was it, but it was perfect. And at the very end of the debate, when asked what woman should go on the $10 bill, Fiorina said she wouldn't change the bill, but instead that policy makers should recognize women are not a special interest group to be pandered to and are indeed the majority of the country. BAM.
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    Chris Christie was solid too. He made good use of the echo effect, which is when you begin and end on the same idea. Christie utilized my old debate coach's favorite phrase. "Go back to your major premise." Christie's theme was that the focus should not be on himself, but on the people, and workers and the future generations. Time and time again he hit this home. He had a tight debate.
    Rubio seemed genuine and likeable. He had no major flaws in this debate and came across as someone who would be a strong, effective leader, one that the country could trust. The other candidates were not helped by the apparent heat under the studio lights: I wondered if Scott Walker would ever stop sweating -- Nixonesque debate sweat. I also wondered, on several occasions, if Huckabee had left the building.
    But what hit me most in these candidate's performances was the concept of picking your battles and not letting your opponents in a debate bring you down to their level. On the intercollegiate debate circuit, there are a few opponents who attempt to upset my teams personally and emotionally to gain an advantage. My advice is always to rise above it. But -- and this is important -- there is a time and place to fight the good fight.
    Unfortunately, right at the end of the debate, Trump got away with an egregious statement, a backwards notion, and a junk rumor. But it was all set up because Donald Trump's infighting has tired out his opponents.
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    The problem with attacking Trump is that he'll bring you down to his level. Jeb Bush, for example, made some good points, but was at his worst when in direct confrontation with Trump. Walker: same. Rand Paul: same. Fiorina: same. Everyone's a loser when Trump does battle. Trump looks no more presidential, but neither do his opponents. This is the real peril of debating him.
    Donald Trump thinks vaccines cause autism.
    This topic, after two and a half hours of the debate, was by far the most significant, and undoubtedly the most disappointing moment of the evening.
    I must begin with this: Vaccines do not cause autism. There is no basis in science at all for this. The journal piece that began this nonsense years ago was retracted. All similar studies have been thoroughly discredited.
    The following medical groups agree that there is no link between vaccines and autism: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine. Whether alone or grouped together (such as Measles Mumps and Rubella), vaccines don't cause autism. The medical community is clear.
    Jake Tapper, the CNN debate moderator, noted that Trump has repeatedly linked vaccines to autism. Trump's response was that grouping them together (MMR for example) is a cause.
    His proof: A testimonial. His words were "we've had so many instances, people that work for me." He then talked about a child who recently was vaccinated, then got sick, and is now autistic. Trump claimed that if vaccines were spread out, a little at a time, "I think you're going to see a big impact on autism."
    Such an assertion is not only without merit, but potentially very harmful. The notion that grouping them together may be a "problem" leads to a general mistrust of vaccinations. It's dangerous misinformation. Plus, waiting is dangerous. These infectious diseases cause pneumonia, brain damage, deafness, infertility and even death. That's why we don't wait. That's why we vaccinate children.
    In response, Ben Carson -- a surgeon -- hedged. Even though he said there is proof that autism is not associated with vaccinations, he concluded "we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time," and he even flailed on the terrors of big government. Then Rand Paul -- a physician -- joined in lock step with Carson, saying, "Even if the science doesn't say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to have the right to spread out my vaccines out a little bit at the very least."
    It is a disgrace for doctors NOT to stand up to misinformation about medical science. And it was a disgrace to do it in front of an audience of millions in a presidential debate. The debate on this issue, unfortunately, missed a chance to refute bogus notions promoted by Donald Trump -- and in this he was aided by his ten enablers.
    Candidates, sometimes you have to make a stand. This was that time.