Finally, Jeb Bush fights back at Trump

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    Bush attacks, Trump hits back

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Bush attacks, Trump hits back 02:09

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham says debates are be useful for airing, correcting bad arguments
  • Graham: Donald Trump had some bad ones on Muslims, and Jeb Bush, Rand Paul hit back
  • He says too often GOP rivals left bad ideas unchallenged, but Bush showed control over Trump

Todd Graham is director of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won a national championship for 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)Debates have great potential to flush out bad ideas and lay them before us for all to see. Because of this, as a debate coach, I listen for my debaters' bad ideas as an opportunity to teach about "losing" arguments.

Todd Graham
The recent Republican faceoff in Las Vegas was the first GOP debate since the attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Paris. While some of the candidates had good policy proposals for how to improve safety and security, it was the really terrible ones that were made to stand out like a sore thumb in the eye. For that, we can mostly thank Jeb Bush.
Indeed, Bush was the only candidate to stand up consistently to Donald Trump's nonsensical proposals.
    Trump has some good ideas, that is, ones he can rhetorically justify. But his "losers" are so bad as to overshadow any of his "winners." For example, Trump wants a ban on Muslims entering the country. Because, you know, terrorism. But will it work? Will it stop terrorism? It's impossible for Trump to support.
    Bush has not exactly been the greatest booster for immigration of Muslims, but Tuesday night he wisely stated that to win the war with ISIS we need Muslim allies, and not to put a wedge in our relationship with Arab and Muslim countries whose help the country needs in the fight against terror. Bush even had a good takedown of his opponent as he trashed his idea, "Donald, you know, is great at -- at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate. And he'd be a chaos president. He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe."
    What about this doozy of an idea? Trump wants to kill (that is "take out") the families of ISIS members. Bush and Rand Paul both pointed out that this is not only a poorly thought out proposal, but that it is unconstitutional to purposely kill civilians. Said Paul dryly: "If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there's something called the Geneva Convention we're going to have to pull out of."
    While Trump didn't use the word "kill" when describing how he advocated "taking out" the family members, a debate question was put to him in exactly that manner ("How would intentionally killing innocent civilians set us apart from ISIS?"), and Trump agreed with the premise, saying, "We have to be much tougher ...," since the terrorists care about family, and killing them "would make people think."
    As he reminded viewers in his closing statement, Trump would make America great again ... with his policies. Do you see how debates are great for exposing winning and losing arguments?
    Here is another one. Ted Cruz has an idea to make America safer by preventing "all refugees for three years from countries where ISIS or al Qaeda control substantial territory" from migrating to the United States. No matter who they are. This idea, when compared with Trump's, seemed safe, so nobody attacked it. But that's the problem. When we compare bad ideas with freaking awful ones, we end up forgetting to criticize the "bad."
    Here was an opportunity for his Republican adversaries to go after Cruz. After all, our country has long prided itself on taking in immigrants from war-torn countries. It's pretty basic stuff. Aren't these people, caught up in a conflict through no fault of their own, the ones who need help the most? Imagine if we hadn't taken any Koreans or Vietnamese, or the thousands of others fleeing oppressive regimes, because of our unfounded fears that they were the enemy.
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    On sheer debating grounds, it makes me cringe to hear wide-target arguments such as Cruz's or Trump's go unanswered by a majority of their opponents.
    Beyond the content, both Bush and Trump had their usual problems with delivery.
    Trump's worst debate moments involve the debating no-no of childishness (he can't stand being criticized) and silly nonverbal communication (making faces that only a contortionist could duplicate).
    And while Bush remains halting and awkward, honestly, I thought he was having a much better time than in previous debates, and it's because he was managing to exert control over an opponent: Trump. In fact, every time Bush repeated that Trump couldn't "insult his way to the presidency," Trump reacted by either insulting Bush or making a silly face. Usually both. Right on cue.
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    It was so easy for Bush that he might as well have said, "Please act immaturely if you're an infant not serious about being president." Trump would have taken the bait with his best face since the airplane missed the hangar. It's at these moments where debater Trump did not get the job done -- where he most seemed not ready for the job he's seeking.
    But Bush had problems of his own. He began the debate by messing up his opening statement. Twice, yes twice in his opening statement he stumbled over his wording. If he wants to project strength, this was exactly what he didn't do.
    So how did he close the debate? By yet again stumbling on the wording of his closing.
    Bush needs to skip these set "speeches" because he's just not good at them. He'd be better off just saying, "I'm Jeb Bush," at the beginning of the debates and, "Thank you," at the end. I figure there's less chance of him flubbing it up if he's only got five words. Less chance, but I wouldn't put it past him to goof anyway.