Debate coach: Cruz got crushed

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham says that Ted Cruz failed to differentiate himself from Donald Trump on important issues
  • If you want to beat Trump in a debate, you've got to attack his worst ideas, Graham says

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

(CNN)Ted Cruz's debating skills are overrated. There. I said it.

Over. Rated.
Cruz made tactical errors Thursday night. Basic stuff. He failed to differentiate himself from Donald Trump on important issues, and the arguments he started, he lost. That's right: The "supposed" best debater (just look on his mantle for his national champion debating trophy), got beaten in every exchange with one of the worst debaters I've ever seen. So either Trump is getting better (which I must admit he is) or Cruz's reputation is overstated (which it is).
Todd Graham
Don't get me wrong: Trump made a lot of ridiculous and questionable statements again last night in the debate. My two favorites were: "People come in, they live...they shoot," (I can't help but laugh every time I read that line), to "the police are the most mistreated people in this country." Really? Not Native Americans? African Americans? Muslim Americans? Anyone with the "wrong" skin color? The disabled? Heck, what about women? I understand policing is a vital and dangerous job, but calling them the most mistreated people in our country is outlandish.
So if you want to beat Trump in a debate, you've got to attack his worst ideas. I mean, how hard could that be? Apparently, it's like answering the puzzle of Schrodinger's cat for poor Ted Cruz.
There are three main reasons Trump came out on top against Cruz.

Poll positions

First: ad hominem (I'm a winner and you're a loser) combined with ad populum (I'm ahead in the race, so I must be the best). Trump initially mentioned how Cruz was losing by "going down in the polls" and that Trump was indeed winning as he boasted "In Iowa now...Ted, in the last three polls, I'm beating you. So you shouldn't misrepresent how well you're doing with the polls." Cruz had no response, as do few of the debaters when Trump mentions the success of his campaign. You'd think that Cruz would have an easy answer to this attack, especially since it's Trump's "go to" answer. But it worked, and even though it's a logical fallacy, it's successful for Trump, so I'm sure he'll keep using it in the future. As the saying goes...if it ain't broke...then Trump won't need to blame an immigrant for not fixing it.
Second, humor: Trump was pretty funny. This softens a debater's stance and makes that person's positions more palatable. Trump said he'd "take Cruz along for the ride" as his running mate, drawing chuckles. Finally, he said Cruz has improved in the polls, giving him "maybe a 4 or 5% chance" to win. Again, said with tongue in cheek.
Finally, it's about picking battles properly. The two times they fought were both on Trump's ground. First, on Cruz's citizenship, Trump was able to play the "it's not me, it's them" game. His argument, deflecting away from himself as the bad guy, was that the Democrats would take Cruz to court if he was nominated and this would hurt the Republican Party.
Cruz's rookie response was to "feed," to use a debate term, the argument. Cruz stated that the people claiming he wasn't a naturalized citizen shouldn't be taken seriously because they were liberal Harvard law professors and others. Exactly Ted. That was Trump's whole point. Liberals and liberal legal scholars will take you to court. What a poor argument for Cruz.
But his most monumental blunder was still to come.

New York, New York

The other big dust-up between the frontrunners was over Cruz claiming Trump had typical New York values. "I think most people know what New York values are...money and the media," said Cruz, and then with his strangely aloof attitude he stated that "the concept of New York values is not difficult to figure out."
Trump's first response was to point out that William F. Buckley, a famous conservative scholar, came from New York. But that was too easy on Cruz. Trump then reminded our country it was New York City that was attacked on 9/11, with thousands of Americans killed, and how everyone in the world was behind New York and America at the time. Trump ended with "That was a very insulting statement that Ted made." Yep, it sure was, and Trump wiped that smirk right off Cruz's face.
Could it get worse for Cruz? Oh yeah, it could. To add insult to injury, Marco Rubio unloaded on Cruz and lit him up like that Christmas tree you just tore down. At just over the two-hour mark, Rubio highlighted Cruz's flip-flops.
Dramatically. Cruz actually got booed near the end of this debate. Wow. Sad Ted.
I've had some fine debate teams, and we've been fortunate enough to win a few national championships. But I don't ever remember being booed during a debate the way the supposed "best debater" and former national champion just was.
Living in the past, Ted. Living in the past.