Clinton, Sanders battle over 'gods' and 'devils'

Fight between Clinton and Sanders growing more intense
Fight between Clinton and Sanders growing more intense

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Fight between Clinton and Sanders growing more intense 02:19

Story highlights

  • Todd Graham: Thursday debate showed why they are valuable. Clinton, Sanders battled for "progressive" mantle, says debate coach
  • He says in debates, there are "god terms" (positive) and "devil terms" (negative); "progressive" is a god term

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)I watched the Democratic debate Thursday night and thought: Once and for all, everyone needs to stop complaining about the quality of the candidate debates. "These are not real debates," people grouse to me. "They were better back in the day." Wrong!

Some are indeed better (the Clinton-Sanders one Thursday night was great) and some worse (the regrettable CNBC debate in November), but they're all valuable.
This was easy to see from the New Hampshire Democratic debate, particularly from my perspective as a debate coach. And it's not just for debate nerds that I want to focus my analysis of it by defining terms. For starters: Let's talk about "topicality," and the new word of the hour for Clinton and Sanders: "progressivism."
    Todd Graham
    Topicality is an issue in competitive debates when the teams disagree about what the terms in the given "resolution" mean; therefore they disagree about what should be debated. So it's essentially a debate about definitions.
    The word "progressive" is trending in campaign politics now. And it has never come up as often in a presidential debate as it did Thursday night. A couple of things I teach about language and defining terms: First, it's critical for a debater's success to use the precise term, and second to know how to use both "god terms" and "devil terms" to your advantage.
    A single word choice often decides debates.
    Because of this, both Clinton and Sanders battled for some time over "progressive." Sanders repeated his claim that Clinton is not a true progressive. Why did he do this? It's clear listening to any of the debates that Sanders' ideas are outside mainstream politics, and this is what's appealing to his supporters. Being a progressive is working for him, and he's wearing it like a crown.
    Clinton had three approaches to reclaim this term.
    First, she argued that Sanders' exclusive use of the term progressive is so narrowly defined as to make it unpopular with Democrats (she argued that Paul Wellstone, the late Minnesota progressive Democratic senator, Barack Obama and Joe Biden would not be progressive according to Sanders).
    Second, Clinton argued the "root of the word ... is progress" and that she was the one who could make that progress, could get things done in Washington, if elected. Both of these were effective.
    However, Clinton's third response was thoroughly defeated by Sanders. She argued that perhaps Sanders himself wasn't a progressive based on some of his voting record. His effective response was to remind everyone of his ideas, such as providing free college tuition, eliminating tax loopholes, and standing up to big money and corporate interests.
    He attempted to appear progressive without sounding too radical. It was a terrific exchange overall by both candidates.
    Why is the word "progressive" being used so much? God and devil terms, that's why. It took Democrats about a million years (too late) to figure out a way to defend themselves from being tagged with the word "liberal."
    Liberal is a "devil" term for most of the public, used by opponents to elicit negative feelings. "God" terms, on the other hand, elicit positive responses. Rephrasing opponents' terms to sound negative and your own to sound positive is a very common debating technique
    The new iteration of "liberal" is "progressive," quite the opposite of a devil term. That's why Sanders and Clinton fought over ownership. "Progressive" sounds better, smarter, futuristic, more helpful, and carries less baggage than the term "liberal." Younger voters find the term progressive appealing. Yesterday's liberal is today's progressive. And a simple change in terms made all the difference.
    Hey, this was an excellent debate. Don't listen to the naysayer's critiques.
    I've studied debate my whole life, and let me assure you as I sit here in my office, literally on the corner of Lincoln and Douglas drives at Southern Illinois University, that political debates today are infinitely better than the mythologized Lincoln (I think I'll speak for 60 minutes) and Douglas (OK, it's my turn for 90 minutes now) debates.
    Every debate has serious flaws, both in the speaking style and content debaters bring.
    But today we can quickly go to the video and fact check the candidates, and this raises the bar, giving us displays like the excellent Clinton-Sanders face off.
    I say political debates have never been better. Thursday night we witnessed agreement, clash and depth on almost every subject. How cool was that?