Debate coach: Do voters want the dream or the details?

Hillary Clinton criticizes Sanders for attacks on Obama
Hillary Clinton criticizes Sanders for attacks on Obama

    JUST WATCHED

    Hillary Clinton criticizes Sanders for attacks on Obama

MUST WATCH

Hillary Clinton criticizes Sanders for attacks on Obama 02:22

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are worlds apart when it comes to debating styles
  • Todd Graham: Clinton gets into the details of how to accomplish things; Sanders focuses on the big picture

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 his.

(CNN)In most debates, from intercollegiate to presidential, there are two types of debaters. The first type is better at the micro-debate. That person excels at the line-by-line. They answer every single independent argument brought up and clarify their ideas on a variety of policies. The second type of debater is better at the big picture. They examine the overall debate and analyze it as a whole.

The Democratic debate in Milwaukee Thursday evening between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders demonstrated those two contrasting styles, with Clinton being the former and Sanders the latter.
Clinton time and time again asked the audience to require specifics from their candidates, while Sanders maintained his overarching approach of calling for radical change on almost every issue.
    Todd Graham

    Clinton's strength

    The strength of her approach is that she appears very well informed. She touts her proposals from fixing Social Security to debt-free tuition and underscores her foreign policy initiatives.
    Speaking of which, did anyone notice how Sanders somehow turned the foreign policy discussion into a multi-pronged attack on Henry Kissinger? Yes, that Kissinger, from the 1970s.
    Referring to Clinton, Sanders said that she "talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger," and Sanders felt the need to unload 40 years of anger against the man.
    Clinton answered, I thought well, by saying that, "it's a complicated world," and people, like Kissinger, may have insight on some issues (such as China), but not on others (Vietnam), and she'd take advice as needed to do "what's best to protect the United States."
    However, the disadvantage to providing specific answers in debates, such as this one, is that it leaves you vulnerable to criticism. And the type of criticism Clinton opens herself up to is from the far left in her party.
    An example in the debate was the issue of revitalizing the coal industry. For progressive Democratic voters, Clinton's specific proposals to help coal communities may not be persuasive in the debate since it feeds the appearance of her supporting the status quo and not attempting hard enough to adopt renewable energy.
    One last thing about Clinton -- her closing was spot-on-perfect. It was easily the best in any debate, and exactly the style, the energy, and the content she should use to frame all future debates.
    After successfully hammering Sanders as not being fully supportive of President Obama, her closing theme was, "I'm not a single issue candidate, and we don't live in a single issue country," and even if we changed campaign finance, etc., we would still have unions under attack by Republicans, and we would also have racism, sexism and LGBT discrimination.

    Sanders' debating style

    His big-picture debating style played to his strengths. It enabled Sanders to discuss the past, the future and radical change.
    Sanders is terrific at pointing to a problem in our society, whether it be campaign finance, our "rigged economy," income inequality, influence peddling, our inflated prison population, and then turning it into a reason to bring about radical change, how he's the best suited for carrying out this change and how nothing else has worked, so this radical change is necessary.
    One benefit of this debating style is that you're much more likely to persuade the optimists in the audience. They don't want to know, nor do they care, how their sausage is made. They like the idea of sausage.
    Sanders' overall debating approach of seeing the forest and not the trees is incredibly persuasive. Plus, it's harder to attack. Clinton is having difficulty gaining traction in the debates because Sanders' thesis is all he'll defend. And not only does she agree with much of his main premise (so she won't criticize it), but even if she wanted to, the notion of attacking his foundation of income inequality, etc. would do her a great deal of harm in the debates with the mostly Democratic audience.
    The drawback of his approach is that Sanders cannot answer questions in debates about how he'll reach his goals. Time and time again, he failed to provide any means, even when pressed by the moderators, to achieve his end game.
    Examples included how much larger the government would be under his administration (Clinton answered for him by saying his proposal would increase the size of the federal government by at least 40%), how he'd pay for or pass his health care proposals, how much money he could raise and what it would cost for free college tuition nationwide, how he'd decrease the prison population, to name a few. And at some point, if Clinton hones in on Sanders' lack of specifics, she may gain traction with a wider audience.