Debate coach: Kasich gets a 'B+,' but Trump scores an 'F' in GOP debate

The 11th GOP debate in 90 seconds
The 11th GOP debate in 90 seconds

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Story highlights

  • Todd Graham grades candidates at debate on how well they criticized opponents while making the case they should be president
  • He says Kasich (B+) did this well, remained the grownup in the room; Rubio and Cruz, not so much; Trump? As debater, an F

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)I've often told my debate teams that we need more than criticisms of our opponents to win debates. We also need to present reasons for the judges not just to vote against our opponents, but also reasons for them to vote for us.

I'm grading the Thursday Republican debate based on both guidelines: Criticisms of opponents ("why the other guy shouldn't be president"), and reasons why we should vote for a particular candidate ("why you should vote for me").

    John Kasich: B+

    John Kasich took advantage of the strategy of two other debaters, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. He knew they'd attack Donald Trump, so he stayed out of the fray, even at one point saying, "I'm not biting" when asked to criticize Trump.
    Todd Graham
    Kasich was able, once again, to be the adult in the room. As a strategy, this didn't succeed in previous debates when it wasn't such a Trump pile-on. That's because for the guidelines I mentioned above to work, Kasich would have had to show reasons to vote for him and reasons to vote against the other guy, which is Cruz and Rubio's new strategy.
    But last night, it was if everything fell into place for Kasich. His theme for the night was the same as before (my accomplishments as a congressman and a governor), and he played it out over and over with examples of balancing the budget, cutting taxes and having the support of foreign policy experts. His argument: With Kasich, it's not a "theory," but a "reality."
    By the way, this answers both of Trump's core arguments:
    1) Politicians can't be trusted and accomplish nothing. Kasich disproved that with strong evidence of his own record as a successful politician.
    And
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    2) Flexibility is sometimes good. Kasich was better than Trump on this position, since he proved as governor that he has compromised to accomplish important goals, and that his flexibility, unlike Trump's, doesn't come at the cost of core Republican principles or flip-flopping. And Kasich added a new twist. He brought into the debate the notion of neighborhoods and working locally from the ground up. It is an approach to problems such as wages and education.
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    So why the B+? He reversed his answer on commerce and sexual orientation. His previous answer was the slippery-slope argument that if we deny people service based on sexual orientation, then next up is divorced individuals, etc. Instead of defending this claim, Kasich instead took a hard right turn by stating that if a business doesn't do the right thing, "you shouldn't sue them."
    In other words, if a business chooses to discriminate against the LGBT community or anyone, then the wronged party should just "take it," and the company should be allowed to discriminate whenever and however it pleases.
    This wasn't just the opposite of his answer from the last debate, it was an outrageous answer to illegal discrimination. It says to voters that Kasich doesn't know what it's like to be discriminated against.

    Ted Cruz: B-

    Cruz's attacks were solid, but other than "I can win," he offered no solid reasons to vote for him, just reasons to vote against Trump. Still, it was going fine until Cruz whiffed on his "how to bring jobs to Detroit" question by first saying it was Obamacare's fault (as if Detroit was thriving before President Obama) and then by saying he'd stop Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
    That's a terrible answer to a jobs question in Detroit. All we need to do is think about Flint, lead poisoning and the role of a stronger (not weaker) EPA. Cruz's generic "jobs" answer to a specific question about Detroit wasn't fitting.

    Marco Rubio: C+

    Great attacks on Trump. He convinced people in this debate that Trump isn't ready to be president with his sustained criticism of Trump University and ethics, Trump's lack of specifics and Trump's name-calling.
    However, I never heard a reason why Rubio would be the right choice for president. His debating technique was skewed too far toward criticizing Trump and not enough toward describing why America would succeed under Rubio.

    Donald Trump: F

    Remember, I'm judging this debate, and this debate only. If people knew nothing about Trump but what they learned from this debate, he'd have no chance to win the Republican nomination. None. Rubio said he wasn't "intellectually curious" enough on the issues to be president. In other words, Trump isn't bright.
    Trump did nothing to dispel this notion in the debate.
    He provided no answers on myriad issues, from foreign policy; to why the military would follow him when he asks it to violate international law (because I say so, was his alarming answer); to his double standard on trade (talks tough while hiring foreign workers); to how he accounts for the $10 trillion debt his plan would produce, by some accounts (Chris Wallace had slides, for goodness sake); to his multiple flip-flops in these areas: deportation, visas, Syrian refugees, Afghanistan War, whether Bush "lied," If he's friend or foe to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
    Trump came across as less trustworthy than in previous debates, not because he's "flexible," but because he did not seem as clearly defined compared with previous debates. His primary debating strategy was to call Rubio and Cruz names -- no surprise there.
    But his biggest failure was that he lacked any persuasive reason for why Republicans should vote for him.