Debate coach: Bad night for Bernie

The Brooklyn Democratic debate in 90 seconds
The Brooklyn Democratic debate in 90 seconds

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    The Brooklyn Democratic debate in 90 seconds

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The Brooklyn Democratic debate in 90 seconds 01:31

Story highlights

  • Debate coach: Both candidates ducked questions at debate, and Clinton interrupted too much, but overall she had very good night
  • Graham: She challenged unprepared Sanders on issues from guns to abortion to foreign policy. Sanders had weak debate performance

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)For Thursday night's Democratic debate, I'm focusing my debate coach evaluation squarely on improvements.

Hillary Clinton: A-
    She still interrupts too much. No improvement there.
    She still has a terrible answer to the question of why she won't release her Wall Street speech transcripts. But Sanders won't release all his tax returns either. (They're both still ducking questions with answers that don't pass the smell test.)
    However, Clinton did have a better debate in some significant ways. The first was in demanding Sanders produce examples of her being influenced by Wall Street, as he has so often charged. She asked for an example, and when he couldn't come up with one, she said, "This is a phony attack designed to raise questions with no evidence or support... he cannot come up with any example, because there is no example."
    Good response...but this wasn't even her best retort of the night.
    Clinton campaign won't release speech transcripts
    Clinton campaign won't release speech transcripts

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      Clinton campaign won't release speech transcripts

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    Clinton campaign won't release speech transcripts 02:30
    In a discussion about the U.S.-backed military operation in Libya, for the first time, while admitting that the oust er of Moammar Ghadafi didn't work out as well as hoped, Clinton compared Libya to Syria. Bashar al-Assad is a terrible dictator, just like Gadhafi was, she argued. The difference, she pointed out? Syria is worse now, and a bigger threat to the United States than Libya is, but Syria still has Assad. The effective takeaway? So perhaps keeping dictators in place isn't better than removing them.
    But neither was this her best argument of the night.
    We needed a major burn unit for Sanders when he chuckled during Clinton's answer on the topic of gun control. Uh oh. Clinton immediately turned on the senator and forcefully said, "It's not a laughing matter...90 people on average a day are killed or commit suicide or die in accidents from guns, 33,000 people a year." I don't think he'll be laughing during any more answers in the future. Again, not even her best line.
    Clinton consistently reminded the audience that she had plans to fix the country's problems, while -- as she pointed out -- Sanders did little more than "diagnose." Several times during the debate, Clinton mentioned that "it's easy to diagnose the problem ... and again, I absolutely agree with the diagnosis, the diagnosis that we've got to do much more to finish the work..," but she added "it's harder to do something about the problem." Again, this was new and effective.
    Hillary Clinton defends her role in Libya
    Hillary Clinton defends her role in Libya

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      Hillary Clinton defends her role in Libya

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    Hillary Clinton defends her role in Libya 01:40
    But it was one hour and forty-nine minutes into the debate before Clinton delivered her best moment -- it was on the Supreme Court. Right after Sanders answered that he'd want to make sure the new justice would help overturn Citizens United, Clinton received a resounding ovation when she said that they'd had nine debates now, and nobody had questioned them about Roe v. Wade.
    Clinton reminded the audience that Sanders characterized Donald Trump's statement on women needing to be punished if they obtained an abortion a "distraction." She emphatically said that Trump's statement "goes to the heart of who we are as women, our rights, our autonomy, our ability to make our own decisions."
    Very strong moment in a very focused debate performance for Clinton.
    Bernie Sanders: D
    First, he had nothing new. By this point in the debate cycle, Sanders should have been ready with specifics on how he'd pay for his proposals without raising the debt, hurting businesses or crushing the middle class. But he was not prepared with this.
    He couldn't specify how he'd break up the banks, which he said he'd let them do themselves somehow.
    Bernie Sanders on Clinton: 'I do question her judgment'
    Bernie Sanders on Clinton: 'I do question her judgment'

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      Bernie Sanders on Clinton: 'I do question her judgment'

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    Bernie Sanders on Clinton: 'I do question her judgment' 02:44
    Sanders demonstrated an inability to understand either the premise of questions or that he was contradicting himself, which is not a sharp debating stance.
    To show his gun-control bona fides, Sanders repeated his oft-told story about how the NRA caused him to lose an election in 1988 by opposing him. But Clinton was ready for this, and for the first time in a debate, smartly produced an account of what happened after 1988. Sanders won every election, she said. Why? He made promises (or softened his stance to) the NRA.
    She even noted that in his own book Sanders claims he won in 1990 because the NRA opposed his rival. Indeed, as she pointed out, he voted against the Brady Bill five times.
    So if you're keeping score at home, while Sanders could not provide a single piece of legislation that Clinton supported (or blocked) that offered proof of her being influenced by Wall Street, she slammed home an example of Sanders being influenced -- and changing his voting because of influence -- by the NRA. She noted that he's been a reliable supporter ever since that first election loss.
    The second example of Sanders not comprehending what was happening in the debate came when he literally contradicted himself on the issue of climate change.
    He criticized Clinton's pragmatic approach to energy policy and in particular fracking, by stating, "Incrementalism and those little steps is not enough. Not right now and not on climate change."
    Unfortunately, Sanders answered the opposite way on a pointed question about the difficulty of transitioning to green, or sustainable, energy. Sanders replied that we will "not phase out tomorrow..." implying that we should, you know, take our time. Within seconds Sanders was both against, and then for baby-steps.
    Unbelievably bad debating by Sanders. But much better debating for Clinton.