Debate coach: Who flunked debate 101?

Story highlights

  • Debate coach Todd Graham gives letter grades to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic debate
  • On health care, gun control, Clinton gets an A, but an F on millennial question. Sanders gets A on policing, D on paying for programs

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)It's between semesters, and a debate coach gets antsy.

So let's grade this Democratic debate, shall we?
Todd Graham
Here are the important issues that came up in last night's Democratic candidates' debate in Charleston, South Carolina -- and my evaluation of how well the debaters made their case. Remember candidates, "It's not the grade I gave you, it's the grade you earned..."

    Climate change

    Bernie Sanders was on point. He explained that the debate on whether global warming is real is over, and he called the Republicans a major party "so owned by the fossil fuel industry...that they don't even have the courage, the decency to listen to the scientists."
    Then Sanders reminded viewers that GOP candidate Donald Trump thinks climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Seriously. Trump tweeted that. Sanders' final word was that he had the most comprehensive legislation in the Senate on climate change. Sanders earned his A+.
    NBC Democratic presidential debate in 90 seconds
    NBC Democratic presidential debate in 90 seconds


      NBC Democratic presidential debate in 90 seconds


    NBC Democratic presidential debate in 90 seconds 01:30
    Unfortunately, due to a blunder by the moderators, Hillary Clinton didn't get a chance to talk about this issue. That's unfortunate, since it's an issue important to not only Sanders' base, but to millennials in general.
    Clinton did not respond well to Connor Franta's (with 5 million YouTube subscribers) and NBC moderator Lester Holt's question about why she's running behind Sanders by a 2-1 margin with younger voters. Clinton earns a C- on millennials in general and an F for failing to demand speaking time on climate change.

    The economy and Wall Street:

    Sanders hammered his argument that he is not beholden to big corporate interests: he emphasized his lack of a super PAC and his reliance on working class donors for his campaign. Not once, but twice he reminded us that Goldman Sachs was fined $5 billion dollars for its role in the financial crisis, yet nobody went to jail -- even as young people with a little weed spend more time incarcerated in the United States.
    Finally, Sanders wondered how someone like Clinton, who takes so much money from Wall Street, can really change the system. This is the theme of his campaign, and he reminded us why. Grade: A.
    Clinton fared better than expected on this issue. She defended herself by explaining the ways she'd reform Wall Street, and then she defended Barack Obama. Her argument: Obama led us out of the Great Recession, and Sanders critique applies as much to him as it does to her. She played to the audience and said she proved that it's possible to work from the inside to help the economy, just like Obama has done. She gets a solid "B."

    Taxes -- and how to pay for political promises:

    Sanders ran into some trouble here. Let's be honest: Sanders' plans -- free college, for example -- will cost a ton, and he needs to be more specific on how to pay for them. Taxing Wall Street speculation wasn't specific enough, and he didn't provide the answer of how much money that will bring in. So he was already in trouble in the debate, and that's before he got pounded by Andrea Mitchell for raising taxes on the middle class. Twice. Grade: D.
    Clinton's answers, when compared to Sanders, on how she'll pay for her programs -- especially by not raising taxes on the middle class -- were solid. And her plan has been out longer, scrutinized, and deemed plausible. She gets a B.

    Health care:

    Debate reality check: Who was telling the truth?
    Debate reality check: Who was telling the truth?


      Debate reality check: Who was telling the truth?


    Debate reality check: Who was telling the truth? 02:02
    Clinton was solid in the discussion of health care. She argued for not beginning again to craft a new health care program for Americans, but instead for fixing what's needed in the Affordable Care Act. Her arguments were strong, well presented and were her best moments of the debate.
    Her point: Democrats fought for decades, and they must stand firm on keeping the ACA. Sanders's response was that he helped to craft the ACA, but this was not enough in debating terms: he needed more clarity here. Remember, he's the candidate who constantly talks of revolution and changing the system, so even if he doesn't tear up the ACA, I'm not sure he convinced anyone that he's not the radical who will put us back at square one. Clinton receives an A+ and Sanders a C.

    Black lives matter and policing:

    Both Clinton and Sanders were strong here. Clinton had a great line about 1 out of 3 African American men ending up in prison (as some fact-checkers pointed out, an iffy statistic) -- and asked what would we think if it were 1 of 3 white men?
    Sanders agreed but then was asked why Clinton was ahead of him by a 2-1 margin with minority voters. Now here's how you handle this "polling" question. Bernie swiped it away like a pro. He began by informing us that the polls have him beating Trump, so if we like polls, then how about that one?
    And then he ended by stating that it's not that minority voters don't ike him, it's that they don't know him yet. When they become more familiar with him, he assured us, he'd gain in popularity. That's how to answer a polling question. Clinton B, Sanders A.

    Gun control:

    Clinton hammered Sanders' voting record on: The Brady Bill, the Charleston loophole, immunity for manufacturers, Amtrak, national parks and gun research. He never responded at all. Clinton gets an A and Sanders got a D-. Ironically, that's the same grade he said the NRA gave him.
    Overall, it appears both Clinton and Sanders earned a B.
    Oh, I almost forgot. Martin O'Malley's receiving an I for Incomplete. He simply didn't get as much time as the other two, and it wasn't close. So if he comes back in four years, I'll let him finish his work in the debates where he began. The good news for him is that the answers he gave were a sound foundation for high marks in the future.