USA's Top Young Debaters Critique Trump, Clinton

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"As a female in debate, one of the first lessons we are taught is how to handle male competitors who feel entitled to yell and complain instead of actually debate," says Harvard-Westlake student Liz Yount.

The second round of debates between presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump began with a question about how their behavior could inspire or negatively affect students in the U.S. 

It just so happens, The Hollywood Reporter had asked three such students to share their opinions about Sunday night's event. These aren't just any three students, though. They're members of the USA Debate Team — a group of nine high school students chosen from more than 150,000 of the nation's best young debaters. 

Liz Yount, is a senior at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City; Joshua May, is a senior at Armand Hammer United World College in Montezuma, N.M.; and Ellie Grossman, a senior at The Blake School in Minneapolis, Minn.  

Below they discuss the candidates' biggest mistakes, give them advice for the next round and explain why debate skills are vital for the president of the United States. 

What were the biggest, or most persistent, mistakes made by each of the candidates during the debate?

Yount In my opinion, both candidates spent far too much time on abstract narratives and storytelling than actual substantive policy. A concrete policy was not truly discussed until about 20 minutes into the debate, which is the fault of both candidates. While Clinton eventually explained her policies in more depth, Trump, however, continued to speak in nebulous overgeneralizations about the evils of Obamacare without actually providing a clear solution. If he would spend less time bloviating about the current state of the nation and more time answering the specifics of both moderator and audience questions, he could stand a chance against Clinton, who clearly prepares in depth for these debates. It is too late in the campaign to rely on theatrics and “big diversions,” as Clinton put it — the American people are demanding honest policy talk and engagement.

May Trump often dodged questions coming from the audience, a fault that undermines the perception of a presidential candidate that listens to the people. While skirting a question certainly has some strategic merit, particularly when the answer does not flatter your side, Trump’s aversion to staying on topic was quite evident during the debate. When asked questions on domestic issues Trump frequently chose to focus on foreign affairs, and often chose to forgo offering his own policy proposals in favor of reviewing Clinton’s record. For voters that remain undecided, Trumps lack of clear and well developed stances throughout the debate means that there is not much to vote for. Certainly, Trump’s focus on certain key issues for his campaign, including foreign policy and Hillary Clinton’s fitness for the presidency, are well developed. However, those issues alone do not do much to win a debate that is about the broad spectrum of presidential responsibilities.

Clinton had some incredibly powerful moments throughout the debate. However, particularly at the beginning, her pursuit of a calm and poised persona undermined the perceptual dominance she had in the first debate and at the end of this one. Offering slightly more emotion, particularly when addressing Trump’s divisive and offensive language, would likely have humanized Clinton even more while maintaining her control over the debate.

Grossman Donald Trump’s largest problem is that he just doesn’t answer questions. He refused to directly address Anderson Cooper’s questions about his remarks about how celebrities can just grab women and instead deflected with a tirade about Bill Clinton and made excuses for himself. It made him look unapologetic and unaccountable for his behavior. He also lacks specificity in his answers as a whole. He claims there are problems, and he claims he has solutions, but will not enumerate any plans at all. He refused to explain his strategy for Syria and basically any other issue. It was also silly for him to insult the voters by asking “How stupid is our country?” — it insults the base and makes him look like a hypocrite, especially since he keeps pushing back against Secretary Clinton for her “deplorables” comment.

Secretary Clinton’s biggest problem is just striking a balance between all of the things a woman is expected to be in a debate. Sometimes she laughed a little too much and appeared to not want to engage with what Trump was saying seriously at all. Sometimes she was a little too stony. Occasionally she seemed like she was trying to pull herself back too much and was on the defensive more than she was on the offensive. Overall, I think Secretary Clinton has good things in mind but she sometimes doesn’t know how to balance them with one another, which can lead to her to lose voters who are on the fence but already critical of her demeanor.

Which candidate’s physical and verbal presentation most closely reflects what you’ve been taught about how to properly debate?

Yount As a female in debate, one of the first lessons we are taught is how to handle male competitors who feel entitled to yell and complain instead of actually debate. I cannot begin to describe how many times I’ve been told to “know my place” or have been called “cute because I’m frustrated” by male competitors during competition. Watching Clinton debate Trump is like watching the perfect example of how to deal with the typical “entitled male debater”— the way she smiles at the audience and calls him out for talking over her, her poise after the debate is over even though she is clearly frustrated — everything she does is the perfect example of how to remain professional while dealing with an immature debater. I learn how to better deal with these situations myself by watching her debate Trump.

May Hillary Clinton demonstrated the qualities of an excellent debater. She was poised yet powerful, particularly when addressing the extremely delicate issue of Trump’s comments against women and numerous personal attacks. She was comparatively far more respectful of her opponent, the moderator, and even the audience, showing that her expertise was with the issues and demonstrating a security in her stances on them.

Grossman Secretary Clinton’s presentation most closely reflects what I have always been told to do as a debater. One fundamental thing I have been taught is to connect to the judge and to the audience. Secretary Clinton most directly tried to do this. When the first question about the content of the current discourse surrounding the election being so inappropriate was asked, Secretary Clinton began her answer by asking if the woman was a teacher. Engaging with the audience is an important part of persuasion, and Secretary Clinton strove to do that while Mr. Trump really spoke blankly, generally. As an example, when asked the question about Islamophobia, he didn’t actually talk to the woman who asked. He gave a vague answer about terrorism meant for the general audience, distancing himself from the people who mattered in the context of the question. Hillary spoke to the woman directly and engaged with her concerns as an individual.

What advice would you give each candidate to prepare them for the third and final debate?

Yount To Clinton, I would advise her to loosen up, meaning she seems overly rehearsed and borderline robotic at times when answering questions. The moments when she crafts a witty response to a particularly boisterous comment are her best and most authentic. She should capitalize on the organic reactions that come from her genuinely responding to the debate, instead of simply reverting to talking points.

For Trump, I would advise him to quit whining during the debate about tangentially relevant issues, such as the moderators’ behavior or who speaks first. He loses credibility when he wastes valuable speaking time complaining about the perceived “fairness” of the debate instead of actually answering the material. Moreover, he needs to stop using ridiculous overgeneralizations such as “I understand the tax code better than anybody who’s ever run for president.” Statements like these distract from the intended message of his statements and don’t serve but to irritate and distract the audience from the policy in question.

May Trump will be well served to refocus the debates on notoriously unpopular policies and decisions backed by Clinton. His attempts to accomplish this during the second debate were derailed by ad hominem attacks against Hillary, which distract from policy critiques that are likely to hit home with a number of voters. Prioritizing the winning issue is a key element of strategy in debates, particularly as the race goes on, and relying on personal attacks doesn’t offer a substantial offense if the debate is allowed to become a referendum on the candidates’ personalities. Instead, Trump would do well to focus on widely unpopular policy decisions such as Hillary Clinton's foreign policy decisions or support for free trade.

Clinton spent much of the debate on the defensive, due largely to sweeping claims made by Trump against her. This is strategically problematic for Clinton because it is very difficult to win a debate defending your own actions: Losing on just a single point can lose the entire debate. In the final debate, Hillary should continue to leverage her policy expertise and clear knowledge of the issues into points made against Donald Trump rather than simply in defense of her own actions.

Grossman First, Trump needs to maintain the calm he had at the beginning of the debate but began to lose later on. If he wants to be taken seriously at all, he needs to act dignified. Being angry, being irrational, interrupting Secretary Clinton and the moderators is not befitting of an adult, much less a president. Second, he needs to stop playing the victim in the debates. Accusing everyone of ganging up on him, especially when the audience was so very pro-Trump, seemed both childish and like a diversion tactic. Third, he needs to stop being flat-out rude. There’s a difference between criticizing Secretary Clinton’s choices, like voting for the Iraq War, and saying the difference between her and Abe Lincoln is that she’s a liar. It comes off as a potshot instead of an honest reflection on bad policy, especially from a man who can’t admit his own mistakes. Threatening to double down on prosecuting her if he was elected was shocking and a new low in the discourse we’ve seen in this election.

Secretary Clinton needs to be the bigger person at all times. When she goes over time, when she interrupts, even if both are less frequent and severe than how Mr. Trump does it, she can seem like a hypocrite. Second, it is probably unwise to give the voters homework. She asks people to go to her website to fact check Mr. Trump when it is probably easier and more persuasive to just simply explain the context again. Third, she needs to watch her demeanor when Mr. Trump tries to corner her on her emails or other controversies. While it is important for her to show a sense of humor so she does not seem stiff or cold, she needs to be careful about seeming too flippant. When she laughs accusations off she can come across as slightly arrogant and careless which is exactly the image the Clintons need to shake.

Why do you think it’s necessary for the president of the United States to have strong debate skills?

Yount Being good at debate encompasses a variety of skills: spontaneous argumentation, perceptual dominance, public speaking, etc. I believe it is absolutely essential for a president to have good debate skills because, ultimately, if an individual can persuade their intended audience, s/he can accomplish anything. There is a certain skill with crafting and wording arguments that I believe comes exclusively from debating in front of audiences and, through trial and error, finding out what people find persuasive. If a president can convince his/her intended audience, be it foreign leader, Congress, or the American people, that their argument is true (regardless if it is or not), then they ultimately have the most powerful tool of all.

May Debate is about more than mere argumentation and rhetoric. A strong debater should be able to take their opponents argument in its best form and still address it with a response of equal or greater merit. This process, of giving an opponent the benefit of the strongest argument possible and then addressing it, leads to a level of discourse that requires understanding and empathizing with the opposition. For a president to truly unite the country in this time of polarized politics seeing both sides and employing argumentation that demonstrates that ability will be imperative.

Grossman Mr. Trump was absolutely wrong when he said “it’s just words.” Nothing in an election is ever “just words.” The ability to debate says a lot about a person and is an important skill in a leader. How one debates often conveys their personality. If they are too reactionary, they are probably also too angry and tend to blow up easily outside of debates. That is something that is important for voters to know. If they are too cold in a debate, that might let voters know they are generally disinterested and not invested in what the people of their country care about. If they dodge questions or avoid detail, it can tip off voters that they might not be as accountable or transparent as they should be. But, beyond that, the ability to debate is important for presidents. Presidents often have to argue or negotiate for policies, deals, and more that they support or oppose. Debate skills are important to keep things moving in their favor, especially on important and contentious issues. If a candidate cannot even have a debate before the election, they might not be up for that critical aspect of the job at all.

The other members of the 2016-17 USA Debate Team are Aditya Dhar - The Harker School, California; Colette Faulkner - Kingwood High School, Texas; Nika Gottlieb - McLean High School, Virginia; Sarah Lanier - Northland Christian School, Texas; Ella Michaels - North Hollywood High School, California and Nikhil Ramaswamy - Plano West Sr. High School, Texas.

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