I Teach Debate, and Wednesday Night Seemed More Like 'The Hunger Games' | Opinion

For many, "debating" brings to mind an image a bit like my classroom: students wearing their best clothes, presenting well-researched arguments on a controversial topic for which they have been randomly assigned to defend one side or the other. That highly valuable common assignment is designed to teach persuasive public speaking, critical thinking and respect for civil discourse.

Speaking as a professional debate educator, I wouldn't say those lessons were the top priority on Wednesday night for the Democratic presidential candidates in Miami.

The beginning of the presidential debate season is more like the first round of "The Hunger Games." It's a brutal struggle to survive a crucial test, distance yourself from the rest of the pack and prove that you have the skills to take down your ultimate opponent—in this case, President Donald Trump—in a one-on-one smackdown before an audience of millions.

It is risky, and it is intense.

Candidates need to avoid gaffes, get noticed and "move the needle" in the vital push for campaign momentum. Most important, each candidate needs to show how he or she is significantly different from the rest of the field. Doing this while being limited to only seconds-long sound bites is no easy task, but a few of Wednesday's candidates proved it's possible.

My highest marks would go to former Housing Secretary Julian Castro and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. They both responded directly and openly to the moderators' questions and exuded competence and confidence in explaining their positions. They both projected an authentic desire to serve the public but avoided obvious pandering to voters by sticking to specific, solution-based approaches to reach problems.

Castro oozed credibility when discussing the issue of immigration. "I want to challenge every candidate on this stage to support the repeal of Section 1325," he said, referencing the law that criminalizes crossing the U.S. border without documents.

Klobuchar shined when discussing her long record of successfully getting legislation passed. "I have a track record of passing over 100 bills where I was the lead because I listened and I acted," she said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Maryland Representative John Delaney, on the other hand, wouldn't have passed my test. They came across as desperate as they sniped from the sides, often speaking out of turn and over time. When de Blasio trumpeted his successes in New York City, most Americans must have wondered what that had to do with them. At one point, Delaney attempted to bolster his credibility by touting his extensive campaign travel. This most hackneyed of political arguments did nothing to separate him from the other hard-working candidates on stage.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as the candidate with the highest polling numbers on the stage Wednesday, had to live up to the sky-high expectation that she would dominate all her competitors. She gave a solid performance, but she failed to explain how she is different from the other Democrats vying for the presidency in 2020, instead directing her most damaging arguments at Trump. Warren should remember that there are about two dozen challengers standing between her and the general election.

Democratic Debate Wednesday
Ten of the top Democratic presidential candidates take part in the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26 in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty

Former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan and Washington Governor Jay Inslee all had brief, strong moments, but not one of them accomplished much more than avoiding a major mistake. But that, at least, will allow their campaigns to slog forward.

In the end, Wednesday's debate did little more than signal "game on." It provided material for everyone from causal observers to political junkies to pontificate, conjecture and spin, and gave us a taste of the drama about to unfold. No one did anything incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid for all of America to see this time.

However, Thursday night could very easily be a different story.

Sam Nelson is director of speech and debate at Cornell University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.