Principles of debating (or, learning from the first Clinton-Trump debate)

Matthew Hanzel Avatar

So you have watched the first U.S. Presidential Election Debate earlier today. The debate was between the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald J. Trump, both wearing inverted colors of their respective parties, with Clinton wearing a red blouse and Trump with a blue tie (red is identical to Republican and blue to Democratic).

I have watched three such debates, beginning with Obama-McCain debate in 2008. Heck, I even mocked-debate once, with me acting as Governor Romney (yes, in 2012). Yet this debate is unlike any other. This debate is extremely heated, almost head-popping, sometimes with very little substance, but high in tension. Even so, I have found my winner, and that is the lady in red, keeping her demeanor intact while the other took the bait and almost flipped the lectern at instances, with his sniffing nose beaming sound through the microphone.

I write this post to show to you, kind readers, some of the principles of debating that I know that you can learn, we can learn together, from what happened during this exciting debate. Here, you will see also why Clinton wins this debate by a long stretch—even when he and his supporters say the exact opposite.

“Don’t take the bait… Don’t take… Ah, what the hell!”

When we compete in a debate competition, there are times when we really know our opponents that well, that we can see how we can lure him/her with a certain bait, to make him/her turns off and flip the debate over. Most debaters ideally come to the chamber with calm and cool head, almost emotionless, thinking only to make sure that his/her arguments stand and his/her opposing team’s arguments crumble.

Clinton is smart, in this sense. Trump, however, is not.

Clinton understands perfectly that Trump has a short fuse, and can be baited too easily. From matters of tax returns to “small loan” from his father, this debate shows how Clinton exploits Trump’s fuse easily. Trump, on the other hand, flunks miserably by taking the bait, and furthermore, pours fuel on the fiery bush. See how Trump’s emotions flops and burns like heck.

Clinton is not free from getting targeted as well. See how Trump demands Clinton to release the 30,000+ e-mails from her private server from her days as Secretary of State before he releases his tax returns (I will get back to this for another issue). Clinton maintains her calmness, and even seemingly admitting her guilt in the e-mail debacle. This, however, will bring us to our second point.

Don’t let any point hanging

One of the key things to do in a debate is called rebuttal, essentially, showing directly, explicitly, how your opponent’s argument is wrong, and possibly, emphasize how your argument is correct in contradiction to that opposing argument.

This is important because observers (and adjudicators alike) will see how effectively a debate can rebut the opposing argument, and maintaining the strength of his/her own argument, to let it stand. When an argument is left not rebutted, it creates the sense that the opposing argument is correct, or that he or she has no idea on how the argument should be rebutted.

Meanwhile, I always keep this principle true: There is no argument that cannot be rebutted, every single one of them has its own flaws or loopholes. If you think quick enough, you will find one.

During this debate, rebuttals come in most cases with heat and shouting. However, there are two interesting cases in which the rebuttals come strange.

Firstly, when Donald Trump was asked why he has not released his taxes, Trump responded to imply that not that he did not want to release them (and I quote):

I don’t mind releasing — I’m under a routine audit. And it’ll be released. And — as soon as the audit’s finished, it will be released.

This sounds like a reasonable response (effectively a rebuttal) to the moderator (Lester Holt)’s inquiry. However, he follows up with this very peculiar thing:

I will release my tax returns — against my lawyer’s wishes — when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release.

So yes, he stabs his own rebuttal. This is a lesson: When you are arguing, or rebutting, at least be consistent. First, Trump says that he does not mind releasing the taxes. Yet, a few minutes away, he says that he will release only if. These are two contradictions, and should never happen when debating.

Clinton, however, has her own pitfalls. Trump accuses Clinton of being a supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Indeed, Clinton is hold on record for calling it “the gold standard” of trade deals, and amazingly, Trump is correct.

Clinton’s rebuttal is less than convincing:

Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated… which I was not responsible for, I concluded it wasn’t.

Clinton is at fault here. It is indeed convenient, to response with saying that your opponent is despicable. Mind you, though, in most debates, this is not the way to go. You may give thinly-veiled ‘mockery’, saying that your opponent is ignorant, naive, and so on. But calling your opponent “live in your own reality” without emphasizing how your opponent is wrong is not the way to go.

And this brings us to my third and final point.

Who is your judge?

This is, at least for me, one of the greatest quotes in any movie ever released.

Who is the judge?
The judge is God.
Why is he God?
Because he decides whether I win or lose, not my opponent.
Who is your opponent?
He doesn’t exist.
Why does he not exist?
Because he is just a mere dissenting voice to the truth I speak.


In any debate, who wins or losses will be determined by a panel of judges, or adjudicators. They are the ‘gods’, in the sense that they are ultimately powerful in determining to which side the debate sways.

In a presidential debate, there is no adjudicator. However, it is not to say that there is no judge. Actually, there are judges: you.

The judges (you) determine the winner of this debate, by your own criteria. This is very different from formal debate adjudicators, which have a typically fixed criterion on what constitutes a great debater (or debating team), typically by judging on substance, method of debate, and way of delivery. That does not exist in presidential debate, as everyone has his/her own way to judge.

However, let me emphasize on another related thing. In a debate competition, the adjudicators are presumed, and must assume, the role of ‘average reasonable person’. This complex phrase simply means that the adjudicators must never judge with any pre-knowledge or acquired knowledge that they have. Suppose if the adjudicator is an expert in physics, and the debate is about physics, the adjudicator must assume himself/herself as someone that at least know the very basics of physics that every person in the planet knows (e.g. that something will fall in downward direction due to gravity), but nothing more (such as inertia or quantum physics).

Being an ‘average reasonable person’ allows adjudicators to adjudicate the debate based solely on the merit of the debate. Even when the debaters are essentially telling lies or misleading facts, when they are deemed strong enough and convincing enough, they can still win the debate.

This is similar to presidential debates, or any debate for that matter: When you say something, it will be presumed as the truth, unless there is a countering idea presented that shows that it is wrong.

Similar to this presidential debate, there are facts, and ‘facts’, being presented by both candidates. In a vacuum, without ‘judges’, the merit of the debate may be determined solely by the strength of the candidates (of which, the winner will be easily determined as well).

However, the birth of internet, and social media, allow us to go beyond ‘average reasonable’ person. When the candidate says something presented as ‘fact’, we can go to social media, browser, Google, or Wikipedia, to find out if this is true or false. This is the advent of ‘fact checker’, and there is no escaping.

Remember that you are the judge, and you have every capability to ascertain if the candidate’s statement is indeed fact or not. The following things, for instance:

  • Clinton denies that she believes TPP is the “gold standard” for trade deals (false);
  • Trump claims that Ford is closing its factory to move to Mexico, and that the US is losing jobs because of it (false);
  • Clinton claims that her economic plan will add 10 million jobs, and Trump’s will decrease 3 million jobs (true, but misleading);
  • Trump claims that he receives a “small loan” from his father to start his business (false);
  • Clinton claims that Trump claims that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese (true);

There are many other points that you can fact-check, and they are interesting. Many news channels also present their own fact-checking.

When your judges are exposed to this fact-checking, there is no escaping. Saying false things many swing the debate against you, and this is a very important thing to understand: The strength of your debate will be determined also by the substance, as much as style.


So, there you go. These are just some of the few things that we can together learn from this first presidential debate. This is a healthy exercise and a good observation item for you if you want to see how to argue, and how not to argue. Let’s see the next few debates, including that of the vice-presidents, and see how they differ from this first debate.

If you want to watch the debate, you can see below. Or, if you want to read the transcript, you can find it here.


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