Opinion: The finest speech ever given in a presidential debate

Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is a professor of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships; he’s been named the national debate coach of the year three times and been presented with the lifetime achievement award in academia and debate. You can find him at his website, on Facebook and on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

I’ve watched more than 8,000 debates. Admittedly, my life is not terribly exciting. But after Wednesday night’s fourth Republican presidential debate at the University of Alabama, I was rollin’ like the tide.

If you were lucky enough to watch, you were treated to the finest speech ever given in a presidential debate. Let’s get right to it — here’s how the four candidates scored:

Chris Christie: A+

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Since all great speeches should have a title, I’m naming it “Chris Christie’s Retribution Speech.”

To make a memorable argument in a debate, you need at least three things. First, the issue being debated has to be salient. Second, you need to lock down your position with good examples and evidence. Finally, your delivery is crucial. But even that’s not enough. For an argument to stand out in a debate, it must contain all three of those elements — and it must be a position not yet heard by the debating audience.

The “Chris Christie Retribution Speech” met all the criteria.

First: was the topic salient? Indeed it was, and the former governor of New Jersey knew it. Here’s part of his answer when asked what he thought of former President Donald Trump’s comments this week, that if elected again he would be a dictator only on “day one.”

“Completely predictable,” said Christie. “This is an angry, bitter man, who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct…. Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history…”

Second: Christie’s reasoning was solid, and his explanation of Trump’s popularity was smart debating. He took a weakness (Trump is polling way higher than Christie) and turned it into an attack on his debate opponents. Christie continued, “You want to know why those poll numbers are where they are? Because folks like these three guys on stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”

Third: You really need to watch his delivery. It’s a 2-minute speech, and it’s glorious. Watch Christie’s nonverbal movement and listen to his cadence. Hear the phrases and where Christie places the emphasis. One line stands out: Trump’s phrase of “I am your retribution,” when quoted by Christie, was chilling.

Christie might have just given the single most important speech in presidential debating history. It was certainly the finest.

Other Christie stand-out moments: Confronting fellow debater Vivek Ramaswamy, who was once again being himself. Christie told him to stop insulting Nikki Haley, said Ramaswamy had a smart-ass mouth, and gave this knock-out blow: “All he knows how to do is insult good people who’ve committed their lives to public service and not say anything that moves the ball down the field for the United States.”

Christie continually chastised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others for not answering the question, astutely channelling the audience’s frustration with politicians’ question dodging.

Finally, when talking about the sensitive topic of transgender care, while others like Ramaswamy and DeSantis were vilifying transgender kids and their parents, Christie reminded the audience of the sheer hypocrisy. “Republicans believe in less government, not more…yet we want to take parental rights away,” he said.

And while Christie said he does not personally favor gender-affirming care, he’d rather have parents decide with their children rather than the “jokers” in congress overriding parent’s decisions.

Nikki Haley: A

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor was lucky enough to collect some new donors this week. And that news, along with Haley’s rising poll numbers, should have been accompanied by a trigger warning because DeSantis and Ramaswamy began the debate with a barrage of attacks against her.

And some of the criticisms landed — such as Haley’s apparent double standard on our relationship with China, and that she is taking too much money from big corporation leaders, thereby making her indebted to them.

Haley was fortunate that the attacks were scattershot. Usually in presidential debates, the person getting teamed up on eventually wears down. Given the lack of a uniform attack from her opponents, an absence of specificity on some of the critiques and the fact that Christie defended Haley, the arguments against her simply didn’t stick. In fact, thanks to Ramaswamy’s excessively nasty and rude vitriol, I wouldn’t be surprised if Haley didn’t get even more support from a sympathetic audience.

But let’s not forget that Haley, if given the time, can probably answer most of the criticisms. She defended her corporate relations, such as Boeing, with ease. Haley’s policy focus was evident once again; and she had an excellent answer for why we should prioritize supply issues when dealing with this difficult market and inflation. Haley also reminded us that deficits (and inflation) aren’t just a Democrat problem because Trump’s tenure only made it worse.

What I liked most about Haley in this debate was her demeanor. I’ve criticized Haley in previous debates for being too eager to jump into the fray and quibble, especially about unimportant issues. Not this time. Haley was much better at selecting the time and place for her rebuttals.

How she handled the tag-teaming from DeSantis and Ramaswamy was impressive. Most people would have lost their temper (Christie was on the edge) and let it affect their debating. Instead, Haley went the opposite direction and played it cool and calm. It was the perfect attitude adjustment.

Even after being called a fascist by Ramaswamy, Haley simply smiled and said, “I love all the attention fellas. Thank you for that.” And then again after Ramaswamy’s flailing stream of consciousness insults, a debate moderator asked Haley if she’d like to respond. She replied with a bit of a smile. “No. It’s not worth my time to respond to him.” BAM.

Ron DeSantis: C

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Some things never change. Florida’s governor simply can’t fix his nonverbal communication, especially his tortured facial expressions. It’s baffling and now I couldn’t stop staring.

On foreign policy, DeSantis’s strengths were talking about the approach Florida took to China, but he missed badly when explaining the legality of his previous rhetoric about killing fentanyl smugglers, vigilante-style.

DeSantis began this answer, as he did several times in the debate, by telling a story. The problem is that his stories are forced and poorly timed. Answer the question first, and then, if you must, tell a story. But I prefer my presidential debates to be story-free. They just don’t work in debates like they do on the stump.

Finally, DeSantis has no transitions in his debating style. He attacks, introduces new topics, and randomly begins telling stories with no set-up and no clear way out.

DeSantis is still a C debater. He’s not terrible. He’s not terrific. He’s just Ron.

Vivek Ramaswamy: F

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

What’s a troll’s biggest fear? Being ignored. Trolls crave attention. You can read elsewhere about all of Ramaswamy’s antics. (Each debate he seems to be trying to outdo his previous one, so you can only imagine how ridiculous he was at times with his mean spirited, undignified verbal vomit.)

Imagine how upset Ramaswamy must have been when Haley simply ignored his attacks and said he wasn’t worth her time. Not responding to him is probably worse for his ego than any verbal insult.

You know you’re in trouble when a presidential moderator — Elizabeth Vargas — asks you point-blank about one of your policy proposals. “Is this a serious policy proposal, and if it isn’t, why do you keep repeating it?”

At one point in the debate, Ramaswamy had a good debate strategy, but failed to successfully execute it. His plan seemed to be to highlight Haley’s lack of knowledge about Ukraine by demonstrating basic facts she is unaware of. It’s a winnable strategy. My teams have used similar strategies to highlight our opponent’s ignorance on any given topic.

But Ramaswamy undermined his “gotcha” moment. Ramaswamy demanded Haley name three provinces in Ukraine where she might send troops because he figured she’d be stumped.

Unfortunately, and this cannot be overstated, nobody cares. Apparently, Haley has not fully memorized the military strategy in various regions in Ukraine. You know what Ramaswamy included with this burger? Nothing, that’s what.

My grade is as Christie predicted when he called out Ramaswamy: “This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America.”

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