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LCHS Students Critique Debate

The day after the third and final presidential debate last week, the co-presidents of La Cañada High School’s elite speech and debate team took time from their busy teenage lives to critique the arguments made by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Neither Alex Zhao nor Sonya Kalara, both bright 17-year-old seniors, will be old enough to vote on Nov. 8, but they’ve been dialed into this year’s wild election, checking the stat-driven political website fivethirtyeight.com and monitoring the high-stakes debates. From their perspective, those exchanges have proved both familiar and foreign, and great fodder for, well, debate.
“Ideally, a debate that we would do would never be personal,” Kalara said. “It would always be about the issues because we wouldn’t know the other [debater]. But in this case, this is highly personal and it’s supposed to be personal.’”
During that last debate on Oct. 19, the personal nature of the election induced a question from moderator Chris Wallace about accusations of sexual misconduct leveled at Trump.
The Republican nominee replied that the stories had been “largely debunked,” and Clinton offered a sober reaction: “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere that doesn’t know what that feels like.”
Zhao said he thought Clinton’s response was “fantastic” and “polished,” but that she might have missed an opportunity to pack a more powerful rhetorical punch.
“She could’ve had a little more emotion,” he said. “She could’ve seemed a little more outraged. I mean, it was obvious that this was such an outrageous thing that he had done that maybe she could’ve seemed more angry.”
Kalara wasn’t so sure.
“I really liked how she wasn’t outraged,” she said. “The entirety of this debate is so angry all the time that her deep sadness actually was more emotionally impactful. Throughout … they’re talking over each other, they’re talking quickly, they’re trying to get the last word in. And here, she slowed down her voice, she made it really come from the heart. One of the big things against her is that she’s not very emotional and seems closed off, but this was a really good way to make her more emotional without compromising her identity.”
For the past two years, Zhao’s prowess in the Lincoln-Douglas debate category has earned him a trip to Kentucky for the Tournament of Champions, the premier high school speech and debate competition in the nation. This year, he’s the student representative for the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board.
Kalara specializes in parliamentary and impromptu speaking and was runner-up at state and a semifinalist at nationals last year. She’s signed up to be a poll worker on Election Day.
They’re also both students in Brent Beaty’s government class at LCHS, so, like many in the media covering the debate, they homed in on Trump’s statement regarding the election results and whether he’d accept them.
“I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I’m not looking at anything now, I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen … is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile-on is so amazing.”
Zhao characterized the response as dangerous.
“Successful democracies depend on clean transitions between administrations,” he said. “And Trump’s refusal to do that kind of weakens our institutions because he’s saying voters shouldn’t trust democracy.”
Even so, Zhao said he recognized that the position was effective in the context of the debate.
“It’s a great debate tactic,” Zhao said. “There are instances [in Lincoln-Douglas debates] when there are philosophical theories argued that are unverifiable, claims about how human nature operates that are impossible to refute with empirical evidence.”
Added Kalara: “It’s a really effective tactic to say that things are rigged, because his whole campaign is about being anti-establishment. So if something doesn’t go his way, he can say the establishment is flawed. There’s no way to go against that. And so if the media says, ‘Oh, the establishment is not flawed,’ then the media is feeding into it.”
And how do they debate against that sort of tactic when it’s presented?
“The way to answer these unverifiable claims is you really have to think about why they’re false on a logical level,” Zhao said. “For instance, the idea that the election is rigged and that millions of people are in on a conspiracy, you just point out that it’s extremely unlikely that so many people are in on a conspiracy and not one of them has broken.”
Many other topics were covered in the 90 minutes the candidates sparred on that debate stage in Las Vegas. The LCHS students pointed out that both candidates pivoted when pressed, and that Clinton appeared refined and experienced while Trump was much improved.
“Trump has definitely improved from the first debate,” Zhao said. “I remember watching him do all sorts of different movements. He would lean forward, drink water, tilt back, sniff a lot. He would shake his head a lot and do this thing where he would tilt his head back and squint his eyes; it just didn’t look very presidential. But this debate, he did a better job of keeping in frame, keeping his shoulders in the camera. And Clinton obviously did a good job doing that as well.”
In the end, the person on stage who earned the most plaudits from these young thinkers was the moderator, Wallace, who didn’t allow the candidates much wiggle room. When referencing a speech Clinton gave to a Brazilian bank in which she was quoted as saying “My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders,” and Trump interjected, “Thank you” Wallace quieted the crowd and continued to pose the question: “Is that your dream? Open borders?”
Zhao said he likes that technique.
“I always advise novices not to ask open-ended questions that debaters can just ramble on about,” he said. “You ask a close-ended question that forces them to evaluate their own flaws while simultaneously bolstering yours.”
On this, there was no debate from Kalara.
“I am impressed with him as a moderator,” she agreed. “He was able to keep his composure and not get too flustered, but at the same time he was relatively hard on them as far as timing went, and I feel he was equally hard on both of them.”


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