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These Tampa teen debate stars have some tips for Biden, Trump
Surprise! It’s not name-calling.
Everyone, please listen to the following teenagers.
Everyone, please listen to the following teenagers. [ PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP ]
Published Sep. 25, 2020

This is not cute kid quotes, nor a patronizing story about earnest teenagers. This is to announce that I have located students smarter than all of us and sought their counsel, because adults honestly aren’t doing great.

They are debate team members from Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, and they are competitive arguers. They win any dispute with parents. Almost. “Sometimes, they’ll take the cheap way out and pull the parent card and say, ‘I’m your mom,’” said Dhruv Kapadia, 16. “Some arguments you just can’t beat.”

However, they beat many others! Their coach, Kevin Kuswa, told me the debate team has been around more than 20 years and consistently ranks in the top five in Florida. The team has racked up plenty of tournament wins and currently has two members who are among the top 25 debaters in the country — Kapadia and his partner, Zach Zinober.

The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is Tuesday, so my hope is this dispatch gets to the candidates in time. Please, can a low-level campaign staffer shove this under a door while West Wing-style instrumental music plays? Thank you.

Back to their credentials. Zoe Bandes, 18, dropped “Lincoln-Douglas debates” into casual conversation. Along with her debate partner, Rachel Howell, 16, she has tackled U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the crisis in Yemen and mass extinction.

Dhruv Kapadia, 16.
Dhruv Kapadia, 16. [ Courtesy of Dhruv Kapadia ]

Kapadia got started in eighth grade, when his topics were Title 1 funding, the achievement gap and how “we have this myth that segregation ended a long time ago,” but “there are loopholes in the system that allow politicians to segregate schools.” In one argument, he and his partner incorporated theories of psychoanalysis, which he referred to as “kind of a softball approach.”

For comparison, at that age, I accidentally permed my bangs.

Zoe Bandes, 18.
Zoe Bandes, 18. [ Courtesy of Zoe Bandes ]

They love to talk politics with each other, Bandes said, as long as no one is being racist, sexist or homophobic ('tis a simple dream). They have thoughts on how candidates should comport themselves.

First, said Kapadia, it helps to understand the fundamentals of debate. If he gets off track or flustered, he finds it calming to review three steps in his mind:

Claim: The argument.

Warrant: The evidence to support it.

Impact: Why it matters.

Got it. So how are Trump and Biden doing on the trail?

“Overall, they’re getting there,” said Kapadia, who I will now remind you is 16. “I think they have a lack of warrants, evidence and reading behind their claims.”

There was one thing the debaters all said unprompted, in separate interviews, that they know to be true from experience. Calling the other side stupid or a loser is not a winning tactic. Rather, these champion debaters often win by … finding consensus.

“A technique to debating is when I say I agree with them, when I understand from an empathetic point of view what their opinion is and why they’re having it,” said Bandes. “It’s much easier to win by strengthening their arguments.”

“They could learn to find some common basis in the way their political beliefs overlap,” said Kapadia. “And it’s not this dogmatic, binary separation between political parties.”

Rachel Howell, 16.
Rachel Howell, 16. [ Courtesy of Rachel Howell ]

“Be respectful of your opponent,” said Howell. “Especially now, with tensions between the parties being so high, name-calling is not necessary, and it discredits both sides.”

The students hope to hear about a variety of issues, from social justice to the environment. Candidates should be clear about their goals and how they’re going to achieve them, they said, something often lacking on the debate stage. Focus on consequences and outcomes, not just ideas.

And they need to hold it together. Use intensity like a symphony. Be passionate when it really matters.

“You have to convey a sort of ethos,” Kapadia said. “A credibility.”

Finally, that means no sweatpants at debates, he insisted, which may be a uniquely high school problem. But, look. This is 2020, and we should not take anything for granted.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes