Op-Ed: A red state Republican’s take on the Democratic junior varsity debate

Democratic presidential candidates, left to right, Democratic presidential candidate New York City M
Democratic presidential candidates listen to a question during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News in Miami on June 26.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

The night of the first Democratic debate, even for those of us who watched it, already seems like a distant memory. Nothing much important happened, and virtually none of the people on the stage has a prayer of becoming the president.

Nonetheless, this Republican, middle-American viewer observed a few things I’m hoping you left-coasters can explain before the whole sorry show is forgotten.

Where was Joe Biden?

He was never supposed to be on the stage, of course, since he’s slated for Thursday night. But the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination was mentioned by … no one. It was a huge missed opportunity for Cory Booker (who had a dust-up with Biden recently over race issues) and Amy Klobuchar, who presumably is marketing herself as acceptable to Midwestern voters. If one of them had said, “We can’t nominate Biden and here’s why…,” it’s all we’d be talking about right now. This omission just seemed to reinforce that the first-night lineup was truly a junior varsity squad whose members are more likely to be named assistant secretary of the Interior by President Biden than become president themselves.

Elizabeth Warren. Really?

Take her answer on guns, which even liberals can’t have been happy with. She must get that question dozens of times every day, and to look that befuddled by it and have nothing to offer but a research project seemed awfully thin for a candidate who claims to have all the policy answers. She entered the debate hall the clear leader of that stage, and she couldn’t even own a room full of people rooting for her. She has a plan for everything except for how to win a debate among, frankly, lesser rivals.


Mitch McConnell.

As a Kentuckian, I was eager to hear the answer to moderator Chuck Todd’s question about how the candidates would “deal with Mitch McConnell.” And I was pleased to see that most of them didn’t seem to have a clue. Tim Ryan, who was out of his depth most of the night, came closest to a coherent answer — be a working-class party — but there’s no room for his low-wattage candidacy in this field. Warren flubbed this question almost as badly as she flubbed guns. Every mention of McConnell as a bane to Democrats inures to the Senate majority leader’s benefit in Kentucky, by the way.

Was Julián Castro trying to win the most “woke” award?

Shoehorning in a promise to federally fund abortions for transgendered females was truly a remarkable feat by the former Housing and Urban Development secretary. I am not going to litigate the biology of this, but I am sure there was a blue-collar type or two thinking: “I am wondering how to afford college for my kid and this guy is paying for transgender folks’ abortions?” This sort of identity politics pandering backfired on Democrats in 2016 and could be even worse this time around. Do liberals think that Castro’s positioning — along with his plan to reduce border security even further — plays well in the Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Michigan countryside? He had some nice moments, but any candidate tacking this far left is pushing onto dangerous ground if you Democrats plan to win in 2020.

Can someone please explain Beto O’Rourke’s appeal?

The erstwhile hand-waver from Texas has been a total flop as a presidential candidate, a trend that continued at the debate. Now that the media have decided he’s no longer worthy of their protection, he’s melting down faster than an ice cream cone in the seventh at Dodger Stadium. His performance will live forever in internet memes of a bewildered Booker watching O’Rourke speak rudimentary Spanish. O’Rourke’s mentioning his daughter made me wonder what she thinks when he disappears for months at a time to find himself. It’s doubtful this Irishman was smiling the morning after.

Um, the economy?

Do you people not understand that your rhetoric on the economy is disconnected from the economic realities felt by most Americans? We have more job openings than people looking for work. Wages are up. The Trump tax cuts helped more individuals than corporations, despite false statements to the contrary. Yet Democrats persist in describing America as a Third World country in which widespread unemployment has gripped the countryside. Nothing could be further from the truth, and swing voters know it.


John Delaney and Bill de DeBlasio were there for comic relief, right?

These guys. I did derive some unexpected pleasure from watching the moderators tell Delaney to be quiet. I can’t believe that the Democratic National Committee found stage spots for them — and for Marianne Williamson on Night 2 —but not for Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, an actual qualified human who could compete for crucial middle American votes.

The big question.

Pollsters tell us the most important issue in the Democratic primary is who can beat President Trump. Most Democratic voters say that’s who they want to back. But I didn’t hear any of Wednesday’s candidates make a compelling case on that issue. Maybe we’ll get more presidential timbre on Night 2.

And in case you’re wondering how this Republican sums up the evening: Warren, Booker and Castro live to fight another day. Beto’s done. And we won’t have to endure the others much longer, either.

Scott Jennings is a Republican advisor, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and CNN political commentator.

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