An Ohio Debate Lacking One Thing: An Appeal To Lost Ohio Voters


WESTERVILLE, OHIO – OCTOBER 15: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) looks on as South Bend, Indiana Mayor … [+]

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In the aftermath of the fourth Democratic presidential debate – this one at Ohio-based Otterbein University – some observations after watching 12 candidates have at it for three-plus hours.

But first, a theory: there’s an attractive ticket waiting for the Democrats if they really want to recapture Ohio and the Upper Midwest: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Both had good nights in terms of getting noticed. Moreover, each appreciates what the frontrunners seemingly don’t: their party is still disconnected with the Midwest in terms of shaky, big-government policies and a failure to concede that Donald Trump beat them to the punch in 2016 on economic and social/cultural concerns.

Yet Klobuchar and Buttigieg have a problem: they’re looking for a breakout moment. Will this debate provide that spark? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a few observations.

Warren Shots Were Fired. I suppose it’s now official: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the Democrats’ new frontrunner. Why else would she be so much more on the receiving end of criticism than in the previous debates?

On Tuesday night, Warren’s main tormentor was Buttigieg. He chased after her on the feasibility of pulling off Medicare-for-All without raising taxes on the middle class (remember this Warren response, if she’s elected: “I will not sign a bill that does not lower costs for middle-class families”).

But Buttigieg raised another point ( which he has been for some time) that Democrats seemingly can’t process: to Midwestern voters, Trump is not an aberration; promises to return to political “normalcy” are not what voters want – not in a stretch of the country where the political system hasn’t worked for them (one supposes that was meant for both Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden).

Reporters who fawn over, er cover Warren will say she had a good night in terms of word volume and being the center of attention. But much of that time was spent on the defensive, with the senator looking jumpy when the camera turned to her and not all that convincing (especially when pressed about U.S. involvement in the Middle East).

A word of caution for Democrats: in Elizabeth Warren’s world view, Facebook and Amazon are evil empires. Someone should remind her: the diverse and efficient Amazon Prime has 95 million subscribers – many of them, I presume, registered voters who (much like guns and their Second Amendment rights) don’t want their one-day delivery taken away.

The Hunter and The (No Longer) Hunted. Biden’s campaign did something clever on the same day as the debate – having the candidate’s son, Hunter, go on morning television to explain his controversies.

Why’s that a smart move?

Because: (a) it gave Biden needed cover for later that night (indeed, the candidate referenced the interview in defending his son); and (b) Amy Robach, the ABC News reporter who asked the questions, obviously knows little about finance – it would’ve been a tougher interview had Biden sat down with the likes of CNBC or Fox Business.

The elder Biden didn’t have a good night in two respects.

First, he’s no longer the center of attention – the dreaded “a-word” in campaign politics being “afterthought.”

Second, Biden has a debate tic – he keeps falling back on such phrases as “I’m the only one of this stage . . .” and “no one else on this stage has done . . .”

I don’t care for this resume approach because it has Biden looking backward, not forward – not a good sound for a Democratic electorate historically looking for novelty.

And it opens up Biden to easy attacks – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, reminding folks that Biden’s “ready to lead from day one” appeal (which by the way, didn’t work all that all for Hillary, John McCain and Bob Dole) includes such chestnuts as the 2003 Iraq invasion, the 2005 federal bankruptcy bill and years of voting for trade agreements.

One final note about Biden: he had me . . . for a nanosecond, when he said he wanted to “eliminate” the capital gains tax – only to change the verb to “raise” once he caught his gaffe.

It’s Good To Be “The King.” From Westerville, Ohio, the scene of this debate, it’s but a two-hour drive to Akron, Ohio, the boyhood home of basketball great LeBron James, aka “King James.”

Why is this relevant?

Imagine an alternate universe in which it’s Republicans, not Democrats, populating the Ohio debate stage. The odds of James getting a pass for his controversial remarks about the NBA and China (“King James” making a murky situation all the murkier with a baffling tweet that makes the basketball star sound either incredibly self-centered or downright insensitive to the civil rights of Hong Kong protestors)?

For reasons I don’t understand, the debate’s sponsors (CNN and The New York Times) didn’t go down that path (they also didn’t wade into immigration or housing). To do so would have put the candidates on the spot with regard to China and Hong Kong. It also would have raised the double-standard of “woke” athletes who have no problem taking a knee in the name of black oppression or snubbing Trump, but stay silent when criticising a communist regime might lighten their wallets.

Putting a bunch of Democrats on the spot on a topic that entails complicated geopolitics, sports, race, celebrity and social conscience is the stuff of good television. But I suppose we were better off with 15 minutes of me-too’s on Trump impeachment.

Bigger Wasn’t Better. Unlike past debates, where the field was either split into half or limited to one panel of ten candidates, this was the first time that Democrats trotted out 12 candidates at once.

The problem with that?

The Democratic National Committee has tried to have it both ways debate-wise – a Saturday morning kids’ soccer game where everyone gets a participation trophy, with supposedly strict qualifying rules that in reality aren’t all that punitive.

Place a dozen candidates on a stage and someone’s sure to go missing. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who did well when she got a turn (such as pressing Warren on foreign policy), was one such casualty. So were businessman Andrew Yang ( good luck getting tech support from Microsoft) and billionaire Tom Steyer (a man ahead of his time in that he sported what sure looked like a holiday tie two months before office-party season).

The Path Forward. The next Democratic debate is Wednesday, November 20, somewhere in the Atlanta area (presumably not Stone Mountain).

The DNC has set a tougher standard for crashing that party: 165,000 donors (up from 130,000) and at least 3% support (up from 2%) in four approved polls.

The question a month in advance: will there be much movement in the Democratic field? The Real Clear Politics Averageof national polls has Buttigieg at a mere 5.2% – some 10 points behind Sanders, who’s in third place (15.6%) behind Warren (23.4%) and Biden (29.4%). Klobuchar is further back at 1.6%, tied for eighth-place with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Two candidates who didn’t have terribly electrifying debate performances – Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris (her one notable moment: trying to browbeat Warren into c alling for a Trump Twitter ban) – have a combined 20.8% average. Throw in former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rouke, struggling as ever for relevancy, and it’s up to 23.4%. Perhaps Buttigieg and Klobuchar chip into that share.

If so, then maybe the Democrats are serious about correcting their past mistakes in the Midwest.

Which didn’t seem the case, in this debate.