Gene Lyons

It's Time for the Democrats' Monthly Mutual Flogging

Another month, another Democratic presidential debate. It’s getting to where one anticipates these dreary, made-for-TV spectacles as one looks forward to a root canal.

Can’t they just cut the cards, or play Spin the Bottle?

But wait, is that a sexist or a racist joke? Is there an ethnic or gender category that finds gambling jokes or kissing games offensive?

It’s at roughly this point in the quadrennial proceedings that pundit law requires quoting the late Will Rogers. “I am not a member of any organized political party,” the Oklahoma sage quipped. “I am a Democrat.”

Rogers was also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and perhaps the most popular public figure of his time. He staged a mock presidential campaign in 1928 as the candidate of the Anti-Bunk Party. Rogers proposed a joint debate “in any joint you name.”

Had he not died in a 1935 airplane crash, Will Rogers would be 140 today: even older than several leading Democratic candidates.

So yes, Democratic presidential campaigns have always seemed chaotic, maybe even more so back then, when “Solid South” segregationists shared power with northern big-city political machines. Somehow, things worked out. The 1932 candidate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That said, recent bickering among leading Democrats threatens to devolve into a competition between small, smaller and smallest. Probably that’s why former President Barack Obama spoke up, warning that bitter arguments over ideology were turning off potential Democratic voters.

“This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement. They like seeing things improved, but the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it,” Obama said. “And I think it’s important for us not to lose sight of that.”

He spoke of a “circular firing squad.”

Obama didn’t need to name anybody. To me, his was an overdue rejoinder to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s putdown of Maryland Rep. John Delaney’s reservations about her sweeping “Medicare for All” proposal, which has about as much chance of being enacted into law as I have of winning the American League Cy Young Award.

Warren asked why a trimmer like Delaney was even on the stage. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said. “I don’t get it.”

Granted, Delaney was a no-hope candidate who soon withdrew. Even so, I found Warren’s jibe worthy of a high school student council election. Bringing real-world politics into the debate showed a lack of school spirit.

What Warren supporters don’t get -- caution, second baseball analogy coming -- is that there’s no such thing as a seven-run home run. The thing is to keep putting runners on base and not make outs.

That’s one thing I like about Sen. Amy Klobuchar: She talks goals and strategies, not abstract ideology.

I thought Steve Waldman got Sen. Warren exactly right in the Washington Monthly. What tempts rivals to describe her as “angry” isn’t gender, but her habit of "questioning the MOTIVATIONS of those who disagree with her."

"If you disagree with her,” Waldman writes, “it’s because you don’t have the courage to fight off the powerful interests. Or you’re not a good Democrat. ... I'm thinking of that joke she made about how a male opponent of gay marriage couldn’t get a wife or girlfriend."

Warren wouldn’t have liked my rejoinder to that crack. But I’m not a candidate, so let’s move on. Enough to say that a male politician who lobbed a sexual insult at a woman voter on national TV wouldn’t be long for the Democratic Party.

Leave that stuff to Trump, the GOP Adonis.

Warren was soon at it again, suggesting that Joe Biden’s reservations about her Medicare for All plan shows he’s “running in the wrong presidential primary."

Insulted, regular old Joe got a bit petulant, saying Warren exhibited an “angry unyielding viewpoint” and represented “an elitism that working- and middle-class people do not share.” Indeed, polls do show that 62% of Midwest swing state voters don’t trust a mandatory, one-size-fits-all government health care plan. Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks it’s a political time-bomb.

But you can’t call a Democratic woman “angry” unless she’s actually biting your leg. Warren objected that "we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet."

So is this a presidential campaign or a geriatric singles bar?

Oddly, Warren next sent out an email acknowledging that “I am angry and I own it.” Angry at Trump’s America, that is, not Biden. Next her campaign rolled out a new gradual “transition” health care plan scarcely distinguishable from the “public option” proposals favored by Biden, Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and other Democratic moderates. A scheme that might imaginably pass.

Me, I just don’t get it.