'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate

'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate
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There’s an old Borscht Belt joke: A customer in the deli calls his waiter over. “Taste my soup!”
Waiter: “You don't like it? I'll bring you another.”
After some back and forth, the waiter says, “Okay,” looks down, looks around, looks at the floor: “Where's your spoon?”
Customer says: “AHA!”

Last night's Democratic debate contained lots of interesting things — including some great performances. But there was something missing. It took Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Hillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike MORE (D-Minn.) to point it out, wailing at one point: “We have not been talking enough about Donald Trump!”

She was right. More than anything else, Democratic voters want to see who can best beat the president in November. Instead, candidates aimed their most pointed, shockingly insulting and best rehearsed lines last night at others on the stage.

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Does this mean that six substantive men and women, some of whom have been planning their campaigns for years, are stupid?

No, but the system is. Primaries exist to decide nominees. Progressive Democrats, 22 percent of the party overall, make up about 33 percent of primary voters. This means the smart thing for candidates is to swing sharply left. It means candidates have staffers comb websites to find trivial mistakes and forgotten bills from the other candidates, who are often their friends. “Oh, Klobuchar forgot a name!” “Wow. Bloomberg is rich!” 

Listening to the insults candidates hurled back and forth, unwary listeners might have thought they’d heard a significant debate. They did not. Here, for example, are just two questions even informed viewers would get wrong.

Do the candidates have very different views? Not really. The website Progressive Punch ranks senators, not surprisingly, on how “progressive” they are. In 2019-20, for example, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Biden faces pesky enthusiasm challenge despite big primary numbers MORE (D-Mass.) voted right, according to Progressive Punch, 96.47 percent of the time; Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Sanders still sees 'narrow path' to Democratic presidential nomination Tenants call on lawmakers to pass rent freezes MORE (I-Vt.), 96.85 percent; Klobuchar, 90.20 percent. If these were grades in high school calculus, they each would get an A.

How different are their ideas? Take the heated exchange pitting Sanders’s “Medicare for All” plan against former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE’s “Medicare for All Who Want It.” 

Vastly different? Actually, Buttigieg has said he offers his “All Who Want It” plan as a way station on the way to Sanders’s “For All.” That’s not enormous. We might stop at Maryland House on the way to Philadelphia, but we are on the same road.

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And there is a more important question. 

Did the gloves come off? In other words, did listeners think candidates looked hard for ways to reveal what their rivals wanted to hide? Here’s the otherwise nuanced Buttigieg on the difference between Sanders and former New York City mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergFormer Bloomberg staffer seeks class-action lawsuit over layoffs Bloomberg spent over 0M on presidential campaign The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response MORE

“We shouldn’t have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out.”

As someone who has invented such lines, I admire the speechwriter who devised this one. But both “choices” are false. Both mask the truth that every frightened Democratic pollster and campaign consultant knows: All the Democratic candidates are vulnerable.

To understand why, let’s look at an interesting Gallup poll I’ve written about before, now redone with new data. “What types of candidates would Americans not vote for?” it asked last year.   

It listed 12 kinds, based on a survey asking voters whether they would vote for a “generally well-qualified” presidential candidate from their own party “if the candidate had each of the following characteristics.” There followed a list of the 12: socialist, atheist, older than 70, Muslim, younger than 40, gay or lesbian, evangelical Christian, Jewish, woman, Catholic, Hispanic, black. 

All six Democrats fit in at least one of those categories. How many Democratic voters would that make them lose?

At the top of the list: self-described democratic socialist Sanders. Even Democrats hate socialists. He would lose 24 percent of Democrats — about 15 million voters.  

Two candidates, Bloomberg and former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll The Memo: Political world grapples with long coronavirus shutdown The Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control MORE, are over 70. So is President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE. Let’s assume Trump and either Bloomberg or Biden might cancel each other out. But maybe not.

In both fourth and fifth place? Buttigieg. He’s under 40, which would cost him 21 percent of Democrats, and he is gay, which potentially costs him17 percent. Let’s assume he only loses votes because of whom he loves. About 10 million nominal Democrats would stay home or vote for someone else.

What about Klobuchar and Warren?

Three percent of Democrats say they would not vote for a qualified woman from their party.  That’s about 2 million Democrats. Remember, in 2016, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much GOP challenger seizes on outrage against Massie Juan Williams: Mueller, one year on MORE won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million but lost in the Electoral College. That’s a huge risk.

Let me be truthful. I think electing any of the six — and especially Sanders or Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar — would be a wonderful sign of progress in this country. As someone who has done political work for 40 years, I know that only Democratic strategists doing one of the campaigns would endorse that calamity waiting to happen. Why didn’t the moderators or other candidates raise that question last night? 

What’s the solution for Democrats? My guess is to nominate either Warren or Klobuchar and hope for the best. Warren has spent two years preparing for this race. She delivers skillfully written answers to every question. So does Klobuchar, with a warmth and wit that might keep some Democrats from staying home even if it means voting for a woman.

But shouldn’t such debates promote honesty? Last night’s concealed too much. It’s a shame. People often caricature politicians. Each of the six candidates is serious and substantive. That’s what we should see, not what our miserably deficient electoral system makes them conceal.

“Democracy,” Winston Churchill famously said, “is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” 

When it comes to elections, there are many forms. The latest debate shows why this country should try some. It needs more ingredients — and a spoon.

Bob Lehrman, the chief speechwriter for former vice president Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Gore blasts Trump: 'You can't gaslight a virus' Who should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes unexpected step to stem coronavirus MORE, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” recently released in a second edition, this time with collaborator and co-teacher, Eric Schnure. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.