Ahead of Wednesday night’s primary debate between ten Democratic presidential aspirants—a sprawling slate of candidates that nevertheless accounts for only about 42 percent of the Democrats’ 2020 field—the Daily Beast offered some helpful pointers about what candidates should not do. This montage of the decade’s worst debate-stage gaffes and gimmicks was valuable, and it’s highly unlikely that Rep. Tim Ryan caught it. If he had, he might have avoided giving what was arguably the worst series of answers in any presidential debate in living memory.

“We’re going to talk about Iran right now,” said NBC News anchor Lester Holt, who proceeded to ask the Democrats how they would respond to an escalating series of violent provocations from Tehran, including multiple attacks on commercial shipping and the downing of an American drone. Most of the candidates dodged the question, preferring instead to claim that Iran is only lashing out violently because Donald Trump partially withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear accords. Notably, though, the candidates who professed their support for the Iran deal—Sens. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard—all declined to say that they would reenter the agreement as it stood when Barack Obama negotiated it. The Democratic field supports the “Iran deal,” but they’re apparently not sold on the JCPOA.

Flash forward a little later in the debate to the point at which Rep. Ryan was asked a foreign-policy question involving Tuesday’s Taliban-claimed attack in Afghanistan in which two American soldiers lost their lives. Rather than take the opportunity to position himself as a serious candidate in the race—a title for which he’s been vying throughout much of the campaign—Ryan pivoted back to the downing of an American drone so that he might strike a populist note.

“We must have our State Department engaged. We must have our military engaged to the extent they need to be,” he insisted. By contrast, he asserted, the Trump administration is disengaged. That’s obvious “because these flare-ups distract us from the real problems in the country.” That’s when Ryan swung for the fences. “If we’re getting drones shot down for $130 million because the president is distracted,” he said, “that’s $130 million that we could be spending in places like Youngstown, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan.”

Let’s break that down. First, the assault on U.S. soldiers by the Taliban, with whom we are presently negotiating to secure a settlement that will allow American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, is a mere “flare-up” and a “distraction.” An attack on an American reconnaissance asset monitoring the vitally strategic Strait of Hormuz, where a rogue power is sabotaging flagged oil tankers, is also a distraction. And why deploy surveillance drones at all if they’re only going to be shot down by hostile foreign powers? We could just be investing the money we dedicate to the defense of the free navigation of the seas and the prosperity and security that accrue from that commerce to a highway overpass in the industrial Midwest.

Sensing blood in the water, Gabbard jumped at the opportunity to answer the question about the Taliban directly. But whereas Ryan might have adopted a more sensibly hawkish posture if he set out to make a cogent and relevant point, Gabbard struck out in defense of the Taliban.

“Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan? Well, we just have to be engaged?” she asked. “As a soldier, I will tell you, that answer is unacceptable.” Ryan replied with the fact that, if the U.S. withdraws, “the Taliban will grow.” That’s fine with Gabbard. “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11. Al Qaida did,” she insisted. “That’s why I and so many other people joined the military, to go after Al Qaida, not the Taliban.”

In response to this statement of capitulatory blindness, Ryan could only muster a weak note of protest. “The Taliban was protecting those people who were plotting against us,” he said before noting that America cannot simply withdraw behind its borders and hope for the best. “I would love to,” Ryan trailed off, appearing to sublimate into thin air.

By being less than forceful in his defense of the Bush administration’s decision to strike the hostile foreign power that provided financial and logistical support to Osama bin Laden, Ryan somehow managed to lose an exchange with a candidate who argued that the Taliban got a raw deal after September 11.

Ryan has spent the hours that passed since the debate relitigating his fight with Gabbard in tersely worded statements, but he would be better served abandoning the case altogether and disappearing into the wilderness. There are more articulate advocates for America’s interests, not just in the Democratic Party but on last night’s debate stage. Ryan demonstrated that he’s not up to the task.

Maybe the Worst Answer to Any Question in Any Debate via @commentarymagazine
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