U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan did an excellent impersonation of the Invisible Man during the first 90 minutes of the two-hour initial presidential debate.
His time picked up considerably in the final 30 minutes, including a confrontational back-and-forth with U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii that likely left most viewers with the impression that Ryan wants troops in Afghanistan and didn’t know who attacked the United States on 9/11 though his follow-up statement was correct.
But it’s the impression that hurt him at Wednesday’s debate in Miami. It’s not a good idea to get into a military argument with a veteran on national television whether you’re right or wrong or whether she interjected herself into his time.
Ryan told me Thursday that Gabbard was going to go after anyone on this topic and it happened to be him.
Ryan of Howland, D-13th, was touting his experience in the U.S. House, particularly on committees dealing with the military. Regarding overseas military involvement, Ryan said the United States has “to be completely engaged and here’s why: because these flare-ups distract us from the real problems in the country.”
Gabbard, who served in the military, pounced on the word “engaged.”
“Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan?” she said. “‘Well, we just have to be engaged.’ As a soldier, I will tell you that answer is unacceptable. We have to bring troops home from Afghanistan.”
Ryan responded: “I don’t want to be engaged.” But “the reality is if the United States isn’t engaged, the Taliban will grow and they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts.”
Gabbard said: “The Taliban was there long before we came in and they will be there long after we leave. We cannot keep U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan thinking that we’re going to somehow squash this Taliban.”
Ryan then said: “When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings.”
Gabbard pounced, saying: “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11; al-Qaida did. That’s why I and so many other people joined the military: to go after al-Qaida, not the Taliban.”
Ryan said: The Taliban “were protecting those people who were plotting against us.”
Though he initially misspoke, Ryan is correct as the Taliban harbored al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before 9/11, but the damage was done.
Ryan said Thursday that Gabbard “was trying to manipulate what I was saying.”
He also criticized her for meeting with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, who used chemical weapons on his own citizens.
As for being silent for most of the debate, it wasn’t entirely Ryan’s fault.
The moderators largely controlled the debate and they were focused primarily on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and secondly on other candidates such as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
To say Ryan was an afterthought is an understatement.
He was the last of the 10 candidates on the stage Wednesday to be asked a question and by then, 16 minutes had passed.
During the first 90 minutes of the debate, Ryan spoke only three times.
He told me Thursday that he was “frustrated” with the process, but didn’t want to come across as too aggressive.
While he barely spoke during the first three-quarters of the debate, Ryan got in a few shots at Republican President Donald Trump, who should be the Democratic candidates’ main target in these debates.
“If you go to Guantanamo Bay, there are terrorists held who get better health care than those kids trying to cross the border into the United States,” Ryan said. “That needs to stop. I think the president should immediately ask doctors and nurses to go immediately down to the border and start taking care of these kids. What kind of country are we running here when we have a president of the United States who’s so focused on hate and fear and division, and what’s happening now is the end result is we’ve got kids literally laying in their own snot with 3-week-old diapers that haven’t been changed?”
To finish it off, he said: “We’ve got to tell this president that is not a sign of strength. That is a sign of weakness.”
About 90 minutes into the debate, he was asked a follow-up question about carbon taxing and climate change.
Ryan made the right decision to bypass that discussion to hit on a point he’s been trying to make this entire campaign.
“We have a perception problem with the Democratic Party,” he said. “We are not connecting to the working-class people in the very states that I represent in Ohio, in the industrial Midwest. We’ve lost all connection. We have got to change the center of gravity of the Democratic Party from being coastal, elitist and Ivy League, which is the perception to somebody from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years.”
Ryan also had a strong answer when asked how to handle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, long a thorn in the side of Democrats. Most of the other candidates said they’d try to get McConnell to be more bipartisan or remove the fillibuster – neither of which will happen.
Ryan said if “you want to beat Mitch McConnell this better be a working-class party. If you want to go into Kentucky and kick his rear end out and take [U.S. Sen.] Lindsey Graham out, you’ve got to have a blue-collar party that can go into the textile communities in South Carolina. All I’m saying is if we don’t address that fundamental problem with our connection to workers, white, black, brown, gay, straight, working-class people, none of this is going to get done.”
The main point of Ryan’s campaign is he’s represented “forgotten communities” that have been ignored by Republicans and Democrats.
During his closing statement, Ryan said, “I will only promise you one thing when I walk into that Oval Office every morning: you will not be forgotten, your voice will be heard.”
If this was someone’s first exposure to Ryan – and it likely was to several people watching – he didn’t come across great, largely because of the exchange with Gabbard and his lengthy time standing there not saying anything.
We’ll see how he does during the second set of debates on July 30 and 31 in Detroit.
More importantly, we’ll see if he can qualify for the third and fourth debates in September and October when the threshold to get on the stage is greatly escalated.