Democrats Search for Their Own ‘Make America Great Again’

Top candidates such as Elizabeth Warren tried to avoid wonky policy proposals and focus on big, sweeping messages last night.

Maveric Pictures / Mike Blake / Kamil Krzaczynski / Rebecca Cook / Mike Segar / The Atlantic

In more than two sprawling hours of serial discussion that sometimes even came close to “debate” last night, 10 Democratic contenders for president—and the time-obsessed moderators who questioned them—served up a vivid contrast between the micro and the macro in American politics. It was a display of the difference between the specific policy proposals that connote a respectable résumé (or that contain a potential time bomb) and the big, animating ideas that tend to win elections—whether that message is “Yes we can” or “Make America great again.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper played prosecuting attorney. From the start, he peppered the candidates with gotcha questions on whether they’d support raising this particular tax to pay for that particular program, then cut them off if the network’s debate ground rules (or a producer’s voice in his ear) meant it was time to move on. Undeterred, several of the candidates fought to prove their bona fides with wonk-speak and inside political baseball.

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas bragged about shaking up the Veterans Affairs branch in his hometown of El Paso. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke of amending his police department’s policy on use of force. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota assured the 3,500 people in Detroit’s Fox Theatre and the millions watching at home that she could win “in the red districts” and carry the Midwest. Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, a self-made millionaire who last night enjoyed by far the most exposure of his long-running but little-noticed campaign, denounced his liberal rivals for offering “free everything” and “impossible promises,” and vowed that he’d never be like those past losers George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis.

But it may have been two candidates from divergent sides of the ideological spectrum—Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Montana Governor Steve Bullock—who most often soared above the small-arms fire. Warren, who has been both mocked and praised for her plethora of specific policy proposals and plans—truly in the weeds—chose last night to fly mostly at 35,000 feet.

“Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it,” Warren told Tapper when he reminded her that Democratic voters have told pollsters they’d prefer a candidate who can beat President Donald Trump to one they agree with ideologically. “I am not afraid. And for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.” At another point in the night, when Delaney pooh-poohed her support for ideas such as Medicare for All and decriminalizing illegal border crossings, Warren lowered the boom with a withering put-down: “I don’t know why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” And down went Frazier.

No one asked Warren, in so many words, just what she would do to, ahem, make America great again, but over and over, her answers amounted to an emphatic, unambiguous response to that question all the same. More than most of her rivals, Warren seemed to acknowledge that Trump won office in 2016 with a brutally simple macro message—one that easily fits on the front of a baseball cap, and one that, for all its sinister and cynical undertones, was at least partly aspirational for millions of voters.

Bullock, making his debut on the national debate stage after failing to qualify for the first round, in Miami last month, attempted to hit similarly inspirational notes. “I come from a state where a lot of people voted for Donald Trump,” he said in his opening statement. “Let’s not kid ourselves: He will be hard to beat. Yet watching that last debate, folks seem more concerned about scoring points or outdoing each other with wish-list economics than making sure Americans know we hear their voices and will help their lives. Look, I’m a pro-choice, pro-union Democrat that won three elections in a red state, not by compromising our values but by getting stuff done. That’s how we win back the places we lost: showing up, listening, focusing on the challenges of everyday Americans. That farmer getting hit right now by Trump’s trade wars, that teacher working a second job just to afford her insulin—they can’t wait for a revolution. Their problems are in the here and now. I’m a progressive—emphasis on progress—and I’m running for president to get stuff done for all those Americans Washington has left behind.”

Compare that with Buttigieg’s proposals to abolish the Electoral College, pack the Supreme Court, and grant statehood to the District of Columbia—a constitutionally pie-in-the sky set of plans that may be worthy of serious study and academic debate, but that has as much practical chance of imminent passage as an icicle’s chance in Indonesia. Or compare Bullock’s words with Klobuchar’s dogged support of a “public option” for health insurance in lieu of Medicare for All. Or with John Hickenlooper’s pride in signing a law requiring universal background checks for gun owners in Colorado. Those may be worthy ideas (or not), but they don’t add up to a cohesive, compelling message. Especially not in the fractured, hopscotching format of these particular encounters. Politicians may have to govern in prose, in Mario Cuomo’s famous formulation, but the historical bipartisan reality is that they still do best when they campaign in poetry—whether that’s promising a “kinder, gentler” nation, “compassionate conservatism,” “putting people first,” or that “yes we can.”

Marianne Williamson, the New Age author and spiritual adviser, understands this truth. She distilled her differences with Trump—and with the rest of the more “conventional” Democrats onstage—in a plainspoken (albeit florid) sound bite that an expert in political communications might have envied. “Our problem is not just that we need to defeat Trump,” Williamson said in her closing statement. “We need a plan to solve institutionalized hatred, collectivized hatred, and white nationalism. And in order to do that, we need more than political-insider game and wonkiness and intellectual argument. Those things will not defeat Donald Trump. We need some radical truth-telling, not just to talk about health care, but talk about why are we so sick all the time. We need to have a serious conversation about race and what is truly owed. Even on the subject of foreign policy, it’s all about symptoms and not about cause. We need to talk about the fact that the United States has sacrificed its moral leadership.”

Warren, a former law professor, left no doubt as to the thesis of her lecture last night. She displayed a fluid ability to code-shift from granular enumeration of her policies to high-level, aspirational explanations about why her ideas matter in real life. She took advantage of her top-tier status with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as the voice of the party’s progressive wing and chose not to quarrel with him—indeed, they never really disagreed all night—but to broaden her message and appeal.

In his own closing statement, Bullock recalled that growing up in Helena, Montana’s capital, he only knew there was a governor’s house in town “because I delivered newspapers to it.”

“I made it about four blocks in life,” he said, before recounting how he worked his way through college and law school so that he had the chance to go from delivering papers to the governor’s house to raising his own three kids in it. “We have to recognize, for too many people in America, that shot no longer exists,” Bullock said. “For far too many in the country, it never has. I’m running for president to beat Donald Trump, win back the places lost, and make sure that Americans know that where Washington left them behind in the economy and political system, I’ll be there.”

Bullock’s campaign is just getting started, but his unself-conscious invocation of the ghost of Tom Joad—“I’ll be there”—was the kind of line that might have legs. So was his sticking up for hardworking, everyday Americans whose dirty jobs mean they have to “shower at the end of the day.”

Warren’s potential political vulnerabilities—her age, her gender, her progressivism, her claim to Native American heritage, her you-name-it-if-you-don’t-like-her—are obvious enough. But last night, in front of perhaps her biggest televised audience yet, her strengths shone just as apparently.

“Right now, for decades, we have had a government that’s been on the side of the rich and the powerful,” Warren said in her closing statement. “It has been on the side of the wealthy. And that means it hasn’t been on the side of everyone else. Not on the side of people living on the Native American reservations, people living in inner cities, in small farms, and small communities across the country. How do we beat it? We beat it by being the party of big, structural change. Give people a reason to show up and vote.”

The road ahead is long and winding. But at the end of the day on November 3, 2020, voter turnout is all that will really matter, isn’t it?