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.
David A. Graham: Elizabeth Warren’s big night
“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.”