Protecting troops deployed overseas. Cherishing the Constitution. Defending the rule of law. Without exception, the 12 Democratic presidential candidates who took the debate stage in Ohio tonight pitched themselves as the True American Patriots who will restore the country’s dignity after four years of President Donald Trump.
In an election season driven by ambitious, populist proposals and vicious tweets, this rhetoric stood out: It’s a callback to an older, putatively more civilized time in Washington, when everyone agreed on the president’s role as the leader of the free world.
In today’s angry political climate, are voters still looking for a message of statesmanship?
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg led the way with an abundance of patriotic rhetoric. In Buttigieg’s telling, Trump’s recent decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria and abandon America’s Kurdish allies has left the people deployed overseas asking, “What the hell happened to American leadership?” When he was in the military, Buttigieg said, “I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country that kept its word.” Now, he said, soldiers are feeling ashamed of their country for the first time because of Trump’s actions.
This is a remarkable reversal from the kind of rhetoric Democrats were using even a decade ago during the 2008 primary, in the midst of America’s wildly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buttigieg appears no fan of endless war—he has sharply criticized America’s many military entanglements in previous debates. But during tonight’s debate, he aggressively claimed the mantle of patriotism, and by extension, presidential leadership.
“When we abandon the international stage, and when we think our only choices are between endless war or total isolation,” Buttigieg said, “the consequence is the disappearance of U.S. leadership.”
Buttigieg wasn’t the only candidate to call for a return to classic American statesmanship. At the beginning of the debate, as each candidate explained why House Democrats should pursue an impeachment inquiry against the president, several invoked the sacredness of the Constitution itself.
“Our Framers imagined this moment, a moment where we would have a corrupt president,” Senator Kamala Harris of California said. “And our Framers then rightly designed our system of democracy to say there will be checks and balances. This is one of those moments. And so Congress must act.”
Impeaching Trump is not about partisanship, added Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts: “Sometimes, there are issues that are bigger than politics.”
On many key issues—Medicare for All, taxes, immigration—the Democratic Party is wrestling with itself over what it is and what it wants to become. It’s also figuring out how far it wants to push the limits of America’s political discourse.
And even though those disagreements are intense, it seems that the major candidates agree on a fundamental concept: American democracy has suffered under Trump, and the next president must work to restore some of the old ways of politics. In a political era defined by anger about the so-called D.C. swamp, this rhetoric is a bold bet that voters may not want to take down traditional Washington as much as they say.