Elizabeth Warren won Wednesday night’s debate, as most everyone seems to agree. She scored by far the sharpest hits, on nearly everyone at one point or another, but mostly on Mike Bloomberg: his NDAs, his sexist comments (“horse-faced lesbians!”), and more. Obviously sensing that it may be the bottom of the ninth for her, she threw everything she had against the wall.
A lot of them threw a lot of stuff against the wall. Actually, a lot of them threw a lot of stuff against Bloomberg, who seemed astonishingly unprepared for the questions about the work environment he’d created. Some of them didn’t like a joke I made? My God. He did have one good moment—his climate change answer. But beyond that, he was terrible.
So the debate was feisty. But it was feisty the way a bus careening off the road is feisty. I left not energized by the high voltage on display but underwhelmed and on edge and convinced that none of them is likely to beat Donald Trump. I didn’t hear anyone make the case Democrats need to make to win. I didn’t hear anyone paint an optimistic picture of a better America.
Let’s cut to the closing statements, which is where they had a little more time and chance to say something that the people who’ve spent two hours staring at this shout-fest might remember. Amy Klobuchar did all right, with that riff about heart. Pete Buttigieg said nothing memorable. Warren started out well, talking about her impoverished childhood, and ended with a vow to fight, which is an OK rhetorical choice. Bloomberg said the presidency is a managerial job. Joe Biden also spoke of his childhood, then the Americans being left behind; not bad. Then he remembered that he needed to attack Bernie Sanders on a certain immigration vote, so he did that. Then Sanders gave his usual closing sermonette on inequality, which is fine, but he always has that bombastic edge to him.
I really couldn’t believe that no one decided to use those last two minutes to say, OK, I’m going to step out of this mud we’ve been wrestling in and just floor people with something in a totally different gear. I’m going to talk about the America of my dreams, of Democrats’ collective dreams, and forget about legislation and statistics and invite people to step with me into a different and better future.
Fine, say it sounds corny. But the best candidates do it. Winners do it. Even after exchanging blows for two hours. I think of the best presidential candidates of my adult lifetime, in chronological order: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. They all knew how to hit that optimism card. Maybe I’m misremembering and they did it only in speeches and not in debate closing arguments. But I don’t think so. Their riff was their riff, and they played it at every gig.
None of these people exude any optimism. Sanders does class anger. He does it eloquently. He had another good debate; he hasn’t really had a bad one except for the one right before his heart attack, when he was beet-red and crankier than normal, but even that one wasn’t awful. He’s good because, well, because he has a loud, booming voice, and he can shout over most everyone else. But he’s also good because he speaks in these moral absolutes that work very well in this time-straitened and pugilistic format. You can picture him talking exactly the same way at a Burlington zoning board meeting 30 years ago, when he must have sounded completely ridiculous. But in these debates, it works. And he and his people think of things. He thought to mention that Bloomberg had endorsed Dubya. No one else did.
So he does things well. But he does not do optimism. He can barely smile. Smiling is the only time he looks insincere. None of the rest of them really do either. Buttigieg comes closest. This is what his boosters see, maybe, when they compare him to Obama, which—let’s face it—is a reach. Klobuchar? Kind of, but not really. Biden tries sometimes, but it’s been hackneyed when he has; he has offered a bunch of generalities about our greatness rather than a vision unique to him.
Optimism wins, folks. Experience tells us it’s what people want. Most of the time. I guess they didn’t want it in 2016, but four years of Voldemort at the helm should make most people want optimism all the more. And the Democrats aren’t offering it.
Maybe there’s still time for all that. But maybe they’re not offering it because they don’t feel it. Maybe Trump has done this to the candidates, and to all of us. Maybe Trump’s America just isn’t a place that a liberal (or a leftist) can feel optimistic about in any way. But that way lies defeat, and that, rather than the gutsy punching and counterpunching, is mostly what I saw tonight.