But, again and again, this impossibly youthful 67-year-old with a comical patrician accent broke through with a cut-the-crap sensibility. She kept pushing her higher-profile competitors to think, and talk, in deeper perspective and sweeping context.
Goaded by CNN’s Jake Tapper, the candidates spent the first half hour of the debate — the only part of the 2.5-hour extravaganza many will have seen — arguing angrily about their competing health plans. It was desultory, and about as practical as debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
Then came Williamson. “Everything that we’re talking about here tonight is what’s wrong with American politics,” she said. “When it — when we’re talking about health care, we need to talk about more than just the health-care plan.” She advised against getting hung up committing to a Medicare-for-all plan, “because if that’s our big fight, then the Republicans will so shut us down on everything else.”
The other nine on the stage resumed their squabbles, making big deals of small differences, until fairness required a question be directed at Williamson — as chance would have it, about the Flint, Mich., water crisis. She drew applause for saying this “would not have happened in Grosse Pointe,” a wealthy Michigan enclave, then brought this back to her theme: “This is part of the dark underbelly of American society, the racism, the bigotry. And the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight — if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
Williamson went on: “We need to say it like it is. It’s bigger than Flint. It’s all over this country, it’s particularly people of color. It’s particularly people who do not have the money to fight back. And if the Democrats don’t start saying it, then why would those people feel that they’re there for us? And if those people don’t feel it, they won’t vote for us, and Donald Trump will win.”
Bingo. She seemed to grasp what others on the stage didn’t as they argued over small differences. As Trump proved in 2016, voters don’t much care about 10-point policy plans — what Williamson calls “wonkiness” — nor even about whether a politician’s promises are realistic. They like candidates who speak plainly and passionately.
In a sense, Williamson has the luxury of speaking plainly and passionately because she has zero chance of being the Democratic nominee. But those who do might take notice, and stop squabbling about the finer points.
Asked about her plan to make college free for all, including children of the wealthy, Williamson turned against the wonks again. “I’ve heard some people here tonight, I almost wonder why you’re Democrats," she said. "You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people. That is what government should do.”
Asked about gun safety, likewise, she turned against her competitors, saying that because they accept contributions from corporate donors, “I don’t think the Democratic Party should be surprised that so many Americans believe yada, yada, yada.”
Her ideas are, often, utterly impractical. On guns, she blithely proposed a constitutional amendment. Otherwise, “it’s just the same old, same old.” On slavery reparations, she said, “anything less than a hundred billion dollars is an insult and $200 billion to $500 billion is politically feasible.”
But she’s right about one big thing, which she returned to in the closing moments of the debate. “Our problem is not just that we need to defeat Donald Trump,” she said. “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.”
Williamson will not be the Democratic nominee. But hopefully the one who will be is taking note.