Then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Unfortunately, too many of the Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning in prose — or, worse, in laundry lists.
You saw the divide in campaign style all last week. Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) gave big, sweeping speeches throwing down the gauntlet on white nationalism and providing a presidential-level vision of unity and common purpose. They both shared their own experiences with grief and loss.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) was a grief counselor for his neighbors and the country, reminding us again and again of El Paso’s resilience and unity. In multiple interviews, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) struck powerful high notes, denouncing President Trump’s role in spurring white nationalism and modeling the sort of moral leadership we expect from a president.
And the rest of the field? All acknowledged the events, denounced Trump’s role in spreading hate and called for gun control. But too many reverted to business as normal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) rolled out a plan for rural America. (Really? That week?) A parade of candidates showed up at the Iowa State Fair soapbox to recite their stump speeches and rattle off a list of policy ideas. (Former secretary of housing and urban development Julián Castro cited his San Antonio sales tax to pay for pre-K schooling, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang hawked his $1,000-per-month guaranteed income.) So often they sounded as though they were running for the legislature — and maybe the state legislature.
At the Friday night Wing Ding event in Clear Lake, Iowa, it was much the same. O’Rourke appeared via video from El Paso to explain he was helping his city make it through the initial grieving process. Booker told the crowd he wasn’t going to talk policy minutiae and gave a shorter version of his Charleston, S.C., speech. (“This is a referendum on us and who we are going to be to each other.”) Harris, who tends toward uplifting rhetoric even in normal times, reiterated that “one of our greatest strengths about who we are as a people is our heart.” Biden, seeming subdued to start, also did a greatest hits from his speech on hate and defeating the “existential threat” that is Trump.
Warren weirdly didn’t even mention El Paso and Dayton, Ohio; instead, she reminded everyone that she now had a rural policy to go with her child-care, student-debt-cancellation and zillion other plans. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) mentioned defeating white nationalism and ending racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and “all the other phobias that this president exhibits,” before reverting to his usual patter about Wall Street and corporate interests. Many of the other candidates also relied on their usual stump speech and reeled off a list of issues.
Don’t get me wrong: I want the candidates to have policy ideas. But we’ve learned that obsessing over the details of these plans and inducing candidates to quibble over their differences is of limited value, both because the plans as presented won’t ever be passed and because the differences between the candidates (maybe with the exception of health care and how much free college tuition they’re willing to dispense) is tiny. Basically all of them want to transition to a green-energy economy, pass comprehensive immigration reform, ban assault weapons, pay teachers more, pursue criminal justice reform, protect abortion rights and reenter the Paris climate agreement. The policy lists are most useful insofar as they tell us who to weed out on electability grounds (e.g., the candidates who want to abolish private health insurance).
More important than policy lists, especially at the time we see a president behaving in crass, disgusting ways and utterly incapable of fulfilling the job of consoler and unifier, is seeing how these candidates would inhabit the role of president. They are not running for assistant to the president for legislative affairs. They are running for head of state and leader of the free world. They should show us how they would perform on the world stage in those capacities.
Who can best attack Trump in a way that galvanizes the most voters? Who has a vision of U.S. leadership in the world? Who understands the need to rebuild trust and repair institutions? Who do we want in our living room and on our social media for four years? Candidates must show themselves to be big enough for the job, to talk to us as they would if they were president already, so we can try them on for size.
So far, a few of the more than 20 candidates seem plausible as the nominee and president. The others need to supersize themselves. Bigger heart, bigger vision. And more poetry, please.