In Middlemarch, Mr. Casaubon labors over The Key to All Mythologies, a book that he hopes will prove "all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed." It recently occurred to me that (without destroying my marriage and going insane in the process) something similar might be done with this year's presidential debates, which always feature the same annoying tropes repeated by pretty much everyone on the stage.
Here are the six most annoying ones I identified at the third Democratic debate.
This is not exclusive to the Democratic presidential contest, or indeed to politicians, but it is or should be universally acknowledged that any time someone says "Let me be clear" or (worse, I think because it invites the rest of us to participate in our own deception), "Let's be clear," what follows is going to be the most bewildering nonsense. So naturally we heard it over and over again at the third debate. At one point, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.) used some version of the phrase five times between them in the course of roughly half as many minutes. "Let's be clear about health care." As opposed to what — lie about it?
Many of the worst obfuscators employ yet another variation, the dreaded "Let me be very clear," which is what Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) said before proceeding to insist that all of the perfectly accurate things the moderators had said about her ever-evolving views on criminal justice reform were not true. But the most dangerous of all are the ones who perform essentially the same rhetorical move without conveniently tipping us off by employing the usual words. When former Vice President Joe Biden says "This is about candor, honesty, big ideas," or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), in response to an accurate summary of her record as a prosecutor, claims "That's not my record," they mean exactly the opposite. "Don't just say a big statement," Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) urged his fellow candidates, "back it up with details," which he then proceeded not to give. Was he deliberately trying to insult viewers, or does he actually think this kind of performative anti-clarity is effective?
First past the post
Why is it that politicians think we care about who came up with what idea when? Over and over again we heard the candidates brag about how they were the first to suggest such-and-such position. Booker said he was "the first to come out for gun licensing." Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro informed us that he was "the first candidate in early April to put forward an immigration plan" and "the first to put forward a police reform plan." I have no idea whether either of these things is true — there are no time stamps on campaign websites — but even if they were, who gives a toss?
Meanwhile, Harris banged on about how while serving as California's attorney general she was able "to create one of the first in the nation [sic] initiatives that was a model and became a national model around people who were arrested for drugs and getting them jobs" and "one of the first in the nation [sic] trainings for a police officer on the issue of racial bias and the need to reform the system." Never mind the unwieldy syntax or the distinct unlikelihood that she helped to pioneer the concept of drug rehabilitation or halfway houses or training meant to overcome racial bias in law enforcement, all of which existed long before she was elected in 2011. So what if it were true? All that matters is whether the ideas are any good, not when you arrived at them in relation to your colleagues.
A related — and distinctly more annoying — aspect of this trope is the groan-inducing declaration that you are going to do this or that "within the first hundred days" of your presidency or even — sigh — on your "first day in office." Thus Harris: "I plan on shutting down for-profit prisons on day one." No, you don't. Even assuming there were some kind of constitutional mechanism for carrying out such an action via executive order, it would take months and perhaps even years — fighting legal challenges all the way up to the Supreme Court, finding new publicly administered facilities for inmates, and roughly six million other things — before privately run prisons could be "shut down."
It is worth pointing out that the moderators were part of the problem here. At one point in the evening, George Stephanopoulos asked Andrew Yang: "Would you repeal [President Trump's] tariffs on your first day in office?" Because he is a mostly sensible person, Yang responded, "I would not." Journalistic eagerness to encourage these goons in making absurd promises should remind us that our political system is meant to reward politicians not for many things and that demonstrating their ability to handle the messy business of actually governing is not one of them.
I decided to look into the question of what the last few presidents have in fact done on day one. The first thing former President Barack Obama did, within minutes, in fact, of taking the Oath of Office, was to halt a number of mostly unimportant last-minute executive orders made by former President George W. Bush. Which was exactly what Bush himself did on January 20, 2001, with outgoing directives from his predecessor, former President Bill Clinton, who in January 1993 presumably did the same, etc. As far as I am aware, no president in American history has ever done anything of significance on his first day in office, for the not-very-surprising reason that the first day is mostly spent going to parties with campaign donors. Give it a rest.
Like the fairy-tale heroine — whom I have always quietly regarded as little more than a petty trespasser and thief — centrist Democrats insist on things being neither too hot nor too cold but just right. Klobuchar, with whom the moderators inexplicably began on Thursday, exemplified what I am talking about when she said:
You're going to hear a lot of ideas up here. Some will be great. But if you see that some of them seem a little off-track, I've got a better way. If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you've got a home with me, because I don't want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America. [Sen. Amy Klobuchar]
In common with all of the tropes I have identified here, this kind of talk is an attempt to suggest something very profound and sensible without saying, well, anything. The actual substance of her opponents' policies — on health care, gun control, immigration, and so on — matter far less to candidates like Klobuchar than the empty ritual of insisting that hers lie precisely in the middle of them.
This was true of the other Goldilocks candidates as well. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that he has "ideas that are bold enough to meet the challenges of our time, but big enough, as well, that they could unify the American people." What he really means is "Me! Me! Pick me!" When Booker insists that "we cannot sacrifice progress on the altar of purity," the only thing being offered up to the heavens is, or should be, the audience's patience.
The Goldilocks phenomenon was most pronounced when it came to health care. With the exceptions of Sanders and Warren, all the candidates who claim to support Medicare-for-all also insist that private health insurance should remain exactly as it is for those of us who wish to continue giving away large portions of our incomes to major corporations because on the off chance that we come down with cancer, they will only waste 20 hours of our time insisting that the unpaid portion of the hospital bill is already taken care of. (Biden claims there are 160 million of us).
This is a cheap heads-I-win, tails-you-lose sort of tactic. They hope it will allow them to please both earnest grassroots progressives and the party's donor class. It does neither. "The problem, Senator Sanders, with that damn bill that you wrote, and that Senator Warren backs, is that it doesn't trust the American people," Buttigieg whined to Sanders. "I trust you to choose what makes the most sense for you. Not my way or the highway." Likewise Harris: "So, under my Medicare-for-all plan, people have the choice of a private plan or a public plan, because that's what people want. And I agree, we shouldn't take choice from people." Both of them obviously understood that they are engaged in a deliberate equivocation. Only Beto O'Rourke, with the adolescent literalism that has been the defining feature of his campaign, actually went right out and said it: "The option I'm proposing is Medicare-for-all—Medicare-for-choice." Does he know the meanings of the English words "all" and "choice"?
"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," Booker insisted. This is only true if you actually have any gum.
Keep Calm and Barry On
Every Democrat who appeared on Thursday was full of kind words for Obama, including those like Sanders who disagreed with him on everything from trade to foreign policy to health care. Throwing a bone at your party's most esteemed living member makes sense. Pretending that you are the unique inheritor of some heavenly mandate does not. It wasn't so bad at first, when Castro was simply pointing out that Biden was not the only person there who has had a working relationship with the former president, but it quickly devolved into an argument about who was really Barry's bestie. "I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you're not," Castro all but shouted at Biden, who replied, "That'll be a surprise to him."
Guys, I hate to tell you this, but Obama's main legacy was, you know, actually winning both a tough primary election and the presidency — twice. Good luck carrying that on.
Being nice to Beto
Saying lots of nice things about Obama during a Democratic primary debate is, as I say, not unreasonable. The indie rock guy who couldn't beat Ted Cruz? Not so much. Maybe the other candidates recognize that Beto's days on the debate stage are numbered and are doing their best not to alienate his vast online army of people who like watching political candidates go to the dentist. Or maybe they just feel bad for him and were being polite, the same way that you say something nice about the person at the office with the awful-looking new haircut? The world may never know, but it was such an oddly insistent feature of Thursday's debate that I could not help noticing when Booker ("I'm happy that people like Beto O'Rourke are showing such courage now and coming forward and also now supporting licensing") and Biden ("The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful" — as opposed to meaningless?) and Klobuchar ("I so appreciate what the congressman's been doing") and the others took their turns.
"Come on, people, now"
This is the worst of the tropes. It is essentially the culmination of all the others: a nihilistic synthesis that should have made any red-blooded American watching throw his TV through a window. I cannot count how many times my wife and I groaned hearing the candidates assure us that really this whole debate thing was quite silly and that they all actually agree about pretty much everything important and we're all just getting along swimmingly in this best of all possible worlds.
It is worth pointing out that none of the three frontrunners — Biden, Warren, or Sanders — had any part in the yuckfest, presumably because they in fact have distinct identities as candidates. Everyone else, though, made a huge point of saying things like "I believe that what unites us up here, the 10 of us, is much stronger than what divides us" (Klobuchar) and "The differences among us Democrats on the stage are not as great as the urgency for us to unite as a party" (Booker) and "Everybody on this stage, I do believe, is well intentioned [sic] and wants that all Americans have coverage" (Harris) and "I'm grateful that we all agree" (O'Rourke) and "Look, everyone, we know we're on the same team here" (Yang) and so on ad taedium. Klobuchar, who is tied for dead last in the polls among the candidates actually invited on Thursday night, was far and away the most frequent offender. "Everyone up here favors an assault weapon ban. Everyone up here favors magazine limitations," she declared. "A house divided cannot stand. And that is not how we're going to win this."
At one point Buttigieg got too carried away: "This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other, 'My plan, your plan.' Look, we all have different visions for what is better!" Castro was quick with the funniest rejoinder of the evening: "Yeah, that's called the Democratic primary election, Pete."
The day that at least nine of these people are no longer daily television fixtures cannot come soon enough.
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