Tuesday night’s debate was messy and at times outrageous – good stuff. People have been bashing the moderators for letting things get out of hand, but it’s good to see how candidates will function in the face of open hostility. They’re going to face a lot of it. Everyone of them were putting it all out there – fighting to prove themselves – not always making sense, but always trying to connect with the voters. We're in the last leg of this marathon and the runners are starting their kick. Some are going to fall-down, some are going to get jostled a bit, some will ware-down and others will rise to the top. It’s all good. It’s a winnowing process.
The best question of the evening came toward the end of the debate when Gayle King asked each contestant what they thought was the greatest misconception about them. It was a brilliant question for two reasons. First, it afforded the contestants an opportunity to take on their biggest negative and address it directly – convince us we're wrong about them. Second, it opened a window into each candidate’s empathy for the voters. What do the people really think of me? The question was a pure opportunity to be brilliant.
Two candidates tried to make it a joke and missed the point entirely. Elizabeth Warren suggested that people don’t think she eats enough. No, people think Elizabeth is dishonest. It was a perfect chance to address the elephant in the room. She should have apologized for her mistakes, made an appeal for forgiveness and got back on track. Instead, she left a big card un-played. Bloomberg also cracked a joke that people think he’s six feet tall. No, people think he’s trying to buy the nomination for President, and that he’s not really a Democrat. Of course, he could never get there, because it’s true.
The rest of the field played it straight and tried to answer the question directly. Tom Steyer was the only one that got the right misconception. He said, “He was defined by his business success and money.” That is exactly what people think of him. He is purely a guy who was a very successful businessman, and because of that success, he thinks he understands government and politics and deserves to be President. Unfortunately, he didn’t have an answer as to why that perception was wrong.
Mayor Pete was too clever by half. He suggested that people don’t think he’s passionate. Not true. They think he doesn't have the gravitas for the job – that he’s a smart but inexperienced kid. He did put together some nice bullshit, which he does beautifully, but because he got the wrong misconception, he missed the opportunity to address people’s real concern.
Amy Klobuchar, the contestant with the least empathy of any candidate on the stage, suggested the greatest misconception about her was that she was boring. Wrong, people think she’s a try-hard who never quite relates to other people – like a high school overachiever who doesn’t know how to have fun. It was a nice enough answer, but again a missed opportunity.
Old Joe never quite got to a misconception. He could have talked about his stuttering or his age and inability to keep up with the rigors of the campaign, and then turned it all around and talked about his many years of dedicated service to the Party and the country. He could have tugged at our hearts and our sense of loyalty, but somehow lost it all in the fog.
Bernie Sanders had the most to gain with the question, but instead pulled-out his stump speech segment on not being a radical and fell-back on his standard non sequitur justification. It was okay, but he missed an incalculable opportunity. He could have explained in no uncertain terms that he is not a communist. He could have focused on dreams of a better, more fair society and government. He could have focused on the huge numbers of young people energized by his campaign. He could have explained how democracy will move us forward together, and he could have disavowed any allegiance toward Marxist ideology. For whatever reason, he didn't.
For all the missed opportunities, it was exciting to see all the passion pour out on that stage this week. For the most part, we have a slate of committed candidates who want what’s best for this country. A week from today, everything will look a lot different, and we’ll begin to start figuring out how to move forward together.
Photo courtesy of pbs.org.