The Democratic candidates for president get high marks for good behavior in last week’s debate — at least by comparison. On the very day that we witnessed a marathon of edgy testimony in the Trump impeachment hearings, we also watched 10 prospective presidents conduct themselves with civility and decency. This should be the standard among teams of rivals, not the exception.
Gordon Sondland, the E.U. ambassador who testified for hours on Nov. 27 before that night’s debate, managed to finally speak the truth on his third try before the House Intelligence Committee (and with looming perjury charges as truth serum). He offered chapter and verse on the entire U.S./Ukraine debacle, pulling President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of lesser wise guys down with him.
As the hearing proceeded, we saw the worst of partisan posturing, with hostile questions couched in the fakery of procedural language, “yielding to the gentleman” and “gentlewoman” and so forth. The exquisite and markedly insincere politeness of some questioners alternated with aggressive and accusative hectoring by others. In particular, Rep. Devin Nunes, of California, seemed to be channeling an alternate universe, repeatedly attacking witnesses who spoke with authority about Trump’s alleged bribery of the president of Ukraine.
Nunes’s indignation and manufactured outrage seemed to be beaming into the chamber from Pluto. Was he not hearing what the witnesses were saying, or was he not listening, or didn’t it matter? Those who spoke in Trump’s defense seemed infected by the same crass insincerity. Even as they attacked the witnesses to Trump’s malfeasance, their words seemed perfunctory and hollow, as if they were trying desperately to feel outrage on his behalf but couldn’t quite get there.
I was struck by the manifest nastiness of some questioners on both sides of the aisle, compared with the general decorum of the Democratic debate that night. On the debate stage, there were no veiled references to four-letter words, as there often are when quoting the president. There were no mean-spirited attacks on anyone’s gender or height or level of stamina or face. No one called anyone else a dog or a pig.
In fact, I heard one candidate say he would reach out not only to Democrats across the political spectrum, but also to Republicans in an effort to build a big tent.
I actually heard references to climate change, women’s reproductive rights, poverty, farmers and gun laws. The candidates talked about immigrants not as a scourge, but as vital to the growth of the American economy.
I heard words like “equality” and “human rights” and “progress.” I heard wit and humor; there were good-natured jabs and mutually supportive comments. At one point, Sen. Cory Booker noted that former Vice President Joe Biden had said that marijuana was a “gateway” drug. Booker joked that Biden must have been high when he said that, implying that the “gateway” scenario is out of step with recent thinking about marijuana.
It was an LOL moment when Booker said it, although Biden looked vexed or perhaps didn’t know how to react. Still it was a light exchange. The candidates seemed to be taking the issues and themselves seriously, but not so seriously as to be insufferable nerds. (Except Elizabeth Warren, who embraces her nerdhood.)
There was no real mean-spiritedness that I could discern. Conversely, there is hardly a time that Trump and his allies speak that we don’t hear trash talk about a perceived enemy.
During the Democratic debate I heard words like “research,” “science,” “children,” “negotiation” and “peace.” As I listened to the candidates, I didn’t experience the toxic anxiety that possesses me during the hearings testimony. I didn’t feel the revulsion I felt in 2015, when Trump was running for the GOP nomination among a huge field, and used the opportunity to belittle and demean his rivals. I didn’t suffer the embarrassment I feel whenever the president’s rallies are televised and I hear the coded language he deploys to thread racism and sexism into his speeches.
I understand that a debate isn’t the same arena as a hearing, and they’re both radically different from a rally. Still, all three serve as forums for adversarial political philosophies and candidates who are trying to best one another. The notable difference last week was that the Democratic candidates took a refreshing high road, while the Republicans in Congress punched low and hard, defending the indefensible.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.