In the second set of Democratic debates there were 18 politicians, and then there were the other two: the lady talking about how to “actualize” things and the “dark psychic force of collectivized hate,” and the guy who complained about wearing TV makeup and who warned about robots taking people’s jobs and telling people they should move to higher ground because of climate change.
It was a little strange and somewhat refreshing to hear Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang, the only two Democratic candidates to qualify for the debates who have no previous political experience.
Williamson had a breakout moment Tuesday with her passionate speech about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and how it reveals the depth of racial inequality in the US.
Yang had moments Wednesday night when he cracked jokes about being the polar opposite of President Donald Trump because he’s an Asian man who likes math.
Both succeeded in their moments because they were unencumbered by what Williamson referred to as “wonkishness” that won’t solve anyone’s problems.
Neither seems primed to break to the top of the pack in a primary where the No. 1 concern of Democrats is defeating Trump.
But these two successful political civilians (Williamson is an author and Yang is an education entrepreneur) demonstrated it’s possible to engage a political crowd specifically by trying to not sound like a politician.
Yang, for his part, has built his campaign around nontraditional ideas and an issue nobody else is talking about. He backs the idea of a $1,000 universal basic income for all Americans, which he says would begin to help address generations of racial inequality. He’s also intent on addressing what he says is the threat of artificial intelligence to the US workforce.
When he talked about health insurance reform Wednesday, he framed the issue as that of an employer finding it difficult to provide insurance rather than as an individual trying to afford it, which had the effect of pointing out that much of the problem with the US insurance market is that it is tied to where a person works.
Williamson’s books include A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles and Healing the Soul of America. Her major policy proposal is reparations – cash payments – to the descendants of slaves. She’s a self-help author, however, and her statements on depression and vaccinations have raised some eyebrows.
On the one hand, its foolish to dismiss engaging candidates who perform well at a debate. Trump is, after all, President. But the main difference is that Trump was already famous when he ran for President. And not a little bit famous. A lot famous – way more than every Republican he faced in 2016 in the GOP primary. Williamson and Yang are, by comparison, complete unknowns.
People love to hate politicians, whose jobs require them to take positions and defend them. They have to advocate things guaranteed to piss off about half of their constituents. Or more.
Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, spent most of his night at the second debate defending past positions of his long political career and explaining certain elements of President Barack Obama’s legacy.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Kamala Harris of California spent a large portion of the night defending their records as a former mayor of Newark and a former state attorney general.
Politicians are in the business of convincing people that they should give you something very precious – their vote – even though they don’t agree with you on every single thing. Sugarcoating and spin are built into the job description. And that’s why so many politicians end up sounding like, well, politicians. It’s a lot easier to sound refreshing from the outside.
But it’s also true that the politicians in the race have been, to quote Teddy Roosevelt, in the arena. They’re out there. It’s hard for candidates who haven’t ever been part to the gladiatorial fight to jump in and survive for long. Trump notwithstanding.
The challenge for Yang and Williamson is to turn debate exposure into real momentum. Yang appears to be on the cusp of qualifying for the next round of debates in the fall. And if they can gain momentum, they will have to deal with the scrutiny, from journalists and their rivals, that comes with it.
It is when they have to defend or explain past statements or actions that fringe candidates start sounding like politicians.