As a newcomer, I am fascinated by the position of New Hampshire in the presidential campaign. Although I like politics, I do not enjoy the sporting aspect of it: campaign as horse race. So far I have attended events by Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke at the Common Man, and this past Saturday I listened to Andrew Wang at the Sugar River Valley Technical Center in Claremont. Warren and O’Rourke seemed very handled and rehearsed, Warren more so. Both of them sought to be inspiring by being very passionate. I don’t really want a passionate president; I want a rational, competent president who knows how to get things done.
Warren kept telling the crowd how she was going fight for them. She has demonstrated consistent feistiness at confirmation hearings and other committee meetings where she grills — effectively and dramatically — clueless bankers and other evil suit-wearing men. It was disappointing to see her try to kick it up a notch as a candidate only to come off as a bit stagey and obvious.
O’Rourke gets a lot of mileage out of being boyish. His boundless (and bounding) energy seems quite authentic, and he repeatedly emphasized that he was determined to meet as many people as possible face-to-face. People in the hinterlands have been ignored, he said, and if he shows up and listens to them that would make a difference. I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe they’ll vote for you and you’ll get to be president. Then what? You’ll just keep meeting people?’ I had more than enough of the “I feel your pain” stuff in the ‘90s, thank you very much.
That a campaign should somehow be a cross between a circus act and melodrama seems like very colonial thing. The Europeans don’t really go in for a lot of histrionics while running for office. Exceptions include former Soviet republics where, for example, a Ukrainian comedian and actor best known for playing a president on television was just elected president of the Ukraine. All I can say is, good luck.
I remember being in Mexico during a campaign in spring 1983. It wasn’t the general election, but some sort of state election. There were posters plastered on every inch of public walls and in many towns several cars with speakers on the roofs trawled through town blaring campaign slogans and martial music. I get the impression that elections in India are pretty raucous too. Mexico, India, the United States, you know, all the former colonies.
So, Andrew Yang caught me off guard. The other two candidates had spoken to packed rooms in the cushiness of the Common Man (a sort of ironic name, if you think too hard about it), but Yang spoke to 25 people at 9 a.m. in a cinderblock-walled room with a white board. And yet he was more compelling, not just because the setting was different. His whole approach was different. John Streeter, the vice chair of the Sullivan County Democrats, put his finger right on it when he said the other candidates appealed to emotion, but Yang made you think.
While Warren and O’Rourke had given traditional stump speeches and then taken questions, Yang treated his appearance like it was a business seminar and everyone in the room was in the same business he was: being an American. He would introduce a topic and, sincerely and without condescension, ask his audience, “So, what do you think?” We would take in each response and add it to the argument he was building. In this way he made everyone who supplied an answer feel like they had helped make the point.
Yang wasn’t afraid to paddle against the zeitgeist either. He refused to make a big deal out of climate change. Both Warren and O’Rourke were quick to invoke fears of environmental Armageddon: “We have to do something!” Instead, in response to a young person’s question about the topic, he doubled back to his central thesis, which is well summed up by the title of his book “The War on Normal People.” Your average American, he said, is not willing to make sacrifices to fight climate change because they constantly feel so close to the economic edge in their everyday lives.
Yang readily and calmly said that as president he would rejoin the Paris Accords, which is simply a government action, and within his power. But to get a majority of Americans to change the way they live, an important component of addressing climate change, he wants to stabilize their lives first, something he thought the government could and should do. In a sense he argued if a bunch of people aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, you won’t convince many of them to switch to veganism.
But sure enough, when I questioned an 18-year-old afterward, the first-time voter told me that Yang had not impressed him, primarily because his non-fervent stance on climate change. Also, they said Yang was simply not popular enough; they wanted to back a winner.
There’s that horse race again. Sigh.
Bill Chaisson is the editor of the Eagle Times and likes voting but has rarely managed to vote for a winner.