The only downside to being a Democrat in this election cycle—besides the looming, horrible fear that we could lose the White House, the only major segment of the American government that is currently controlled by this party—is that while the primary process for the Republicans is a continued race to the bottom, the primary process for this party is a careful, shades-of-gray conversation about different versions of progressivism. It’s not a conversation with a lot of fireworks, although certainly both candidates’ supporters have their own exciting hashtags. Instead, after tonight’s Democratic presidential candidates town hall on CNN, hosted by Anderson Cooper, one is left feeling a little listless and introspective, pondering the difference between campaigning and policymaking, integrity and the appearance of it, “I am but dust and ashes” and “the world was created for me.”
That last dichotomy was presented by a rabbi in the audience—Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire, to be exact. Per CNN’s transcript:
Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets, and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.
I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have—a person must have to be the leader of the free world—and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?
Spira-Savett’s question is one of balance, which is discussed more here, and it was directed specifically at former Secretary Hillary Clinton—meaning that each candidate’s half of the town hall contained a sprinkle of Jewish spirituality. It is a totally bizarre question to ask a presidential candidate. It’s difficult to imagine a question about the fundamental struggles of being a person directed at either Donald Trump or Sen. Marco Rubio, while Megyn Kelly and Dr. Ben Carson looked on. But it was kind of a glorious one, too, and one that gets to the heart of why Democrats are Democrats. Being president is not just about winning, as Trump has repeatedly insisted it is. It’s about maintaining both your own humanity and the humanity of those you’re serving, and that is a wrenching tension that has grayed the hair of every president since Reagan.
The rabbi asked about finding a way between two apparent polar opposites, and that is a question that came up again and again last night. Moderate and progressive; big money and small donations. Likability and electability and viability and longevity. Appearance and reality. [Sen. Bernie Sanders chuckled when Cooper asked him about his Larry David impersonation. “Are you doing your Larry David right now?” the moderator asked. “I am Larry David,” Sanders retorted.] Sanders has a tendency to appear hectoring, while Clinton appears defensive; both were at their relative best, which included falling back on their own well-worn talking points from time to time. Clinton experienced some hiccups, because she’s under the delusion that she deserves the presidency. Sanders avoided questions about process, because his campaign rests on the enthusiasm for revolution, not the aftermath. Neither has the sheer charisma of Bill Clinton or the youthful enthusiasm of Barack Obama; both raise serious questions they haven’t quite yet answered.
But both are tolerable candidates. The town hall was transported to an alternate universe where these aren’t just our primary candidates, they’re our candidates, period; where we have the luxury of choosing between two sane and well-intentioned humans to be our next president. The Republican candidates barely came up at all, in either the questions or the responses. Instead Clinton and Sanders discussed their policies, each other, and when absolutely necessary, themselves—with more calm and honesty than either have delivered since this primary began. The town hall was about bringing together opposites and having a reasonable discussion about them, but outside, the storm that is going to be the general election is beginning to whip up to fever pitch, just like that blizzard that is apparently opening up over New Hampshire on Election Day.
Last night’s show was a little oasis of taking the measure of shades of gray, in an election where my choice, at least, is made mostly by other people. The dream of the town hall is a nice one, too, a bubble separate from the dust and ashes that make up most of American politics.