It took me two nights to watch Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) town hall on MSNBC. This isn’t Kirsten Gillibrand’s fault. Parts of it were excellent, parts were superficially uncomfortable, and parts of it were suitably vague. The first night I simply made the mistake of trying to watch it while staggeringly high, which is, again, not her fault.
(Strictly speaking, that last part’s the Trump campaign and presidency’s fault. A calming and amiable drug that temporarily induces stretches of buzzing anxiety and sheer terror seemed a friendlier and more socially attuned party response to the Spectacle of Trump than the self-centered rage-melancholy of drink, and anyway I’d cut that back to the occasional neighbor’s barbecue for heath reasons. It’s not without its downsides, frequently stoked by MSNBC—like the inability to hear Brian Williams’s martially drumming theme song without thinking that the rolling beats are saying, “Trooooo-ooooops tra-tra-tra troops / Trooooo-ooooops tra-tra-ta troops,” and then remembering the time that Trump hit Syria with 59 cruise missiles, and Williams quoted Leonard Cohen while stripping him of meaning, saying, “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons,” and then realizing that if MSNBC ever makes a hosts calendar, Brian Williams will get June, for D-Day, and he will be naked and coiled like a serpent around the barrel of a 5”/54 caliber Mark 45 gun on an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, and every social media timeline for the week after its release will be blog after blog with names like The Brunch running headlines like, “Brian Williams Is Ready To Shoot,” and there’ll be a Slate Gabfest about it that concludes it is okay to objectify him. I’m not high right now.)
That first night, Gillibrand’s energy triggered a primal discomfort stoked by years of judging Dramatic Interpretation at high school forensics tournaments. She came out of the gate fast and amped, and it made me feel the contact-anxiety of sitting six feet from tremulously voiced high school sophomores about to vibrate out of their blue Men’s Wearhouse blazers from riding the adrenal high between mastery and terror. A phantom twitch in my right arm made me want to start writing “slow down!” on my ballot. I changed the TV to something gently insipid, but I should have stuck with it. Like a lot of performers I judged, including many very naturally gifted ones, Gillibrand’s surge subsided after a few minutes. She’d settled somewhere much closer to mastery than its opposite—at an admittedly robust clip—and those early shakes were gone. The glands are at fault, and they will not maintain that velocity.
But here’s the thing: As long as we’re going to start out superficial for the impaired television viewer’s set of needs, let’s stay superficial. Because half of what you read in the Post or the Times or see on cable for the next 19 months will be tortured and polysyllabic ways of saying but what about the optics?, and because I was that Drama/Debate judge who neurotically filled out the entire ballot with comments, let me put on my “gets paid $250/year writing columns for a large east coast publication and pockets another $200k speaking to the Center for Houthi Genocide about What The App Store Can Teach Us About Unlocking Potential” blazer and write a gimmick column scoring this round:
• It’s been, like, 18 years, I don’t remember what the weird scoring system was, so forget about that.
• Also, I can’t rank the round, since not everyone has had a town hall, let alone the same questions or format, but just for the sake of fun I started to in my head, and suddenly I understood how the columnist I mentioned above winds up writing his quarterly insane election scenario column. You know the one. It’s like an old pro-wrestling dirt-sheet fantasy-booking piece that always seemed to boil down to, “Okay, so first [career charisma-allergic Canadian of average build] wins the Royal Rumble via gimmick ending to set up a title match at WrestleMania with [giant meathead who everyone but the person writing this column knows is never going to lose].” This person is still writing some variation on the here’s how Donald Trump can become more presidential column, and a residual electric tremor in his right hand still will be even after the bullet exits the other side of his head and the squad moves onto the next cubicle.
• This format was a bad idea. Anyway:
• “Excellent posture!”
• “SLOW DOWN!” There’s nothing wrong with speaking fast. As my mom once said in grade school to a drawling teacher who told her she talked too fast: no, you just listen too slow. But—while I suspect there is a great silent majority who may not understand everything their politicians say but would much rather they said them at a pace faster than one for panning the book around the preschool circle so aaallllll the kids can see the pictures after every line—the trouble with starting fast and keeping fast as your baseline is that you can’t ever go faster. If you start running out of time, you’re already near peak speed. When you need something to be rapid and insistent, there isn’t really a higher gear. It’s like judging figure skating: If you give the first skater a 10, what happens when the next one’s better? Speed badly exposes those moments when the brain or tongue locks up and the ideas and words suddenly won’t come, or they stumble and trip coming out of the chamber. And you can’t go big without going loud, and then what happens if the next question demands you go even bigger than that? Pace is a tool. It has more uses the more settings you use on it.
• “EMOTION! GOOD!” Gillibrand’s voice got a little quavery on two different occasions, and that groaning you hear like the sound of the planks of an old wooden ship twisting in a pre-storm current is your brain anticipating a primary full of policing of women’s emotions by the standards of macho behavior. It’s going to suck, for two reasons. One, who cares? Everyone in Washington has seen John Boehner cry more than any other public figure they know, and Marco Rubio very clearly sits in the dark watching ASMR videos of women in high heels stepping on EPA reports and whispering “liberty” and loses so many cumulative fluids that they have to plug him into an IV or he’ll fuse with into a leather armchair. Two, telling women candidates to modulate their emotional displays to appeal to voters who might be alienated by it runs along the same spectrum of cowardice as preferring white candidates over candidates of color because racists exist: It reverses the order of where the problems come from.
When Obama sang “Amazing Grace” after the Charleston mass shooting, my eyes brimmed over. It was probably planned, and it felt cornball in its own way, but America is a fucking cornball nation, and if we’re gonna have cornball, I want it to be that instead of Lee Greenwood or truck nuts with the Gadsden Flag on them. If Kirsten Gillibrand is fine quavering and pausing for composure because she’s thinking about undocumented immigrants as people, good. If Marco Rubio can wind up on the cover of Time as The Republican Savior for parroting the Heritage Foundation while digging his foot onto a thumbtack and thinking about when his dog died so his eyes moisten on the word “Constitution,” a verbally fluttery Gillibrand can be pre-anointed as God Empress of the Two Americas.
And, sure, becoming emotional presents a potential liability in the sense that every interest group or wedge issue that doesn’t elicit discomposure appears less significant to a candidate (the “Where Are the White Working Class Tears?” National Review piece writes itself), but that’s just concern-trolling about equal aggrievement representation, and it would be applied to a soaring-rhetoric candidate who chose not to soar on the subject of, say, ex-felon enfranchisement.
But that’s the superficial stuff, and those aren’t Gillibrand’s problems.
Early in the town hall—after Gillibrand speed-spoke like a policy debater trying to spread a 12-minute case into an 8-minute window—MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked, “What effect do your donors have on you? … What does someone purchase when they max out to Kirsten Gillibrand?” She replied that people and groups donate to her because they believe in her and her message. Hayes replied, “If that’s the case, then why is it so important to get publicly funded elections, if there’s no input-to-output correlation, then what’s corrupt about the system?”
Her answer, which began with the NRA, moved onto the insurance lobby and ended with the opioid crisis, was an effective and ample flurry of evasion. She didn’t even try to make the tired case that money buys influence only with other candidates, with weaker, more ignoble hearts; she merely outlasted the window Hayes and MSNBC had for this topic before needing to move on. But working in the moment does not equate to actually working.
When the NRA donates to Republicans, it does so because they believe in Republicans’ message that firearms manufacture and sales should not be regulated. When the health insurance lobby donates to candidates on both sides of the aisle, they do so because they believe in those candidates’ message that America should not have a nationalized public health system. That their donations frequently create the candidate opinions that they believe in doesn’t matter. How the “socialized medicine is bad” message gets made doesn’t change the fact that—whether purchased or engendered or nudged or coerced—once it’s there, the health insurance industry sends checks with the same faith and sincerity that you do. Gillibrand’s was an incompetent and unsatisfactory answer for someone on whose behalf a senior Pfizer executive will host a fundraiser that costs between $1,000 and $2,700 to attend. If you’re not prepared to square that detail, or if your preparation led to the conclusion that you should keep talking until the next question, you’re leading by example on the matter of failing to take your candidacy seriously.
Which brings us to the filibuster, which was not a focus of the town hall, but should be the “where the fuck is Wallace?” question flung at every Democratic candidate until they answer correctly or they make a Looney Tunes exit from the race so fast that the only thing left behind the podium is a puff of smoke shaped like them.
Gillibrand has been non-committal on ending the filibuster, saying she wants to “weigh the pros and cons,” which, from a campaign perspective, is at best a way of saying that you’re stupid and at worst a way of saying that she is. The difference is that, as a voter, you have the luxury of being a little dumb on the issues at the start of the primary season; it’s an educational process that lets you winnow bad ideas from good before settling on the party’s nominee. The people who are supposed to be educating you have less excuse to learn on the fly.
The pros are that it will almost certainly be the only way to pass the transformative legislation that the Democratic candidates are calling for and that, if you live in a low-lying area near water or have a serious medical condition, may be a matter of life and death for you. The cons are that, if moving messages and aspirational feelings budged the Senate, then Barack Obama would have left office with a single judicial vacancy at most.
The Republican Party has demonstrated its all-out commitment to destroying norms and procedures that impede their goal of preserving anti-majoritarian rule for as long as possible. It is an asymmetric war only because the Democrats let it be. Any candidate who announces his or her intention to fight it by preemptively shedding weaponry is wasting lives, wasting money and wasting your time, and Gillibrand is not alone in this regard.
But it’s a long primary, and while the candidates must ultimately lock themselves into certain messages from which there is no escape without losing their identity, the voters do not. They have plenty of time to learn, and at least for now there is someone like Pete Buttigieg or Jay Inslee willing to teach them. Unless Gillibrand decides to take a different course, there won’t be a campaign left worth crying in, or over, but a Senate gridlocked by design at least presents an empty vessel into which anyone can pour tens of thousands of words, as fast and as long as they want.
Image via personaldemocracy.