MANCHESTER, N.H. – Democrats running for president here in the snow-blanketed hills, valleys, towns and villages of this legendary New England political bellwether need to lighten up a bit.
We all know that politics is a serious business, but not so serious that we can’t share a joke or a quip once in a while. However, humor among this batch of Democratic contenders appears to be in short supply.
Most of the candidate pitches at the various forums, rallies, town halls and political dinners here are downright serious, often sharp-pointed, laden with anger and spit out like bullets from a revolver, especially when the target is President Trump.
“He’s a bad man … He’s an incompetent president … We’re going to kick his ass!” shouts Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor. This kind of talk draws huge cheers, and he’s not averse to using them over and over.
Steyer is not one of the top contenders, but he’s a compelling presence at the big events crowded with Democratic voters. And they reflect the general tone of the candidate pitches.
“This election is a decency check on this president,” said former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “The heart of America is bigger than the heart of the guy in the White House.” But if this election is a decency check on the president, it’s certainly not one on Democrats’ salty language – or on an anger that’s never far from the surface.
“I support impeaching (Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh,” fumed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I’ll be damned if I’ll lose this election to this guy (Trump),” shouted former Vice President Joe Biden. “He doesn’t have a shred of decency in him.” Sometimes the Democrats’ fury is just directed in any old direction. When a young woman asked Biden whether his poor Iowa showing was a bad sign, he inexplicably called her “a lying, dog-faced pony soldier,” whatever that means.
This has been going on the entire primary season. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign sold t-shirts simply saying, “This is F----d Up.” The former Texas congressman was so fond of that expletive that Politico published a story asking, apparently without irony, “Can the F-Bomb Save Beto?”
His fellow Texan, Julián Castro, must have noticed. In an appearance last spring on Bill Maher’s HBO show and he dropped two “bulls---s.” He used it on NPR, too, which struck his interviewer as inappropriate, but by then Cory Booker was spreading b.s. himself.
If they were doing any of this to be funny, that would be one thing. But these Democrats are all serious, all of the time. They are on a mission for change that doesn’t allow for the light touch.
“Now is the time to not only beat Donald Trump, but also transform this country,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren declared last week.
The only candidate to regularly season her pitches with of dashes of humor is Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a woman who appears to be comfortable with herself and not afraid to be the butt of her own jokes.
She gets laughs when she proudly declares that she is the only candidate who received $17,000 in donations from ex-boyfriends. The chuckles continue when she admits that her campaign slogan when she ran for president of her fourth-grade class was “All the Way with Amy K.”
“I no longer use that,” she deadpans.
And when at a recent Democratic Party dinner/rally she was jeered by Sanders supporters, she kept her cool, paused, turned around to face them and waved her arm in greeting.
“Hi, Bernie people!” she cheerfully called.
And by the way, like most of the candidates who show little sense of humor, their supporters follow suit. Friendly rivalry among opposing camps is rare, and jeering rival candidates when they are speaking is part of the game.
There was a time when humor on the campaign trail was more common. Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander used to joke often when he was running for president in 1992 and 1996. A favorite quip:
“I walked into a New Hampshire general store and said to the people in there, ‘Hi, I’m Lamar Alexander and I’m running for president.’
‘Yeah, we were laughing about that before you came in,’ one customer responded.”
Memo to 2020 candidates: We could use more humor from candidates in these highly polarized times. We all need to chill out.