November 21, 2019

The Most Powerful Line of the Year: ‘I Couldn’t Get it Done’

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks. JOHN SOMMERS II/Reuters

It was a shocking moment.

In the middle of all the bluster at the Democratic primary debate Thursday night, with one candidate after another promising they would fix all of our problems, one candidate, Pete Buttigieg, decided to go in another direction.

He decided he would tell us the truth and admit failure.

In so doing, he exposed a deeper truth: There’s just so much a politician can do to make our lives better. All too often, they fail. The problem is, they never admit it. They’re afraid that if they do, they will lose our vote. And maybe they’re right. Maybe we’re just suckers for hucksters who promise us the moon. We want to believe that someone, somewhere, can make our lives better. The alternative— that the solution to most of our problems is inside each one of us — is too burdensome.

It’s a lot more convenient to believe that some charismatic politician with the body language of an earnest savior can swoop in and save us. Then we’re off the hook. If we end up miserable, we can just blame the huckster who failed us. Rinse, repeat.

With one honest line Thursday night, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg blew up that silent contract between huckster and sucker. When MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked him a tough question about the worsening race relations in his city under his watch, he didn’t dodge. He took the blame.

If you ever wonder why the credibility of Congress is at an all-time low, and why cynicism is at an all-time high, look no further than the inability of politicians to ever admit failure and their reflex to overpromise.

In a line that ought to resonate in all civics classrooms and enter the pantheon of our political discourse, Buttigieg looked at us and said, simply: “I couldn’t get it done.”

The idea of a politician admitting failure so publicly was so disruptive to the prefabricated media drama of candidates battling each other that it slipped by like a ship in the night. No one dared touch that piece of plutonium. If the media got too close and started examining it, it might blow the cover on the lucrative hoax that politicians have the power to transform our lives.

They don’t.

Even the greatest dream merchant of modern times, Barack Obama, showed us the limits of exterior forces to fix our little worlds. He showed us that promising the world may seduce us, but, in the end, it won’t help us. It’s just another sugar high on the road to never-ending disappointment.

Yes, it’s wonderful when politicians can get things done. But it’s not wonderful when they feel obligated to look like superheroes and make unrealistic promises because they think that’s all we’re capable of hearing—that we’re too weak to hear the truth about the limits of political power.

Not one candidate had the courage to tell us the limits of politics, to tell us what they can’t do for us. Instead, all we saw was another carnival of overpromising.

If you ever wonder why the credibility of Congress is at an all-time low, and why cynicism is at an all-time high, look no further than the inability of politicians to ever admit failure and their reflex to overpromise.

It’s only by trusting the truth that one can regain trust. If all politicians do is tell us what we’re programmed to hear, they don’t treat us like humans, they treat us like robots. That is what these two primary debates over the past two nights felt like to me—a procession of well-meaning political robots. Not one candidate had the courage to tell us the limits of politics, to tell us what they can’t do for us. Instead, all we saw was another carnival of overpromising.

Pete Buttigieg broke that pattern when he fessed up to failure. What he modeled for us with his answer to Rachel Maddow was humility, honesty and courage. Those character traits are bipartisan, and they’re more useful to our lives than any political promise everyone knows won’t be kept.