A rare thing happened this week. Twice. Once in the US and once overseas. Politicians took the blame for failed policies.

At the Democratic debate on Thursday, when confronted about the lack of diversity in the South Bend Police Department, Mayor Pete Buttigieg opened with the comment, “I didn’t get it done.”

The meteoric rise of the heretofore unknown mayor of a medium size city has not found similar enthusiasm in communities of color as among the white electorate. His failure has been underscored by the recent killing in South Bend of an unarmed African American by a white cop. When confronted about the lack of diversity in the South Bend police force, Buttigieg’s remarks did not excuse his actions or fully satisfy his audience. But he did something unusual for politicians in this or any era: he took responsibility for the failure.

The mayor may never secure enough confidence in the black community to become the Democratic nominee, but his willing mea culpa is refreshing in an age when the current President refuses to take responsibility for any failure and, if confronted with the facts, is willing to distort the truth to absolve himself of blame. Systemic racism is deeply rooted in our nation’s history. It will not end with whatever Buttigieg or any other candidate says; but acknowledging personal responsibility for this corporate sin is an important step in finding a solution to this intractable problem.

In El Salvador, another crisis laden with historical injustice was addressed in the same way. Nayib Bukele, the newly elected President of El Salvador, acknowledged his country’s complicity in the migrant problem that has led to incalculable heartbreak, suffering and even death, both in El Salvador and at America’s southern border. In a news conference in San Salvador, Bukele said, “People don’t flee their homes because they want to, they flee their homes because they feel they have to.”

“They fled El Salvador, they fled our country,” he declared. “It is our fault…We can send all the blame to any government we like. We can say President Trump’s policies are wrong. We can say Mexico’s policies are wrong. But, what about our blame?”

Bukele’s remarks were delivered in English, perhaps to send an unmistakable message to President Trump (or perhaps so that his own citizens would be less likely to hear and understand them).

Just as in the US, where ultimately Buttigieg’s actions will tell if he will seriously address this county’s systemic racism, Bukele needs to prove through his policies and priorities that he is sincere about reducing the flow of migrants from his country by making sustainable changes that reach into communities ravaged by poverty, unemployment and corruption.

Still, in this era of deflection and denial, it was refreshing indeed to hear two politicians confront very different problems by leading off with comments that take personal responsibility for conditions that have led to these intractable problems in the first place.

The Debates: How did the Democratic candidates meet your expectations?

After the first night, it seemed like it would be a challenging intellectual exercise to identify “winners and losers.” Kamala Harris’s game-changing exchange with Joe Biden on the second night has led to so much chatter that rating other performances seemed almost beside the point.

Still, as promised, here are my thoughts:

On the first night, Elizabeth Warren was the clear winner, although I thought she faded somewhat in the debate’s second hour (it seemed like fatigue to me, though I haven’t heard anyone else suggest this).

I thought Cory Booker hit the right tone and made the right arguments, even if his poll numbers haven’t moved much.

Kamala Harris was effective and impassioned with a prosecutorial approach that demonstrated she could go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump. Pete Buttigieg, with a very different style and a measured tone, also held his own on the big stage.

In addition to Kamala Harris, I thought Bill De Blasio, Joe Biden, Tulsi Gabbard and Julian Castro did well tying larger societal issues to their personal stories.

De Blasio and Gabbard offered credible arguments against foreign entanglements and their cost to those who serve and civilians alike.

As predicted—and subsequent polls affirmed—Biden and Bernie seemed to cancel one another out, leaving significant question marks surrounding their candidacies.

Marianne Williamson made the most efficient use of her time—speaking less than five minutes—with pointed comments about Donald Trump and the humanitarian crisis at the border.

Beto O’Rourke seemed strangely hesitant and Andrew Yang totally disappeared. He was certainly not the breakout candidate I thought he might be.

Timing and temperament count for much in these brief debates; I found both John Delaney and Kirsten Gillibrand off the mark in this regard, and Michael Bennet simply did not excite.

Yes, there has been much debate about the debates; until the next round…

2 thoughts on “Taking Responsibility

  1. As a child in the Unitarian church in an all-congegational discussion with the minister following the sermon, I can still hear my mother, Joan’s, question to Rev Howard:
    “Aren’t we just saying that there IS no freedom without responsibility ?”

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