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The Democratic Debate Closed With a Friendship Question

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A televised debate moderator asking presidential candidates to reassure the American viewing public that it’s OK to hang out with people of different beliefs is certainly revealing: The country is so divided along political party lines that whether friendship can or should transcend politics is literally up for debate. Unfortunately, the question didn’t yield as many insights as viewers or moderators might have hoped: While a few candidates spoke obliquely about friendships with unnamed people they’d met in their pasts or on the campaign trail (and several took the time as an opportunity to talk about… their websites?), most of the candidates named as their “surprising friends” people who also worked in Congress—in other words, people with whom they share the exact same job.

To be sure, it’s handy to be able to trot out fond memories of a political figure whose name is recognizable enough to work as a shorthand for a particular set of beliefs. And indeed, three candidates, a full quarter of the field, named the late Republican senator John McCain as their most surprising friend. Joe Biden recalled a touching exchange from just before McCain’s death. Bernie Sanders recounted how he and McCain worked together to get $5 billion in funding for the Veterans Affairs department. Amy Klobuchar remembered how, when they traveled internationally together, McCain would subtly remind foreign leaders who were tuning Klobuchar out that she deserved their attention.

Other politicians entered the mix, too: Cory Booker recalled with a laugh the time that he, a vegan, and Ted Cruz, “a meat-eating Texan,” had to rise to the challenge of finding a meal they could both enjoy; Kamala Harris shared a fond memory of working with Rand Paul on a piece of bail-reform legislation; Tulsi Gabbard said that she and Trey Gowdy, who as recently as last week was in talks to join President Trump’s legal team, “disagree a lot and very strongly on a lot of political issues,” but “we’ve developed a friendship that’s based on respect, and he’s been there for me during some personally challenging times.” Beto O’Rourke told the story of how  he and Will Hurd, a Republican congressman from Texas, ended up driving 1,600 miles to Washington together after their flight was canceled. (“We livestreamed the conversation,” he added. “A Republican and Democrat, finding out what we had in common.”)

Arguably the most compelling answers to the moderators’ question, though, came from the candidates whose answers spoke to the fragile, somewhat fractured state of friendship in the United States in 2019. A confluence of factors—like social media, smartphones, less everyday interaction with strangers, and the abandonment of community institutions like churches—have all contributed to creating an America in which people are more isolated than they were in generations past, and Pete Buttigieg’s response addressed the issue directly.

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