Opinion: Some Democrats Rise, Others Stumble in Second Night

Night two of the Democratic Primary debates, 2020 presidential cycle (June 27, 2019 screen capture)

Unlike the first, (mostly) subdued Democratic primary debate, Thursday’s second round of questioning for Democratic hopefuls became raucous at times. Cross-talk and pitched voices made the cacophony difficult to follow, with moderators struggling to maintain control.

Between outbursts, though, a few poignant moments and some of the more-baffling debate statements in recent memory emerged.

Senator Harris Undercuts a Frontrunner  

Describing the much talked-about, intense back-and-forth between Senator Kamala Harris (CA) and former Vice President Joe Biden, The Nation’s Jeet Heer put it clearest:

In the debate, Harris went after two miscreants. One was the familiar target of President Donald Trump … The other target for Harris’s forensic destruction was Joe Biden, who has been entangled in controversy over remarks he made celebrating his own ability to work with his ideological foes—citing two deceased racist Democratic lawmakers he worked with in the 1970s, James Eastland and Herman Talmadge.

Harris, calling issues like busing and federal enforcement of desegregation “personal” for her, addressed Biden pointedly. She prefaced by saying she does not think Biden is a racist, instead saying that “It was hurtful to hear [him] talk about the reputations of two United States senators,” referring aptly to the aforementioned Eastland and Talmadge, “who built their … career on the segregation of race in this country.”

Describing a “little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools,” Harris explained the girl’s access to Berkeley’s public schools was because “she was bused to school every day,” a policy Biden opposed.

With appropriately forceful delivery, Harris emphasized, “that little girl was me.”

The Nation‘s Heer described Biden as “wounded by the attack,” fittingly; his voice rose, ragged, as he countered Harris. “I did not praise racists,” he said, before explaining that he simply opposed federal enforcement of busing programs.

Even if busing was (and remains) extremely unpopular, using a “states’ rights” argument to rebut Harris’s statements did Biden no favors. It felt especially tone-deaf in 2019, as so many candidates in the Democratic field have positioned themselves light-years apart from the president, one denounced frequently for his racism. Biden also left an opening for Harris, letting her cross-examine the former Vice President.

“[T]here was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” she responded. “I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools, almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.” After Biden interjected, calling it a “local decision,” Harris punctuated the point:

That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.

Although Biden recalled his record on the ERA and his involvement in extending the Voting Rights Act throughout his decades in the Senate, damage was done. He trailed off toward the end, concluding with two sentences that could mark a pivotal moment in his 2020 run: “My time is up. I’m sorry.” 

You can view the highlights of that exchange courtesy of the New York Times on YouTube (from 0:37).

Some Weathered Scrutiny, Others Muddied Challenges

While tensions rose between Harris and Biden, it was actually South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg who took the first question directly addressing race in America. A week into a controversy following South Bend police officer Ryan O’Neill killed 54-year-old Eric Logan, a black resident of the city, Buttitgieg was asked about police accountability in South Bend and broader issues of systemic violence affecting black communities. Buttigieg did not fully knock it out of the park—since another officer, Aaron Knepper has a long history of using excessive force and conducting dubious arrests against black residents, for example, Mayor Pete cannot dismiss the case as isolated or unforeseeable—but he did take ownership after other candidates began to pile on.

Accepting “full responsibility” in his role as mayor, Buttigieg promised that “If anyone on patrol is shown to be a racist or to do something racist in a way that is substantiated, that is their last day on the street.”

After years of fraught relations between South Bend officials and the city’s black communities, who comprise over a quarter of the population but far below 10 percent of the police force, a vow without action is unlikely to restore confidence. Still, the difference between Buttigieg’s controlled, deliberate response and that of Biden’s sharp defensiveness earlier left the mayor appearing among the stronger speakers onstage.

Despite this week’s struggles, it bears repeating: Buttigieg really made history. As The Week’s Neil J. Young points out, we should never lose sight of that. The image of two men, two loving husbands, heading to the debate stage was a powerful sight, one that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

 

Sanders (and Biden) Seemed Lethargic

Following the Biden–Harris exchange, and well into the debate’s second hour, moderator Chuck Todd turned to Senator Bernie Sanders (VT). Todd asked Sanders about comments the senator made early in the 2020 cycle which deemphasized “a candidate’s race or age or sexual orientation.” Adding that some members of the Democratic base are indeed “excited by the diversity of this [year’s] field,” Todd asked Sanders if he was “telling … voters that diversity shouldn’t matter” looking ahead.

While the question came from the intense reckoning of intra-party and inter-generational debates on racism, like those displayed between Harris and Biden, Sanders dithered. He wasted an opportunity to make his stated campaign positions on these issues more concrete for some long-skeptical commentators on the left, no matter his campaign’s efforts to square the two. Here’s what he said:

No, [I am] absolutely not [saying diversity doesn’t matter]. Unlike the Republican Party, we encourage diversity, we believe in diversity; that is what America is [garbled] about. But in addition to diversity in terms of having more women, more people from the GB—L—LGBT community, we also have to do something else and that is we have to ask ourselves a simple question and that how come today the worker in the middle of our economy is making no more money than he or she made 45 years ago, and that in the last 30 years the top 1 percent has seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth? We need a party that is diverse but we need a party that has the guts to stand up to the powerful special interest who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country.

Candidates’ ongoing struggles with pronouncing “LGBT” aside, this is rhetorical sleight of hand by Sanders in two key ways.

First, although a democratic socialist, Senator Sanders brings a classically Marxist emphasis on class to all matters of politics. That’s not a general broadside meant to challenge his ideology per se; class is crucial for understanding our era of nearly unprecedented inequality in America and globally. But class is not enough and, contrary to Marx’s view of all demographic factors as “epiphenomena,” all at-best secondary to class, factors like race, sex, gender and sexual orientation all matter deeply in American politics, past and present. Sometimes they can even overwhelm class entirely. 

Race has overridden class distinctions most obviously. Acclaimed Harvard scholar and Alphonse Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., made headlines in 2009 after being arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts – for trying to enter his own front door. Someone had called the police to “report a crime in progress,” according to the Cambridge Police Department’s arrest report, after which Gates was detained for disorderly conduct. (The charges were later dropped.)

This does not even begin to touch on virulent racism directed at, say, former President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle and their daughters, Sasha and Malia. Nor does it address racism faced by myriad wealthy, famous black athletes, such as the late boxing legend Mohammad Ali in his decades-long road to becoming an American icon. These cases can become particularly nasty when directed at women, such as the Williams sisters, among the greatest tennis legends ever. Wealth and status can’t insulate some people entirely.

Where identities intersect—as with queer black Americans and trans women of color specifically—obstacles to success grow larger, spiteful abuse becomes endemic and the risk of lethal bigotry rises dramatically. There’s no one cause of suffering and inequality, but many, all at once.

Sanders is a 77-year-old iconoclast who has been nothing if not consistent across his career. At the same time, he might some insights from Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s plea for understanding the momentousness of modern “identity politics” among marginalized groups.

Sanders need not abandon his class consciousness or ultra-egalitarian ideology to do that. But “activists and political challengers,” Abrams writes, have been encouraged “to make demands with a high level of specificity—to take the identities that dominant groups have used to oppress them and turn them into tools of democratic justice.” In other words, there is value in recognizing particulars and showing the most-overlooked voices they really are being heard. (Julián Castro’s mostly good invocation of trans Americans as central to health reform discussions during the first night’s debate on Wednesday offers one illustration – speaking in a way that feels authentic, without pandering.)

The second way Senator Sanders’s response fell flat comes, oddly enough, from his foregrounding of LGBT Americans. Sanders used LGBT people to defend his general “civil rights” record and, certainly unwittingly, risked reinforcing long-challenged myths of “unique” levels of homophobia and transphobia among America’s black communities in the process.

Worse, to the extent surveys do show any measurable divergence between racial groups’ views on sexuality, Sanders risked undermining the past decade’s progress. His framing at failed to understand the distinct experiences of racism and anti-gay prejudice as categorically different, yet sometimes dangerously overlapping. He also could have clarified that those who experience each or both forms of prejudice are better off being fundamentally aligned in opposition to the racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic policies of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and their Republican allies. That seemed to be his aim (hopefully), but it was not at all clearly stated. 

(For his part, Vice President Biden similarly used his LGBT record as a defense against Harris and others’ challenges on race, to no better and perhaps even worse effect.)

The exhausting Trump era lacks nuance in every possible sense, from the president’s candid hatreds and misogyny to allied Republicans’ outwardly cruel policy-making. For the septuagenarian frontrunners, Biden and Sanders, their disappointing turns on the stage reflect a similar yearning for simpler times which never really existed.

To win in 2020, all candidates need to avoid alienating members of the coalition they must build against Trump to the greatest possible extent. Young Americans—the Millennials and Gen Z –are the “most diverse generation[s] in American history,” with far greater fluency in and comfort with issues of race, sex, gender and sexuality than any before them. 

To his credit, Sanders seems to understand this, and he has improved since 2016’s run: he has made significant gains in earning support from non-white Americans while maintaining commanding leads among younger voters. But turnout is everything, and Sanders, without some elegance and more-careful nuance, should be wary.

Per Stacey Abrams, expanding one’s base can—and must, in our messy society—include expanding overall room for different perspectives. There’s work to be done three for most 2020 candidates.

Marianne Williamson Became a Meme-Factory

And now, for something entirely different.

Self-help author and apparent nemesis of New Zealand Marianne Williamson stole the show Thursday night, or at least inspired a lot of magnificent, tongue-in-cheek Twitter reactions. Here are a few of the highlights, offered as a kind of apology for the drab recaps above: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 2020 general election is over 490 days away.

Everyone on the debate stage Thursday night offers something above to the status quo, including every one of those critiqued above. There’s a long, long way to go.

This is the opinion of one of the contributing writers of Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of other writers or the magazine.

June 28, 2019: Correction: The original post indicated South Bend Police Officer Knepper had killed Eric Logan; Officer Knepper’s history of involvement in excessive force cases did not include the fatal shooting of Logan, which was carried out by Officer Ryan O’Neill.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: Some Democrats Rise, Others Stumble in Second Night”

    • Thank you for this catch — some material had been drawn from a source focusing on Knepper’s earlier history, others from the most-recent shooting with Mr. O’Neill, and the post has been updated accordingly. It’s much appreciated.

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