Ten Democratic presidential candidates gathered on stage for a debate at Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. The event, hosted last Wednesday by MSNBC and the Washington Post, was filled with tension, laughs and ideas as the candidates argued why they should be the next leader of the country.
Democrats Court Black Voters
A key segment of the debate were the candidates presenting their case for black voters.
Senator Kamala Harris was asked by a moderator about her previous critique of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s effort to win over black voters. Notably, she didn’t double down on her scrutiny, saying, “I believe that the mayor has made apologies for that.”
She was referring to a stock photo, posted on the Buttigieg campaign website, of a Kenyan woman and a child, to illustrate the mayor’s platform to tackle systemic racism in America, according to The Intercept.
Harris pivoted to a broader critique of Democratic politicians by saying they’re only present when they need black voters, but not present for the needs and interests of that same demographic.
According to the Washington Post, Buttigieg “has struggled to gain support among African Americans” in South Carolina. Leaked campaign-conducted focus groups results revealed his sexual orientation as a possible reason. One concern brought up from a focus group was electability: worries that Buttigieg being queer will draw scrutiny from conservative voters, the GOP, and Trump. This is problematic for Buttigieg as African American voters have been identified, by the New York Times, as “the most crucial voting bloc” in the state.
Buttigieg said his faith was an incentive to empower marginalized communities. This is noteworthy, as one of the focus groups his campaign surveyed, were older African American women who gravitated towards the mayor over his spirituality.
Buttigieg also tried to turn his electability liability into a strength. He cited his civil rights struggle as a queer person as another incentive to address the injustices the black community faces.
While Harris let Buttigieg slide, Senator Cory Booker may have taken a subtle jab at the mayor when he said, “Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African American voters.”
“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters. I’ve been one since I was 18,” Booker said eliciting laughter.
While he didn’t call out Buttigieg by name on this subject, he took an overt swing at what he said was former Vice President Joe Biden’s stance against legalizing marijuana.
“Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people … the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people,” Booker said, who earlier echoed Harris’s grievance that African Americans only get attention when votes are needed.
Biden countered saying marijuana should be decriminalized and “anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out.”
The former vice president then referred to his endorsements from black political leaders, shooting himself in the foot as this lead to a gaffe. “[I’m supported by] three former chairs of the black caucus, the only African American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate, a whole range of people-”
“No, that’s not true. The other one is here,” Harris pointed out, laughing with the audience.
Student Loan Debt
While not discussed as extensively as other topics, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed cancelling “student loan debt for 95 percent of the folks who’ve got it,” with the costs accounted for by her proposed two cent wealth tax. A tax she explained would be imposed on the “top one tenth of one percent” wealthiest Americans. While Senator Bernie Sanders, who did not bring it up during the debate, has repeatedly proposed cancelling all of student debt throughout the race.
Electability, Experience, and Unity
Some Democrats argued why they’re the most capable of defeating Trump.
Biden referenced the impeachment inquiry as evidence that the president was afraid to go up against him in a general election.
Senator Amy Klobuchar touted her record of passing bipartisan legislation in a contentious senate and winning in red and purple districts. With this, she directly challenged Biden over his electability.
Biden responded, asserting he’s a unifying figure and with experience. “To be commander-in-chief, there’s no time for on-the-job training. I’ve spent more time in the Situation Room, more time abroad, more time than anybody up here. I know every major world leader.”
Klobuchar knocked Buttigieg’s mayoral experience as insufficient prompting him to say, “So, first of all, Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?” He followed up his outsider status with his record as a combat war veteran.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the other veteran on stage, would later remark that such experience alone wasn’t enough to be commander-in-chief.
The South Bend mayor said he would better unify the country with his proposed optional government provided health coverage, “Medicare for All Who Want It.” He juxtaposed his plan with Warren’s and Sanders’ “Medicare for All” which eliminates private health insurance, mandating government provided health care for every American, regardless of their preference.
Buttigieg touted his plan for providing freedom of choice, and allowing people to keep their private health insurance if they prefer it, “without the divisive step of ordering people into [government provided healthcare] whether they want to or not.”
Climate change came up in the debate with businessman Tom Steyer calling it his “number-one priority.” He accused the other Democrats of not making the same commitment.
Biden struck back, mentioning environmentally-minded legislation he worked on, and said Steyer “was introducing more coal mines and produced more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of Great Britain produces.”
Steyer said he turned a new green leaf 10 years ago, realizing what was at stake for the planet.
Sanders joined the conversation, going as far as saying he might criminally prosecute fossil fuel companies if elected president.
Veterans Battle it Out
Gabbard, who is not afraid of picking a fight as seen in previous debates, slammed Buttigieg over his idea of sending U.S. armed forces to Mexico in response to cartel violence. The mayor denied directly saying that, having Gabbard bring up “fact checkers.”
Buttigieg did say at a Latinx forum hosted at Cal State LA, earlier this month, that he would send U.S. troops to fight cartels in Mexico, according to the Sacramento Bee. He said he would only do so if “American lives were on the line and if it was necessary to meet treaty obligations.” His campaign later watered down his declaration, as a “last resort,” the Bee reported.
During the debate, Buttigieg fired back at Gabbard, by bringing up the Hawaii Congresswoman met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “I have in my experience… enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that,” eliciting applause and an “OH” from the crowd.