The Democratic Debates Are an Opportunity to Speak Frankly About Trump and Race
Give this to the Democrats, at least: they’ve chosen the sites for their Presidential debates brilliantly. The first round, last month, was in Miami—a twenty-first-century city in both hopeful and bleak ways, with a population that resembles the hemisphere and rising seas lapping at the streets, where the candidates, with a morning off, staged protests at an Air Force Reserve base where migrant children were detained. The second round begins Tuesday night, at the Fox Theatre, in downtown Detroit, a renovated Art Deco jewel that recalls the recent past: from the bottomless white flight of the late twentieth century, to the governmental neglect of the water crisis in Flint, to the white working-class voters of Macomb County, whom the Democrats chased for decades and lost to Donald Trump, perhaps for good. Michigan makes for a good political story, for the twenty Democrats onstage Tuesday and Wednesday. Do they think the primary campaign is about President Trump, or about the Democratic Party itself?
So far, the gaze has mostly been inward. The pivotal moment in the campaign to date came during the second night of the Miami debates, when Kamala Harris delivered a devastating critique of Joe Biden’s past opposition to government efforts to bus children across district lines. “I’m not going to be as polite this time,” Biden said at a fund-raiser last week, even as Cory Booker joined the case against him, calling Biden, who helped write President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, “an architect of mass incarceration.” The expectation, when the Democratic race began, was that it would wind toward an argument between a candidate who represented a more progressive break with the policies of the Obama Administration, likely Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, and one who represented a continuation: Biden, Harris, or someone else. The debates between Harris and Biden are in part over what Barack Obama’s legacy is and who might best represent it: whether he was a figure of moderation, or justice, or inspiration.
The atmosphere has been intensified this week by Trump’s bluntly racist attacks on Democratic politicians. After saying that four congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he launched a campaign against Representative Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, saying, of his Baltimore-based district, “No human being would want to live there.” Trump’s next target was the Reverend Al Sharpton, who, he said, “Hates Whites & Cops!” Plenty of Democrats have run campaigns that are in some sense about race; this one may instead be about a racist. At a fund-raiser in Detroit, on Sunday, Pete Buttigieg hinted at an approach: “It’s also here in the diverse—more diverse than advertised—industrial Midwest that we know that the choice between kitchen-table issues and racial justice is a false choice.” It was a nice line, but it would be more persuasive if the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, who raised more money than any other candidate in the last quarter, had any discernible support from voters of color.
The threshold for the second round of debates is higher, and could help cut the field in half. The campaigns have surely noticed that the candidates whose prospects grew after Miami were those who set aside the slow business of explaining their biographies and instead drew sharp distinctions: Harris with Biden over busing, Julián Castro with Beto O’Rourke over immigration. Scan the second and third tiers, where the candidates have been a little bland and preachy, and possibilities abound. Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, might question Bernie Sanders’s argument that socialism is the way to win in red states; Amy Klobuchar might challenge Elizabeth Warren’s broad regulatory agenda for the tech industry by making the case for her own, less expansive approach; Booker, once the mayor of Newark, or Bill De Blasio, of New York, could turn pointedly against Buttigieg’s handling of the police shooting of an unarmed black man in South Bend.
The debate among the leading candidates grew sharper this week, too, when Harris released a health-care plan that she calls Medicare for All, which allows Americans to buy into Medicare but also preserves a role for private insurers. Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said, in a statement, “Call it anything you want, but you can’t call this plan Medicare for All,” adding that Harris was “folding to the interests of the insurance industry.” You could call it a pretty good guess at how the Party is likely to resolve the debate over expanding health-care access, which might be why the Sanders camp chose to aggressively defend its Medicare for All brand. Expect a further fight.
Standing to the side of they fray is Warren, who has been running the campaign that most resembles a White House in waiting, releasing so many policy statements that the press has not had the time to scrutinize them and has instead mostly praised the volume. (The latest is a broad proposal on trade, which seeks to impose more regulations and cost on companies that do business overseas.) Warren, rising steadily in the polls, seems an increasingly plausible nominee. Reporters have often wondered why she has not yet been criticized by Sanders, who seems to be her obvious competition for progressive votes. (One answer seems to be that Sanders believes that he is actually competing with Biden, for more casual voters.) But Warren’s real vulnerabilities are not from the left but the right. She has been more starkly antagonistic to business than any winning Democratic Presidential candidate in nearly a century, and she has gone on record as supporting the abolition of private health insurance. Her record against Republicans is neither extensive nor impressive, and she has generally struggled to draw Independent voters to her side. Democrats might test those weaknesses on Tuesday night, or leave that project to Trump.
Do the Democrats have a new theory of how to reach voters who do not already agree with them? Perhaps the setting in Detroit will sharpen the question. Hillary Clinton narrowly lost the Electoral College because she could not persuade enough white working-class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that Trump was basically opposed to their interests, nor enough voters of color in Detroit, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee, where turnout was low, that she represented theirs. Trump’s diatribes this week are an invitation to Democrats to engage the racial dynamics of that campaign, and this one. There are fewer than two hundred days until the Iowa caucuses, and Trump has made the subtext into text. As Buttigieg pointed out in Detroit this week, the history of the Midwest—and, he might have added, the future of his party—does not run around the African-American experience but through it.
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