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Debates showcase Democrats pushing for 2020 election

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Jul 3, 2019 - 2:55:11 PM

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WASHINGTON—After four hours, over two days June 26-27, complete with five moderators and a handful of technical mishaps by broadcast host NBC News, a total of 20, all hopeful of winning the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, met in Miami, Florida, for the first primary debate. More than 15 million viewers watched each night and the candidates did not disappoint.

(L-R) Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during debate, June 27. Graphic: MGN Online

Before-debate attention had been focused on the front-runners former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but it was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) who attracted the most attention with a commanding performance and sharp exchange with Mr. Biden on day two.

Sen. Harris seized the upper hand early when she silenced the crowd with a comment accusing them all of wasting time engaging in a verbal “food fight.” Then she let the fireworks fly in an exchange over Mr. Biden’s recent kind words about arch segregationists—Senators Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) and James Eastland (D-Miss.)—with whom he got along well in the Senate and about his record on school bussing.

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Ms. Harris said. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Mr. Biden accused her of mischaracterizing his record but was unable to finesse his way out of her direct questions about his past. In 1975, Mr. Biden, then a fairly new member of the U.S. Senate told a Delaware newspaper, “I oppose busing. It’s an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me. I’ve gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing may be a constitutional amendment.”

The incident, clearly scripted in advance by the Harris team was followed by her campaign the very next day, offering fundraising tee-shirts with a picture of the senator when she was a child, with the words: “That Little Girl Was Me.”

Sen. Harris also attracted the early scorn in the right-wing “spin cycle,” including a posted, then deleted tweet by the president’s oldest son, Donald Jr., who recycled a version of his father’s racist “birtherism” attacks on former President Barack Obama.

There was a flood of racist attacks against Sen. Harris on social media, with some accusing the former California Attorney General of not being authentically “Black enough,” and others suggesting she was not really American.

On Twitter, some suggested Sen. Harris was unfairly portraying herself as African American, since she is the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. Several other presidential candidates did rush to her defense and condemned the racist nature of the attacks against her. Sen. Harris has yet to be challenged however concerning her own controversial record, not as a criminal justice reformer, but as an enthusiastic proponent of the “tough on crime” era when she was the district attorney in San Francisco, prosecuting parents for the truancy of their children; and as the California attorney general, where she is accused of presiding over a dramatic increase in the incarceration of Black males.

During the debate itself, questions related to the “Black Agenda,” or to issues important to the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency were largely absent from the four hours of talk, even as candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) refocused the discussion away from other issues like immigration policy onto Black folks on the first night.

There is a limit built into the “beauty contest” nature of debates as a principal tool for selecting a presidential candidate. “My general take on the debates is that they are not indicative of presidential character. They’re indicative of debate skills,” Dr. Clarence Lusane, chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University said in an interview. “So, you know, she’s (Ms. Harris) good at that and clearly Biden is not. What I recommend is that people really look at where are their policies.”

The analysis of the policies of the candidates is not going to come out in the debates when there are so many people on stage, Dr. Lusane said. “And I just was not convinced at all that the debates were able to demonstrate except for a couple people, that they were really ready to take on Trump, but to (be able) to take the country in another direction.”

While front-runner Sen. Sanders did not stand out in the first debate, one surprise came from former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who made headlines on the first night for his radical immigration proposals and for clashing with fellow Texan and former Congress member Beto O’Rourke.

“And then, I thought, Elizabeth Warren stood out,” said Dr. Lusane. “Just in terms of the clarity of (her) ideas in a bigger sense. I mean, Kamala, she got to Biden on a very specific kind of issue. But some of the bigger issues around her campaign, some of her past, were not drawn out. It wasn’t possible in that kind of setting.”

Sen. Warren kept her focus on issues relating to economic populism. “Who is this economy really working for?” she asked during the first night’s exchange.

“It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled. It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African Americans and Latina whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed and whose communities are ruined.

“It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us,” she continued.

“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country,” said Sen. Warren.

Early post-debate polls showed Sen. Harris with a surge of support, but still trailing Mr. Biden and Sen. Sanders, with Sens. Warren and Booker getting a slight boost, along with Mr. Castro and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.