Racial justice and gender equality, issues important to a large and increasingly vocal bloc of the national electorate, finally made it to the presidential debate stage in Tuesday’s face-off between the candidates for Democratic nomination.
“I believe in equal pay for equal work for women,” Hillary Rodham Clinton declared in her opening statement.
“Black lives matter,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, signaling his support for the national movement to address the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers.
The willingness of the Democratic candidates to embrace these issues on a national stage, along with references to their support for paid family leave, LGBT rights, and health coverage and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, indicates that they are trying to keep pace with their party’s base, particularly the coalition of voters that fueled Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
The Democrats also set up a clear contrast with their Republican counterparts, whose inflammatory rhetoric on social issues could make it difficult for the GOP to appeal to a broader electorate in next year’s general election.
Young black activists have challenged Sanders, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) and Clinton, insisting that they acknowledge the role of racism in the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on black communities.
Sanders was twice shouted down by activists at campaign events over the summer. O’Malley was booed in July at the Netroots Nation, a gathering of progressive activists, when he argued that “all lives matter”
But Tuesday, both candidates jumped at the chance to embrace the language of a crucial slice of the Democratic electorate. When asked by an online questioner whether “black lives” or “all lives” matter, Sanders said without hesitation, “Black lives matter.”
He continued: “The reason those words matter is the African American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot.” Sanders was referring to a black woman arrested during a traffic stop in Texas and days later was found dead in her jail cell. Police say she hanged herself.
Similarly, O’Malley answered the question this way: “The point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color.”
Black Lives Matter protesters have not had as much interaction with Republican candidates, many of whom have criticized the movement as racially divisive and anti-law-enforcement.
Only one question about race and policing was put to one candidate in the first GOP debate in August. No mention was made in that debate or the one held last month about gender pay equality, an issue that flared anew this week when actress Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay addressing the fact that she made significantly less than her male co-stars in the award-winning movie “American Hustle.”
Republican leaders, after losing badly among women and African American, Hispanic and Asian American voters in the past two election cycles, have said they want to improve their standing with those groups. The GOP field — with two Hispanics, an African American, an Indian American and at least three candidates in their 40s — is far more diverse than the all-white, over-50 group of Democrats.
But the Republicans have tailored their messages to curry favor with the GOP’s overwhelmingly white and increasingly hard-line conservative base.
That has meant talk of cracking down on undocumented immigrants, playing down the role of racism in society and threatening to repeal the Affordable Care Act and place more restrictions on abortion.
Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, said the fact that the question has come up at all indicates that the movement is having an impact on political leaders. Still, she said, “I wanted more discussion about what steps they will take in eradicating structural racism” — and cited the lack of jobs as well as inadequate health care and public education. "So I want to hear how candidates will actually develop new policies that will insure that our communities will be able to get the health care that they deserve and the jobs that they deserve."
Shamed Dogan, a Republian state representative in Missouri, noted that there are few black voters in the Republican primary electorate and he didn't see it as a major failing that the issue received little attention in the GOP debate. "It's a little more relevant in the Democratic primary because the voters … are more likely to be minorities," he said. "But if you look at the records of Republican governors and senators, a lot of them have interesting and good things to say about those issues."
He said that Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has said that race and policing is a "legitimate issue." And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination last month, signed a law requiring independent investigations when civilians die in the custody of police. Dogan, who said he is working on similar legislation in Missouri, is part of a bi-partisan group of black political and civic leaders who want to press both political parties to address issues that disproportionately affect communities of color. The group, the 20/20 Leaders of America, has invited all of the presidential candidates to take part in a forum on criminal justice next month in South Carolina.
During Tuesday's debate, Clinton also agreed with the need for criminal justice reform, but on Tuesday, she seemed more forceful in raising issues of gender equality.
In her opening statement, she made a nod to her bid to become the first female president when she said that “finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president.”
Clinton also made a strong argument for paid family leave. When CNN’s Dana Bash noted that Republicans have argued that a federal law mandating paid leave would hurt small businesses, Clinton thundered: “It’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care.’ They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it.”
Sanders backed her up, calling it “an international embarrassment that we do not provide family — paid family and medical leavewording cq . . . the secretary is right. Republicans tell us we can’t do anything except give tax breaks to billionaires and cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s not what the American people want.”
Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, said it was “shocking" that Republicans didn’t address equal pay and family leave "even in passing, during the first two debates." She said the issues have replaced reproductive rights as the rallying issue in the Democratic Party's narrative of a Republican "war on women."
“Staying silent simply ignores that there are women who face challenges in the workplace and helps reinforce the idea that conservatives and Republicans don’t care about women,” Schaeffer said.
Gender pay equity and family leave didn’t come up even during the second Republican debate, during which former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman in GOP field of 15 candidates, played a prominent role.
Unlike 2008, when she played down her gender, Clinton has embraced her effort to make history as the first female president. One exchange began when debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked her to explain: “How would you not be a third term of President Obama?”
Clinton smiled, then offered: “Well, I think that’s pretty obvious. I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we’ve had up until this point, including President Obama,” she said, drawing cheers from the audience.
Earlier in the debate, Cooper teased her for the amount of time she took for a bathroom break.
“All the candidates are back, which I’m very happy to see . . . Secretary Clinton, welcome back,” he said.
“You know, it does take me a little longer,” Clinton quipped.
Still, polls conducted over the summer show a steep decline in support for the former first lady among women, particularly white women troubled by the ongoing scrutiny over Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while running the State Department.
The Democratic candidates also set a different tone when discussing immigration. O’Malley in particular embraced the notion of extending such benefits as health care and in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants.
O’Malley boasted that when he was governor of Maryland, “we passed a state version of the Dream Act.” He drew loud applause when he continued: “[A] lot of the xenophobes, the immigrant haters like some that we’ve heard, like Donald Trump, that carnival barker in the Republican Party . . . tried to mischaracterize it as free tuition for illegal immigrants. But, we took our case to the people when it was petitioned to referendum, and we won with 58 percent of the vote.”
In his closing statement, O’Malley summed up the difference in tone between the Democratic and Republican debates.
“On this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief.”