The early Democratic Party 2020 debates have often demanded a very specific torture of the viewer. With 20 candidates allowed to participate, serious contenders don’t get enough time to detail their differences, while vanity candidates with pathetic polling and no real reason for running waste everyone’s time.
It’s tedious. But on Wednesday night, three candidates with no chance of becoming president nevertheless did their country a service, presenting detailed and accurate critiques of the Democrats who do have a real chance of being elected. Though it pains me to say it, the gadflies brought their A-game.
Early in the night, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hit former Vice President Joe Biden over former President Barack Obama’s immigration record. Democrats don’t like to harp on it, but in his first four years in office, Obama deported more people per year than any other president in history. Immigration activists protested Obama for most of his presidency, and former Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) called him “the deporter in chief” on the House floor. Obama even separated children from their parents at the border, though not in the systemic manner that President Donald Trump has. So de Blasio asked Biden a simple question.
“Did you say those deportations were a good idea or did you go to the president and say this is a mistake, we shouldn’t do it. Which one?”
Biden didn’t really have an answer. Awkwardly, he said he would keep his conversations with Obama on immigration private.
Bill de Blasio is probably never going to make it to double-digits in national polling. On Wednesday night protesters interrupted the debate to rip him for failing to take action against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who killed Eric Garner. But de Blasio’s confrontation with Biden nevertheless gave Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) an opening to drive home an important point about the Obama administration.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Booker told Biden. “You invoke President Obama more than anyone else in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then duck it when it’s not.”
Because Obama remains the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, most 2020 contenders have been reluctant to criticize his administration’s flaws ― even on issues where the Democratic Party needs to learn from Obama’s shortcomings. But therein lies the benefit of gadflies, whose only real shot at staying in the race is generating some buzz by going toe-to-toe with the front-runners. The results weren’t cheap shots but substantive critiques.
Later in the evening, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii went after the criminal justice record that Sen. Kamala Harris accrued first as a prosecutor in San Francisco and then as California’s attorney general.
“I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said. “There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so, she kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use as cheap labor for the state of California and she fought to keep cash bail in place.”
Gabbard, to be clear, is a terrible candidate. She’s been an apologist for Syrian butcher Bashar Assad and has troubling ties to Hindu nationalists, and she has spent a lot of time on Fox News ranting about Islam. But her criticisms of Harris were on point and have been documented in detail by journalists and criminal justice reform advocates. During her career in California, Harris was a tough-on-crime prosecutor and has sought to rebrand herself as a progressive prosecutor since coming to Washington.
“As the elected attorney general of California,” Harris said Wednesday, “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done.”
Other gadflies made an impact without directly attacking a candidate by just saying something true, very loudly. Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) has struggled to stand out in every debate and wasted a lot of his stage time Wednesday issuing cheap Republican talking points about “Medicare for All.” But even Bennet had a standout moment, pointing out that American schools have re-segregated over recent decades and, in many cases, simply never really integrated. Most children attend schools that are either very white or very non-white, and the non-white schools generally don’t get nearly as much funding as the white schools do.
“This is the fourth debate that we have had and the second time that we have been debating what people did 50 years ago with busing when our schools are as segregated as they were 50 years ago,” Bennet said. “We need a conversation about what’s happening now, and when there’s a group of kids in this country that don’t get preschool through no fault of their own and another group does, equal is not equal.”
Like deportation and criminal justice, school segregation is an uncomfortable subject for Democrats because many of the party’s leading figures built their careers in the party by feeding the problem. Booker, for instance, used to advocate for the school voucher agenda of current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. For a long time, vouchers were a favorite policy tool conservatives used to help rich white students attend all-white or nearly-all-white private schools.
The Democratic Party is in a period of transition. Many of the policies that the party supported under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are being jettisoned, and new ideas are gaining traction.
The gadflies aren’t going to be the leaders who chart the party’s future. But if they can bring its past into the light, maybe they deserve a spot on the stage.