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,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders agreed, in response to a question.
Black Lives Matter, the national movement that has drawn attention to the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of law enforcement, was mentioned briefly in the first Republican debate in August and not at all in the second one last month. And no mention was made in either GOP debate 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 “American Hustle.”
But those issues, along with references to support for paid family leave, protecting LBGT rights and extending such benefits as health care and in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, came up many times during Tuesday’s 2 1/2 hour discussion on CNN. The mentions won instant applause on social media from activists who represent various parts of the coalition that fueled President Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012. Those groups – voters of color, women, young people – are crucial not only to winning the Democratic primary, but will need to be energized and mobilized if the party wants to win the White House next year.
The Republican Party, after losing badly among women and African American, Hispanic and Asian American voters in the last two cycles, has said it wants to improve its 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 candidates 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, downplaying the role of racism in society and threatening to repeal the Affordable Care Act and place more restrictions on abortion — all positions that are at odds with voters have who supported Obama.
Pay equity and family leave are standard planks in Clinton and Sanders campaign speeches. Activists from the Black Lives Matter movement have pushed both candidates, along with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley to embrace both the language and the tenets of their cause, which include acknowledging and addressing institutional racism in addition to economic inequality.
Young black activists have challenged Sanders, O’Malley and Clinton on their commitment to criminal justice issues. 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.
Sanders, after twice being shouted down by activists at his campaign events, issued a racial justice police paper. When asked Tuesday night by an online questioner “do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?’
“Black lives matter,” Sanders said without hesitation. ” And the reason — 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 referencing a black woman who was arrest on a traffic stop in Texas and days later found dead in her jail cell. Police say she hung herself.
O’Malley, who was booed last July at Netroots when he argued that “all lives matter” embraced their language Tuesday night.
“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,” O’Malley said.
Clinton also agreed that more needs to be done to reduce the incarceration rate, which disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos, but she seemed more forceful in raising issues of gender equality.
In her opening statement, Clinton made a nod to her bid to become the first female president when she said: “[A]nd, yes, finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president.”
The former secretary of state also made a strong argument for paid family leave. When CNN reporter Dana Bash noted that Republicans have argued that a federal law mandating paid leave would hurt small business, 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 leave … 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.”
Gender pay equity and family leave didn’t come up even during the second Republican debate, in which former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only woman in 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 form the audience.
Earlier in the debate, she had joked about being the only woman on the stage when 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. That’s all I can say,” 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.”