Democratic debate: The biggest winner was clear from the stage

The biggest winner from Thursday night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate in Houston may have been the diversity on the stage.

Eric Gay/AP
From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston.

On a night where the status quo largely stayed the same – despite a few shaky moments for the frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden – the biggest winner from last night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate may have been the diversity on the stage.

The debate was hosted at Texas Southern University, a historically black college and university, in Houston, perhaps the most diverse city in the country. Just three of the 10 candidates on stage were straight white men. Two of the three moderators were people of color.

Every candidate was there on merit – having met the qualification criteria of polling above 2% in three qualifying polls and raising at least 130,000 individual donations from a minimum of 400 different donors in at least 20 states. On questions ranging from race and criminal justice to education and immigration, their experiences as women, people of color, and LGBTQ Americans shone through in a testy debate.

It wasn’t without awkward moments. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang drew a few uncomfortable laughs when he invoked a racial stereotype (“I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors”), but for the most part the diverse line-up produced deep and personal discussions from perspectives that many Americans are not used to hearing – at least in a setting like this.

Democrats are hoping that an increasingly diverse U.S. electorate can deliver them the White House in 2020, and California Sen. Kamala Harris made that clear in an opening statement criticizing President Donald Trump for using “hate, intimidation [and] fear” to divide the country and distract from his “failed policies.”

The American people, she continued, “know that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, regardless of our race, where we live, or the party with which we’re registered to vote.”

Race, justice, guns

After a combative and wonky discussion of health care, many of the candidates sounded more comfortable after moderator Linsey Davis turned the discussion to race, noting that racism is the top concern for young black voters.

Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and Obama administration Housing secretary, immediately referenced the mass shooting that targeted Hispanic-Americans and Mexicans in El Paso, Texas, last month.

The shooter “drove 10 hours, inspired by this president, to kill people who look like me and who look like my family,” he said.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spoke about his experience growing up in the state’s suburbs to become mayor of Newark. “Mass shootings are tragedies, but the majority of homicide victims come from neighborhoods like mine,” he said. “This is not a side issue to me. It is a central issue.”

Senator Harris, challenged on her record as a prosecutor in California, answered that she was born “knowing about how the criminal justice system in America ... has been informed by racial bias. And I could tell you extensively about the experiences I and my family members have personally had.”

Gender and sexuality

South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg of Indiana is not the first openly gay presidential candidate – that would be 2012 Republican candidate Fred Karger, who never made a debate stage – but his candid description of his struggle deciding to come out in 2015 may have been the first for a nationally televised debate.

In a socially conservative community, he said, “I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I was was going to be the ultimate career-ending professional setback.”

“You only get to live one life,” he said he decided, “and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer.”

Two of the women on stage shared their experiences with gender discrimination – specifically pregnancy.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar described how the problematic birth of her daughter sparked her career in public service, first lobbying as a citizen for a law guaranteeing new moms and their babies a 48-hour hospital stay before entering politics.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, talked about being let go after one year as a special needs teacher once her pregnancy became visible, a path that led to Rutgers Law School and a career as a law professor and politician.

The experience “let me get into fights. It gave me new tools,” she said. “The reason I’m standing here today is because I got back up, I fought back.”

But while personal stories and perspectives featured regularly in the debate, even while Ms. Davis and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos framed questions from their perspectives as people of color, what may have been most remarkable, observers said, is how unremarkable it all already seems.

During the debate, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan recalled how Hillary Clinton’s gender was a constant focus of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“No longer do those qualities seem to be central,” she wrote.

“Isn’t it amazing,” she added, that the diversity on stage in Houston last night, “seems completely unremarkable?”

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