Wednesday night’s presidential debate was the best yet, and it wasn’t just because women—four moderators, plus four female candidates—outnumbered men on that stage. But that was part of it. (In case you missed it: Cohosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post, the debate was moderated by Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, and Washington Post White House reporter Ashley Parker.) This debate showed us what American political life would look like if women’s concerns were routinely at the center of the conversation.
Take the clash between Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris on family leave. Two female senators were actually invited to compare and contrast their policies on an issue that’s crucial for all parents, but especially mothers. Every candidate on that stage, by the way, has some kind of paid family leave policy. That wasn’t true even in 2016 (I can’t find Lincoln Chafee’s position online. That’s right, Lincoln Chafee ran too).
On balance, Klobuchar had an excellent night, except for her running shtick mocking the aspirations of Democratic base voters, especially student-debt-ridden millennials. And that’s pretty much how she defended providing only three months of paid family leave. (Remember, Canada provides a full year.)
“I’ve looked at this economically, and I want to make sure that we help people. Because as just pointed out, we are way behind the curve, our country is, when it comes to providing paid family leave and child care.… But what I have done with all of my plans is I have shown how I’m going to pay for them meticulously…. And I think that is so important, because this president is literally increasing the debt, treating our farmers and workers like poker chips in a bankrupt casino, and really putting this country in a worst financial situation every single day.
“So, yes, my plan is three months. I think that’s good. I’d love to do more. As I’ve said before, I’d love to staple free diplomas under people’s chairs. I just am not going to go for things—and this is not—I’m talking about Senator Harris’ plan here, but I’m talking about some of the other ideas that have been out here. I am not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car.”
OK, so there’s Klobuchar: a shout-out to the debt, for the old-time Simpson-Bowles debt fetish crowd, and no stapling diplomas to chairs. But hey, three months of paid family leave is three more months than parents currently have.
Then came Harris. Vox says Harris has “the most generous” paid family leave plan, and here’s how she defended it:
“Part of how I believe we’re going to win this election is, it is going to be because we are focused on the future, we are focused on the challenges that are presented today and not trying to bring back yesterday to solve tomorrow. So on paid family leave, it is no longer the case in America that people are having children in their 20s. People are having children in their 30s, often in their 40s, which means that these families and parents are often raising young children and taking care of their parents, which requires a lot of work, from traveling back and forth to a hospital to daycare to all of the activities that are required, much less the health care needs that are required.
“And what we are seeing in America today is the burden principally falls on women to do that work. And many women are having to make a very difficult choice whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they are going to give up a paycheck that is part of what that family relies on. So six months’ paid family leave is meant to and is designed to adjust to the reality of women’s lives today.”
To me, Harris won that debate—but what matters is that we saw it: two credible female presidential candidates coming at the same issue in different ways.
It’s no accident that the first debate moderated by all women also featured a robust discussion about abortion rights. Sitting in Atlanta, Georgia, which last year passed a blatantly unconstitutional six-week abortion ban blocked by federal courts, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked what candidates would do if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Klobuchar immediately said Congress “should codify Roe v. Wade into law,” adding that “over 70 percent of the people support Roe v. Wade. Over 90 percent of the people support funding for Planned Parenthood.” Warren deftly ducked a question about whether the Democratic Party is big enough to include newly reelected anti-choice Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (which was a rare dumb question for Maddow, because: Of course it is. He was elected. In Louisiana. He’d never get out of a Democratic presidential primary, of course, nor should he.).
“I believe that abortion rights are human rights,” Warren countered. “I believe that they are also economic rights,” noting that anti-choice laws don’t end abortion but just make it unsafe for women who aren’t wealthy. When Maddow pushed her on Edwards, Warren wasn’t having it. “I’m not here to try to drive anyone out of this party. I’m not here to try to build fences. But I am here to say, this is what I will fight for as president of the United States. The women of America can count on that.” Senator Bernie Sanders, likewise, refused to take that bait.
Unfortunately, a couple of candidates failed to rise to the moment of big female energy. On a question about the #MeToo movement, former vice president Joe Biden noted that he had authored the Violence Against Women Act, and then lapsed into a Bidenism, telling us that “we have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it.” Sensing the crowd’s unease with “punching and punching” at the issue of domestic violence, Biden dug in. “No, I really mean it.” Sigh.
In another moment of cringe, Biden claimed he had the support of “the only African American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate,” leaving Harris to laugh and remind him, “That’s not true…the other one is right here.” As if she needed epistemological support, Senator Cory Booker backed her up. It seems Biden was talking about former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun, and he immediately tried to claim he said the “first,” which she was; let the record show he did not say “first.”
In another awkward moment, NBC’s Kristen Welker tried to bait Harris into attacking Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his recent flubs in outreach to black voters, including using stock photos of Kenyans to promote his plans for African Americans, and seeming to claim some black South Carolinians as his supporters when they are not. Welker didn’t lay out the details of Buttigieg’s troubles, meaning that to directly answer the question, Harris would have had to describe them, making her look like “the angry black woman,” which is what helped turn her first-debate victory over Biden on busing into a disability. Harris wisely ducked.
“For too long candidates have taken for granted constituencies that are the backbone of the Democratic party, and overlooked those constituencies,” the candidate with a struggling campaign began stoically. “There are plenty of people who applauded black women for the success of the 2018 election, applauded black women for the election of a senator from Alabama. But, you know, at some point, folks get tired of just saying, oh, you know, thank me for showing up and—and say, well, show up for me.” Yes, she was partly talking about herself—and the Atlanta crowd applauded.
Buttigieg’s response began well. “My response is, I completely agree. And I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me.” After describing his troubles with South Bend’s black community honestly, Buttigieg then pivoted to his own struggles as a gay man. “While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate.” I think he would have been wise, given his electoral troubles, to stick to issues of race, but I’m a straight white woman and I could be wrong.
On top of it all, the debate’s commercial interruptions regularly featured ads for the latest remake of Little Women, with Meryl Streep as Aunt March and Saoirse Ronan as Jo. It was a good night. It will be better to wake up in a year knowing one of the women on stage beat Donald Trump.