Why Was Pete Buttigieg Still on the Debate Stage—and Kamala Harris Wasn’t?

Why Was Pete Buttigieg Still on the Debate Stage—and Kamala Harris Wasn’t?

Why Was Pete Buttigieg Still on the Debate Stage—and Kamala Harris Wasn’t?

Voters of color are the base of the Democratic Party, but in 2020 they can’t be the face of it.


I do not know who won last night’s Democratic primary debate. But voters of color certainly lost. It wasn’t just that a historically diverse field of presidential candidates had been winnowed down to a best-available-white-person run-off. It wasn’t just that Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, were not there to promote their candidacies. The bigger problem was that Harris, Castro, and Booker were not there to keep the other candidates honest.

In previous debates, Booker, Castro, and Harris had been pulling double duty. Yes, they were there for themselves. But they were also there to challenge the other candidates and force them to speak to issues that are important to diverse communities. Any of the six candidates on stage would have danced in a Soul Train line if they were asked to, in South Carolina. But they were in Iowa, a state that is 90 percent white, two and a half weeks out from the Iowa caucus. Without Booker, Castro, and Harris there, nobody, least of all the CNN/Des Moines Register debate moderators, seemed all that concerned with black and brown voters. Last night made clear that, left to their own devices, Democrats are happy to call African American voters “the base of the Democratic Party,” but hide their issues in the proverbial basement, out of sight and out of mind.

Gone were the black “kitchen table” issues of police brutality and criminal justice reform. Gone was any discussion about immigration reform. The eventual nominee will have to take on the most openly bigoted president since Andrew Jackson, but nobody was asked how they would confront that bigotry and the army of deplorables Trump has uplifted and unleashed. Now that the debate candidates are all white—Andrew Yang, Deval Patrick, and Tulsi Gabbard didn’t qualify for the debate—apparently it’s time to pretend like the American electorate is too.

With the end of the Booker campaign, it’s become fashionable, among some members of the pundit class, to blame African Americans for the whiteness of the qualifying field. In poll after poll, former vice president Joe Biden enjoys a huge lead among African American voters, and the inability of any of the candidates of color to shake people loose from Biden is considered the proximate cause of their campaigns’ demise. The most important issue for black and brown voters is beating President Donald Trump, and Joe Biden is the one that moderate whites keep saying can beat Donald Trump. Support for Biden is akin to giving a baby their bottle, and I get that. I too, at the end of the day, would do almost anything to stop the mewling from downtrodden whites, and their media spokespeople, with their incessant attempts to justify installing a criminal, misogynist bigot in the White House.

But I’m old enough to remember when Barack Obama couldn’t get traction among black voters, because pragmatic, older African Americans didn’t think the country would elect a young black man with the middle name “Hussein” to succeed George W. Bush’s post-9/11 wars on everybody but Saudi Arabia. But here’s a CNN poll that came out on January 18, 2008, after Obama won Iowa and finished second in New Hampshire, before the South Carolina primary:

In a national survey by CNN/Opinion Research Corp., 59 percent of black Democrats backed Obama, an Illinois Democrat, for their party’s presidential nomination, with 31 percent supporting Clinton, the senator from New York.

The 28 point lead for Obama is a major reversal from October, when Clinton held a 24 point lead among black Democrats.

“There’s been a huge shift among African-American Democrats from Clinton to Obama. African-American Democrats used to be reluctant to support Obama because they didn’t think a black man could be elected. Then Obama won Iowa and nearly won New Hampshire. Now they believe,” said Bill Schneider, CNN senior political analyst.

So, I don’t blame Biden, or black people in South Carolina who haven’t even voted yet, for the absence of candidates of color from last night’s debate. Joe Biden did not stop Kamala Harris or Julián Castro or Cory Booker from becoming the next Barack Obama.

Pete Buttigieg did. Or at least, the media’s overwhelming obsession with Pete Buttigieg did. Harris, Castro, and Booker didn’t make it to their showdown with Biden in South Carolina because the media’s determination that Pete Buttigieg was a “serious” candidate got in their way.

It’s Mayor Pete who is getting all of the oxygen in the room as the “fresh” candidate. The eloquent former mayor who is also a Rhodes scholar and political savant? That was supposed to be Cory Booker, but instead Mayor Pete got all of those plaudits. The young candidate untainted by years of Washington wars who can speak the language of a rising force in Democratic politics? That was supposed to be Julián Castro, but Buttigieg got all of his press. The person running a historic campaign of inclusion who could also be a moderate counterpoint to the aggressive progressivism pushed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? That was supposed to be Kamala Harris, but Pete got all of her Hollywood and tech-bro money.

Give Pete credit, I guess: Beto O’Rourke probably thought he had the “great white hope” thing on lockdown.

Last night’s debate was the first one for Buttigieg where he cleared his lane: the lane of the new kid on the block. Buttigieg stood alone against four grizzled veterans of the United States Senate and a random dude who could apparently afford the entry fee. In many ways, it should have been his night.

It didn’t turn out that way. Like Barack Obama 12 years ago, Buttigieg was unencumbered by any pesky war votes in his past. Unlike Obama, he served. But Bernie Sanders generally ate his lunch when it came to articulating a strong anti-war platform. Buttigieg’s campaign represents a thrilling, historic move forward for equality, but Elizabeth Warren better articulated the historic nature of her campaign. Amy Klobuchar did a better job than he did, as she always does, at advocating for pragmatism in the face of progressivism. Even Tom Steyer got in a jab at Pete’s light business experience.

So it was all the more ironic that Pete Buttigieg was the only one—on an all-white stage in a blindingly white state—who was asked a question about race last night. He was asked directly why he was having such trouble getting traction with African American voters. His answer: “The black voters who know me best are supporting me.”

Buttigieg could have used the time to address his shoddy record on policing as mayor of South Bend. He could have talked about the desperation to beat Trump among the communities the president hurts the most. He could have said anything to put the onus on him, and his campaign, to keep working to speak to black and brown voters even as he runs in predominantly white states. Instead, Pete told us he has black friends. Which I guess is cool if you happen to be one of them.

Nobody was around to call BS on Pete’s weak answer. Buttigieg, a candidate who has difficulty in some polls pulling in measurable African American support, was given free rein to talk about what it takes to win over black voters. The moderators didn’t press him; none of the other candidates (many of whom have their own problems drawing black and brown support) decided to weigh in, or laugh in his face, or make a Kool-Aid joke white reporters would have to Google. The debate quickly returned to Biden one-liners about Trump’s being in love with him.

Eventually, one of these candidates will coalesce the African American vote. That candidate will go on to be the Democratic nominee for president, and that nominee will be supported by upward of 85 percent of African Americans who vote on November 3, including myself, of course.

I hope that is enough. I hope the all-white stage was worth it to white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Last night, we saw the bleached future of the Democratic Party, for at least the next 11 months. I hope you liked it.

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