While the Democratic presidential contenders delivered substance to issues during the debate Tuesday evening in Las Vegas—something that eluded their Republican counterparts—it took a question from a viewer online to perk up the ears of Black viewers. He asked, “Do Black Lives Matter or do all lives matter?”
Sen. Bernie Sanders said, without hesitation, “Black lives matter. 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. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system.” Sustained applause interrupted his remarks.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley agreed with Sanders.
Before Hillary Clinton could deal with the question, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper posed another. He asked her what she would do for African-Americans that President Barack Obama couldn’t.
Clinton said that Obama has been “a great moral leader on these issues and has laid out an agenda that has been obstructed by the Republicans at every turn.” She then touched on reforming the criminal justice system. For the rest of the evening, Black Americans would have to find their concerns indirectly discussed through a myriad of critical issues troubling the nation, including the economy, mass incarceration and unemployment.
There were five candidates on the stage, but the night was essentially a showdown between Clinton and Sanders, and if the outcome is determined on crowd reaction, Sanders’ passionate responses succeeded. However, Sanders also delivered a comment with unintended consequences in his support of Clinton.
After Clinton deftly parried Cooper’s question about her email debacle, indicating the entire investigation is partisan and “is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee,” Sanders leaped on the issue.
“Let me say, let say something that may not be great politics,” Sanders began, in what may have been the understatement of the night, “but I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” This line brought a standing ovation and the loudest eruption from the crowd.
“Me too,” Clinton chimed in before reaching out and shaking Sanders’ hand.
This action was about as close to camaraderie the two candidates would get, with Clinton being far more the aggressor, particularly on the issue of gun control.
When Clinton was asked if she thought that Sanders had been tough enough on guns, she was as unequivocal as Sanders has been vacillating on the issue.
“No, not at all,” she replied. “I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”
If this wasn’t the first time the National Rifle Association was mentioned, but it drew the strongest applause.
In his rebuttal to Clinton, Sanders said he represented a rural state and that gun laws are different there. “All the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns,” he said Guns in the hands of the mentally ill was something he stressed on several occasions.
After the second intermission during nearly two hours of debating, Clinton resumed warding off the attacks from Lincoln Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island (who did mention African-Americans in his closing statement), Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia, and O’Malley, who may have benefited most among the contenders on the periphery of the race.
Upon rushing back to the stage after the break, Clinton said, “You know, it does take me a little longer. That’s all I can say.” It was a gender statement that the audience acknowledged with applause.
Clinton was not as subtle with her gender distinction when Cooper asked her how she would deal with her “insider” position.
“Well, I can’t think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president,” she answered, “but I’m not just running because I would be the first woman president.”
Clinton scored points and applause when Cooper asked her if she was a moderate or a progressive. “I’m a progressive,” she said. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Getting things done may have set her apart from the other candidates, though Sanders could and did make similar claims as he hammered away on his fight for the nation’s shrinking middle class, against big banks and advocacy on climate change.
Sanders was never more in his element than when he explained to Cooper what it meant to be a democratic socialist. “What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost as much as 90 percent of the wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he said. He could have stopped there, but he evoked Denmark when comparing some of the differing social policies they have with the U.S.
This comparison provided another opening for Clinton and she leaped in, saying, “This is not Denmark, this is the United States.”
It was with a similar bravado that she checked O’Malley on his remark about her tendency to be aggressive on military intervention and her stance on Syria. She noted that he had endorsed her in her presidential bid in 2008. After Sanders observed that the war in Iraq was the worst decision in American history, Chafee zinged Clinton, who voted for the war, thereby questioning her judgment.
To Chafee’s assertion, Clinton said of the president’s decision, “After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment.”
It’s now to be seen if the American electorate values her judgment and whether she distinguished herself in the debate. Sanders was passionate throughout and probably did not disappoint the 650,000 donors to his campaign; O’Malley retained his position in third place; Chafee and Webb may want to consider packing it in; and Biden, well, he continues to bide his time.
Meanwhile, Clinton, for the most part, appeared presidential, expressing a commander-in-chief demeanor consistent with her commanding lead in most national polls.