Racial justice, health care, attacks on Trump mark the second debate
Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. | Wilfredo Lee / AP

MIAMI—Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., stood out at the second debate of Democratic presidential hopefuls last night for her strong and dramatic emphasis on racial justice, which included sharp criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden for remarks he made recently in which he boasted that he was, in his past, able to forge compromises even with leading segregationist senators and for his resistance, in his earlier years in the Senate, to federally enforced bussing to achieve school integration.

Sen. Harris, a former prosecutor, also showed President Donald Trump could have trouble facing her in a debate, as she prosecuted him dramatically last night for failing to do anything about global warming. That failure, she declared to cheers in the audience, made Trump “the greatest threat to the United States.”

The second debate ended with the public exposed to 20 Democratic candidates, all of them much more in tune with the needs of the American public than the current occupant of the White House.

Highlights of the two days included Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Wednesday roll out of her progressive populist vision for the country. Sen. Bernie Sanders last night emphasized the power of people’s movements and the urgency of Medicare for All. Former housing Sec. Julián Castro, the night before, called for an end to the criminalization of immigrants and for reproductive justice. All of these positions, including the ones emphasized by Harris last night, are an advance over what presidential candidates have called for historically, and they all reflect the power of mass people’s movements underway in our country.

Making the economy work for the poor and the working class—not just the rich—by achieving universal health care coverage and curbing corporate clout dominated a good part of the discussion last night.

Unlike the first debate the night before, also in Miami, there were frequent direct attacks on Trump, his policies, his huge tilt to the rich, his racism, sexism, hatred of immigrants, his war-mongering against Iran, and his xenophobia, along with his government by tweet and destruction of U.S. institutions and norms.

But as the group jousted over ideas on making sure the rising tide would lift boats other than the yachts of the rich, not one—not even longtime labor backer Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt.—mentioned one big, obvious, and proven way that this can be achieved: strengthening the nation’s unions and the right to organize without employer interference.

That’s even though organized labor is one of the Democratic Party’s key constituencies and provides many of its foot soldiers in general elections, even when other groups don’t.

This time, only Sanders even mentioned organized labor, in another context, when he reiterated his nationwide solution to people’s economic woes: a political revolution that would throw off the shackles of the 1%. That revolution would be similar to the union movement, he said.

“We’ll do it”—Medicare For All—“the way real change is made is like it was in the labor movement and the civil rights movement, where millions will stand up and say to the health insurers and the drug companies ‘Your day is done.’”

“Nothing will change if we don’t have the guts to take on the financial industry, the military-industrial complex, Big Pharma, and the health insurance industry,” he declared.

The candidates took progressive stands on issues ranging from more gun control—one suggested banning assault rifles, for example—to reproductive rights to climate change.

Sen. Harris made a powerful appeal for support of the Green New Deal both to clean up the environment and create jobs.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also spoke dramatically in favor of Medicare For All. She used it to illustrate her key plank: A comprehensive plan to rid Washington of the baleful influence of corporate special interests. “Without doing that, nothing gets done,” she said.

Some of the hopefuls were less specific. For example, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said “We need a broad coalition to rebuild the American economy and American democracy,” and left it at that.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, 39, kept saying it was time for “a new generation” to take over from both Biden and Sanders, who is polling 60 percent among people under 49. When it came time to answer a question about what he would do his first day in office, Swalwell gave an answer that reflected, at best, naivete and, at worst, bad and even dangerous foreign policy ideas. He said he would beef up and strengthen NATO and cut off relations with Russia.

Gillibrand warned last night the “rights of women in America are under attack like never before,” and not just from Trump, but from the whole GOP. “I’ve stood up to the big banks, I’ve stood up to the Pentagon” on sexual abuse in the military and on the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“We need a president who will take on big challenges,” Gillibrand declared.

Harris also called out former Vice President Joe Biden—the current leader, due to name recognition, in public opinion polls—for his past opposition to federally-ordered busing of students to desegregate local schools nationwide.

Biden denied opposing busing. He said he wanted to leave desegregation decisions with local governments. Those governments usually refused, and the federal government had to step in. Harris jumped on him.

After criticizing Biden for working, in his Senate career, with racist Southerners, Harris added, “a little girl rode a bus” in one of the first two classes of African-American students to help integrate her California city’s schools in the mid-1970s. A federal court ordered the busing because the local school district refused to desegregate. “I ought to know; I was that little girl.”

“That’s why the federal government must step in” to protect civil rights, Harris told Biden and the national TV audience. “That’s why we need to pass civil rights acts, the (new) Voting Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Equality Act,” to bring civil rights to LGBTQ people, she declared, to applause. And as a former DA, “I’ll prosecute the case against Donald Trump,” on those and other issues, she vowed. There were huge numbers of positive responses to Harris all over social media after the debate.

There were other points where the hopefuls jabbed each other. Sanders provided one by repeating his anti-war views, immediately after Biden apologized for voting for Republican President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Sanders used his same anti-Iraq War stand against his 2016 Democratic primary foe, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Joe voted for it. I led the opposition against it,” Sanders said of the Iraq war. “I led the fight to invoke the War Powers Act” against U.S. military aid to the Saudis’ murderous role in Yemen’s civil war. “And I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran—which would be an utter disaster.” Trump and his Cabinet, especially ideologue National Security Advisor John Bolton, have been threatening to fight Iran.

Harris, who has been criticized in the past for her role as a prosecutor, called out the entire country for “not having an honest discussion” about racism in the criminal justice system. As a prosecutor, she said, she saw its impact all too often, as she was setting up programs to prevent recidivism and comforting grieving parents of murder victims.

Sanders was also on the receiving end of some critiques. “If we turn towards socialism, we risk re-electing the worst president in our history,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper claimed. Sanders is a self-declared democratic socialist. He previously defined what his idea of that is, but limited time prevented him from doing so in the debate.

And Biden took a subtle swipe at Medicare For All, a key cause not just for Sanders but for National Nurses United and at least a dozen other unions. “Too many people who are in the middle class and poor had the bottom fall out from under them,” when the Great Recession, which Democratic President Barack Obama and Biden, his veep, had to tackle, Biden said. “They have to make sure they can afford” health care coverage, he added.

Sanders spent much of the first part of the debate touting that single-payer government-run health care plan. He said Medicare For All would save the middle class money overall, as it would abolish the private insurance industry, its high co-pays, premiums, out-of-pocket deductibles, and denial of care. The savings would exceed the higher taxes he admitted they would have to pay to fund it.

Health insurers exist to make profits—$69 billion last year—not to take care of people, Sanders responded.

Under Medicare For All, everyone would get to go to doctors of their choice and hospitals of their choice, Sanders declared—unlike now, where insurers don’t pay for or pay far less for, visits to MDs and hospitals who are not on their lists.

And the word “everyone” should include all 11 million undocumented people, all ten hopefuls agreed. Right now, the Affordable Care Act bans covering any of them. One contender went further and proposed not just covering all 11 million, but legalizing them, right now. That, too, was a slam at Trump’s pro-white nationalism and his anti-Latino and anti-immigrant policies.

Besides Biden, Sanders, Harris, Gillibrand, Bennet, Swalwell, and Hickenlooper, others on the stage were businessman John Yang, New Age author Marlene Williamson, both of California, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only openly gay Democratic candidate and one of only two Iraq/Afghanistan veterans running for the party nod.

Pointedly anti-war Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who wants to bring all troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, is the other. She was one of the ten hopefuls who debated the night before.

The session in Miami was the second consecutive nationally televised face-off between ten candidates competing to become the nominee against GOP incumbent Trump. A total of 24 people seek the party’s prize. Four missed the cut for the debates because they didn’t raise enough money from a wide-enough net, or failed to register at least 1% in three polls.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

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