Democrats Ready to Spar Over Race at Detroit Debate

Democrats Ready to Spar Over Race at Detroit Debate
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Democrats Ready to Spar Over Race at Detroit Debate
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
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Even before President Trump stirred up controversy with his harsh comments about Baltimore, several Democratic candidates angling to replace him were determined to make racial justice a high-bar litmus test in the primary contest -- one that front-runner Joe Biden has been struggling to pass.

Thanks to Trump’s tweets, those same Democrats, two of whom are African American, have a fresh way to amplify the issue during round two of the Democratic debates being held in Detroit this week.

But Trump also gave Biden an easy foil. The former vice president and six-term senator may have touted his work with segregationists and opposed federal busing policies in Congress decades ago, but he can now easily defer to Trump and his Baltimore tweets as the real target of Democrats’ wrath on racial injustice, as well as immigration, health care and a litany of economic inequality issues.

In the first round of debates last month, California Sen. Kamala Harris’s attack on Biden over his past opposition to federal busing policies grabbed headlines and vaulted her into top-tier status in the nominating contest.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is trying to find his own break-out moment this time around when both he and Harris will share the same stage with Biden on Wednesday night, along with former Obama administration Cabinet official Julian Castro, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and several other Democratic hopefuls.

Harris, who chose to locate her headquarters in working-class Baltimore instead of California, hit Trump for playing “low ball” by criticizing Rep. Elijah Cummings’ record representing the city in a long string of tweets over the weekend, a theme she will no doubt reprise in the debate.

“I am proud our campaign headquarters is in Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district,” Harris tweeted Saturday. “Baltimore has become home to my team and it’s disgraceful the president has chosen to start his morning disparaging this great American city.”

The Baltimore blame game also could hamstring Bernie Sanders this week as he struggles to hold on to the progressive wing of the party as Elizabeth Warren rises, cutting into his base of support.

Sanders also made derogatory comments about crime-riddled Baltimore when he was running for president back in 2015, saying that it resembled a “Third World country” in an argument taking issue with the inequality demonstrated in parts of the city.

“What we’re talking about is a community in which half of the people don’t have jobs,” Sanders said after touring the city following riots over the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died in police custody. “We’re talking about a community in which there are hundreds of buildings that are uninhabitable. We’re talking about a community where kids are unable to go to schools that are decent.”

Sanders on Monday responded by arguing that “Trump’s lies and racism never end.”

“While I have been fighting to lift the people of Baltimore and elsewhere out of poverty with good paying jobs, housing and healthcare, [Trump] has been attacking workers and the poor,” he tweeted.

Trump punched back, arguing that Democrats “must now label” Sanders a racist just as Democrats labeled him after his tweets slamming Baltimore as a “rodent-infested mess” and describing Cummings as a “brutal bully” for his critiques of conditions for immigrants detained at the southern border.

Sanders will no doubt be forced to revisit those remarks as he defends his liberal turf against Warren and competes for the policy limelight against South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who casts himself as more moderate. Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, along with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and several others will share the debate stage Tuesday.

The real fireworks, however, are expected Wednesday night when Biden, Harris, Booker and Castro have a chance to face-off onstage.

Stuck in the bottom tier of the Democratic contenders, Booker is trying to take the front-runner down a peg by cutting into his strong support from African American voters. A few weeks ago, Booker blasted Biden for his use of the word “boy” while talking about working with segregationists. This week he hit Biden for his work on the 1994 crime bill, labeling him the “architect of mass incarceration.”

The Biden camp quickly punched back, with a rare on-the-record statement from Kate Bedingfield, the deputy campaign manager, deploring “the absurdity” of Booker’s barbs considering the senator’s record as mayor of Newark. The Obama Justice Department, Bedingfield noted, released a report during his time as mayor finding abuses with Newark’s police department, including its “stop and frisk” policy that targeted African American men.

Biden has pledged not to take attacks from his fellow Democrats lying down in the next debate, and he provided a little preview on the stump this week. Biden indirectly took a shot at Harris by questioning how any candidate could promise “Medicare for all” without admitting that such a big shift to a government-run program would require a tax hike on the middle class.

“Come on! What is this? Is this a fantasy world here?” he said. 

Some Democratic strategists have warned that Biden’s counter-jabs could backfire, especially when leveled against two younger black candidates. But others say now that Trump has riled up Democrats once again on racial lines, Biden can punch back while focusing his fury on the president and his endless Twitter feuds.

Even though Harris and Booker have driven news cycles by focusing on past decisions Biden made on race issues, it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect of pushing him out of the front-runner position.

Indeed, even among likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina -- a state where African Americans make up the majority of those voters -- Biden has a commanding 27-percentage-point lead over the field of Democratic hopefuls, according to a Monmouth University poll released Thursday. The former vice president has 39% of voters’ support, compared to Harris’ 12%, Sanders’ 10% and Buttigieg’s 5%.

Meanwhile, Booker remains stuck at 2%.


Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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