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In last night's debate, Booker and Harris took on Democratic virtue-signaling — while Trump supporters came out for Gabbard

If you’ve been captivated by the ongoing impeachment proceedings, then you might have forgotten there’s an ongoing race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Since the hearings became public this week at the request of Republicans, the impeachment testimony has all but eclipsed the candidates still competing for the nomination. 

Last night’s debate was moderated by four women and was the fifth so far this year. The evening was less combative than past debates and an overall success for most candidates — except for Tulsi Gabbard, who only had a good night according to Republicans and especially Trump supporters

Gabbard awkwardly used her first chance to speak to attack Hillary Clinton, who she’s been feuding with recently, which Sen. Kamala Harris didn’t let go unchecked. Harris rebuked Gabbard for spending recent months going after members of the Democratic party. And as in past debate performances, last night Gabbard focused on partisanship within the party rather than proposing solutions to problems. In an attempt to brand herself as a maverick, the representative from Hawaii came off as more of a Sarah Palin than a John McCain: lots of insults, few details and little trace of Democratic collegiality. 

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The debate was held at the studio of the prolific black media mogul Tyler Perry, in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia is the same state where, as Sen. Cory Booker explained, Democratic star Stacey Abrams lost the gubernatorial race in 2018; many believe her loss was the result of voter suppression of minorities. Georgia is also one of several southern states that have passed near-total abortion bans in the past two years in a conservative-led effort to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

Women’s issues and issues of racial inequality therefore took front and center during the event. Sen. Harris called out white candidates’ conspicuous virtue-signaling, pointing out that, historically, Democratic politicians have taken advantage of the constituencies that make up the backbone of the party. It’s no secret that the black and Latino vote is critical for winning the next elections and the frontrunners have struggled to connect with voters in those communities. Sen. Cory Booker had one of the best quips of the night when he reminded his colleagues that he has lots of experience with the black electorate as he’s been part of it since he was 18 years old. 

Buttigieg had a standout moment on the issue of racial inequality and the importance reaching out to minority voters: when one of the moderators brought up Harris’s comment on his campaign’s gaffe with a stock photo of a black woman from Kenya, he gave a powerful statement explaining that as a gay man he fundamentally understands what it’s like to have your rights threatened. He added that his faith teaches him that he must fight for the rights of others, even if their experiences are not like his. The Indiana mayor is leading in an Iowa poll.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who also had a strong performance on the night, was one of the few candidates to take a stab at Buttigieg when she brought up his lack of experience in Washington as a campaign deficit. Perhaps looking to settle the score from their battle over government policy on Syria during the last debate, Gabbard jumped in to criticize Buttigieg for what she said was a statement he made that he would send troops to Mexico to fight the cartels. Her attack flopped and Buttigieg clarified that he had been referring to existing military and law enforcement alliances with the country. He then asked her if she really thought anyone onstage would invade Mexico, and finally called her out for her lack of judgement in foreign affairs for sitting down with, in his words, “a murderous dictator like Bashar al Assad”. 

Not willing to let Buttigieg bask in his oratory glory for too long, Booker got in another of the best lines of the night when he reminded the audience that, along with the Indiana mayor, Booker was the other Rhodes Scholar onstage. 

Fellow frontrunner Sen. Elizabeth Warren successfully fended off a few attempts to try to pin her down as “too far left”, and showcased her masterful debate skills by remaining composed and giving specific, well-prepared answers during the course of the night. She was also the only candidate to mention the gun violence and student loan crises facing the country – major voting issues in the next election.

Amy Klobuchar did a good job painting herself as the candidate for working women, as well as a sensible moderate.“If you don’t think a woman can beat Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day,” she said, which surely rang true with Democratic-leaning women tuning in. 

Bernie Sanders was similarly on good form. The senator was, as usual, serious and meticulously detailed in his responses. When asked about Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria, Sanders joked that he’d want to bring Troops home, “but not with a tweet at three in the morning”. Sanders also made a critical point about the climate crisis refugees the world will be facing if something isn’t done about the global heating.

Bernie was the only candidate to bring up Israeli aggression against Gaza, saying, “We must treat the Palestinian people with the respect and dignity they deserve”— a lonely and courageous statement to make in American politics today, especially considering the Trump administration no longer recognizing Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law. 

Fellow frontrunner Joe Biden also had a decent night. Predictably, he continued to make the case that he’s the best man for the job because of his experience as a senator and two-term vice president. Biden also gets kudos for being the only candidate to mention  concerns about human rights abuses being committed against Uyghur Muslims in camps in China. 

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang finally dropped his spiel about giving every American family free money and instead gave more in-depth answers to the questions he was asked by moderators. Last night, Yang was thoughtful and witty – if not still a little one-dimensional on the details of his policy proposals. 

With the Iowa caucuses coming up in February, Democrats are going to have to quickly come together to decide on a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. They may each differ in vision, but all of them bar Gabbard could do a better, more honest and  more respectable job than our current president. At this point, I’d vote for anyone on that stage as long as it means an end to this dystopian reign of xenophobic fear-mongering and cataclysmic ineptitude. 

Regardless of who wins the nomination, the only way is up after this — because under the Trump administration, we have truly hit rock bottom. 

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