Democrats grapple with race and diversity on mostly white debate stage

CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports.

Posted: Dec 19, 2019 8:30 PM
Updated: Dec 19, 2019 8:30 PM

Standing on a stage that was the least diverse and most male-dominated of the entire campaign, the top Democratic presidential candidates engaged in a heated discussion over how to make their party -- and government more broadly -- reflect the diversity of the country.

Noting that Democrats rely on black, Hispanic and Asian voters, the PBS/Politico moderators addressed the first question on that topic to entrepreneur Andrew Yang, noting that he was the only candidate of color on the stage.

"It's both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight. I miss Kamala, I miss Cory, although I think Cory will be back," Yang quipped, noting the exit of California Sen. Kamala Harris from the race and that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker did not meet the criteria for the debate.

"I grew up the son of immigrants and I had many racial epithets used against me as a kid," Yang said. "But blacks and Latinos have something much more powerful working against them than words. They have numbers. The average net worth of a black household is only 10% that of a white household. For Latinos, it's 12%. A black woman is 320% more likely to die from complications in childbirth. These are the numbers that define race in our country."

He argued that he was the lone candidate of color on the stage because Americans of color lack the disposable income to donate to campaigns.

"The way we fix this is we take Martin Luther King's message of a guaranteed minimum income," Yang said, touting the central plan of his campaign. "I guarantee if we had a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month, I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight."

When the moderator turned to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, he initially sought to turn the conversation back to climate change, which had been the previous topic, before answering the question.

"Senator, with all respect, this question is about race," interjected moderator Amna Nawaz, a journalist from PBS. "Can you answer the question as it was asked?"

Sanders replied that Americans of color will suffer the most "if we do not deal with climate change."

"We have an obligation up here, if there are not any of our African American brothers and sisters up here, to speak about an economy in which African Americans are exploited, where black women die three times at higher rates than white women, where we have a criminal justice system which is racist and broken, disproportionately made up of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who are in jail," Sanders continued. "So we need an economy that focuses on the needs of oppressed, exploited people, and that is the African American community."

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was asked how she would talk to Americans who are uncomfortable with the fact that the United States will be majority nonwhite within a generation.

"I say this is America. You're looking at it," Klobuchar said. She argued that Democrats must aggressively target voter suppression and gerrymandering, and made a push for her bill that would register every child in America to vote when they turn 18. Arguing for an agenda of "economic opportunity," Klobuchard said, "because as Martin Luther King Jr. said, what good is it to integrate a lunch counter if you can't afford a hamburger?"

Candidates mostly agree on impeachment

The candidates touching off their discussion by debating who among them could make the most persuasive case that Trump should be removed from office at a time when the public is divided.

Sanders called the President, who was impeached on Wednesday, a "pathological liar" who is "running the most corrupt administration in the modern history of this country."

"We have a President who is a fraud, because during his campaign he told working people one thing and he ended up doing something else," Sanders said. "I believe, and I will personally be doing this in the coming weeks and months, (we should be) making the case that we have a President who has sold out the working families of this country, who wants to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid after he promised he would not do that."

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would try to show voters "the impact of corruption."

"This President has made corruption, originally, his argument, that he would drain the swamp. And yet he came to Washington, broke that promise and has done everything he can for the wealthy and the well-connected," Warren said.

Most of the candidates were in agreement that impeaching Trump was necessary, but entrepreneur Andrew Yang said his party needs to stop obsessing over impeachment.

Yang said the push to impeach Trump has glossed over the deeper problems facing the country, including the polarization between the parties and the fact that voters are increasingly getting their news from sources that share their views.

"The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust that we can actually see what's going on in our communities and solve those problems," Yang said. "What we have to do is we have to stop being obsessed over impeachment -- which unfortunately strikes many Americans like a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be -- and start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place."

Yang added that leaders "have to take every opportunity to present a new, positive vision for the country, a new way forward to help beat him in 2020, because make no mistake, he'll be there at the ballot box for us to defeat.

Taking on Trump over the economy

The candidates also tried to address the major conundrum they will face next year -- the fact that America's economic numbers under Trump look strong and unemployment is at an all time low, giving him a much better chance of being re-elected next year.

Former Vice President Joe Biden argued that middle-class neighborhoods aren't feeling those economic gains.

"The middle class is getting crushed," Biden said. "We have to invest in those things that make a difference in the lives of middle class people so they can maintain their standard of living. That's not being done. And the idea that we're growing, we're not growing. The wealthy, very wealthy are growing. Ordinary people are not growing. They are not happy with where they are."

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg agreed with Biden's assessment.

"The biggest problem in our economy is simple. People are not getting paid enough. That is not the result of some mysterious cosmic force. It's the result of bad policy. And we've got to change it by raising wages and empowering workers," he said.

PBS moderator Judy Woodruff challenged Warren to answer criticisms from some economists that her plans would hike taxes by $8 trillion over the decade.

"Oh they're just wrong," Warren said, referring to the economists. She said she would tell voters that she's argued for a wealth tax on millionaires that would create a 2 cent tax on every dollar they make over $50 million and above.

Final debate of 2019

The Democratic contenders are meeting in Los Angeles on Thursday for the final debate of 2019, facing many voters who are still undecided less than two months before the primary season kicks off at the Iowa caucuses in early February.

Many voters across America are still looking to the debates to assess which Democrat has the mettle to take on Trump in next year's general election contest.

The debate at Loyola Marymount University will look less diverse and more male-dominated than during any other match-up this year.

A number of notable debaters -- New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro -- did not meet the Democratic National Committee's criteria to take part. And California Sen. Kamala Harris earlier this month became the latest major candidate to drop out of the race.

At a time of Democratic indecision, the remaining contenders are all facing their own challenges. Biden is clinging to his front-runner status after a series of uneven performances. Sanders has experienced something of a resurgence after having a heart attack earlier this year, but he and Warren are still splitting the far left of their party while trying to demonstrate that they can build a coalition to vanquish Trump in the general election.

Biden led the field at 26% in CNN's latest poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, with Sanders holding second place at 20% and Warren in third at 16%.

The rest of the field did not break double digits with Buttigieg at 8% and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 5%. But Buttigieg has shown strong appeal in Iowa, where a win could give him a huge boost in momentum going into the other contests.

Three other candidates -- Yang, Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota -- rounded out the field at 3% in the CNN poll. Businessman Tom Steyer, who will be on the stage on Thursday, registered at 1% in the poll.

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