Democratic debate winners and losers: Stereotypes won, and Latino voters lost

The remaining candidates can’t seem to get beyond simplistic takes on immigration and pablum about our supposed entrepreneurial hopes.
Image: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders at the ninth Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas on Thursday.Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images
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By Julio Ricardo Varela

When it comes to Latino voters — especially in a state like Nevada where they make up 19 percent of the state’s Democratic primary voters and could actually mean the difference between a fifth-place finish or a top-two performance — the remaining crop of Democrats who appeared in the Las Vegas debate Wednesday night have provided very little, if any, evidence of real interest. With the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has captured the attention of young Latinos in Nevada with a strong and early ground game, the conversation has been superficial at best and dismissive at worst.

And with so much criticism about the Democratic primary cycle starting in the overwhelmingly white, rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire rather than in ones that reflect the party's more diverse electorate, Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas could have been a defining moment for another candidate to break out of the pack and show Latinos that they were the candidate to count on.

Instead, the debate, which many had assumed would focus on Latino issues in a heavily Latino state, was a complete dud on those points, proving once again that the six white Democratic candidates can’t get beyond simplistic takes on immigration, pablum about the entrepreneurial hopes of the country’s largest 2020 share of nonwhite voters and an embarrassing exchange about the Mexican president.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), immigration policy — expected to be one of the cornerstones of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign — was one of the weakest exchanges of the night, appearing only late in the debate. When the moderators finally addressed it, only two candidates were involved: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was asked about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — i.e., the program to allow undocumented adults brought here as children to apply to remain legally. Then, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg quickly slammed the Minnesota senator for her 2018 vote to confirm Kevin McAleenan as the head of Customs and Border Protection for the Trump administration (he later oversaw the mass increase in child detentions at the border) and her 2007 vote to make English the country’s official language.

Klobuchar admitted, as she has previously, the latter vote was a mistake but she defended the first, saying that McAleenan had been "highly recommended by Obama officials." Those officials included Obama's Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and his deputy secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, on whose watch America deported, removed or repatriated over 1 million people by Johnson's own admission.

Buttigieg then bragged about granting municipal identification cards — which were actually issued by a local nonprofit, but Buttigieg signed an executive order for the fire department, police and parks to recognize them — to undocumented individuals in South Bend (which does not qualify as a "sanctuary city," which are, in any case, not allowed under Indiana law), and the conversation ended.

That was it. That was the immigration section of the night, unless you take into account former Vice President Joe Biden’s last-minute shot at Sanders for voting against a 2007 immigration bill. Sanders has said that he'd thought at the time that there were serious flaws in the legislation, including guest worker programs; Biden recycled the line from the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, whose surrogates used it during that year's Nevada caucuses, making it feel a bit desperate.

Immigrant rights activists — including a 2016 Sanders campaign staffer — then interrupted Biden before his closing statements because, according to them, Democrats in general are ignoring a deeper conversation about the issue. After but one question in two hours, it was hard to disagree with their point, even if one disagreed with their tactics.

In fact, a greater portion of the night was dedicated to Klobuchar reprising her inability to successfully name the president of Mexico, as she had in a Telemundo interview a few days before.

As Klobuchar stumbled through her explanation about why she didn't know his name — a perennial tradition for presidential candidates of all stripes — she took a beat and looked at her notes, saying with confidence that she would welcome President "Lóprez Obrador" if she were president of the United States; his real name is Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Once again, Buttigieg (who had aced the question in his Telemundo interview) jumped in like the teacher's pet who knew the answer and, suddenly, the argument shifted into a short, muddled discussion about Latin American policy that will ultimately have little or no bearing on how people vote in this election — even for most Latinos.

And therein lies the bigger issue here with Democrats in this cycle: They don't know enough (or enough about) Latino voters to know what it is we do want to hear, so they're relying on focus-group stereotypes and broad perceptions of what it means to be Latino in America and, thus, flailing.

Take Biden: He is polling better in Nevada than Klobuchar and Buttigieg but, for someone who was vice president and has touted his foreign policy experience, he couldn’t even expand on what his experience with Latin America really meant for his candidacy during the debate. And, when finally pressed on the Obama administration’s deportation legacy this month, first he defended it and then he suddenly called it a “big mistake”... just one week before the Nevada caucuses.

Meanwhile, Klobuchar had to acknowledge serious shifts about her immigration positions a week before the caucuses and then caused herself an awkward moment in Nevada, when she shared the story of what her “Spanish” name was in 4th grade — as though learning Spanish when she was 9 matters to Latinos who are facing workplace discrimination in low wage jobs, for instance.

Buttigieg, meanwhile, just wants to prove that he can speak Spanish in a new series of ads (even though about 76 percent of Latinos of his generation speak only English at home) but his support hasn’t really increased among Latino voters.

The first diverse electoral contest of the 2020 cycle deserved better than Wednesday night's debate; maybe it deserved better than most of Wednesday night's candidates. But if we need to wait until more candidates drop out of the race so that more substantive takes on the issues that matter to Latinos can be heard, unfortunately the people who have the best of them might already be gone.